Private Franklin W. Munn of Stockbridge: The fight to remember a long lost soldier
When you're 23 years old, living in a time that well predates social media, selfies and live streaming video, there's not much to remember you by. There are stories shared by family members, maybe a few photographs or a journal, if you were into that sort of thing.
In the case of Pvt. Franklin W. Munn, there was no journal to be found after he was killed in action at that age on Jan. 31, 1944. The Stockbridge man was fighting in the Battle of Cisterna, part of the Battle of Anzio, during the U.S. Italian campaign of World War II.
There, under intense artillery shelling by Hermann G ring's German Panzer division, Pvt. Munn lost his right arm, his leg and the rest of his life.
His remains were left in Italy, and his legacy was left in a few military files, with some footnotes in the form of telegrams between his mother and the then-War Department, and otherwise in a couple of newspaper clippings and accompanying photograph notifying his death.
Though his last memory of Franklin W. Munn was when he was 5, Pittsfield resident Arthur "Art" Munn always kept "Uncle Frank" in his mind. He remembers how his uncle had a motorcycle and would take him on car rides.
Franklin was one of eight children of Louis and Harriett Munn, of Interlaken, and is believed to be their youngest son. Louis Munn died young as well, during the 1930s, as Franklin was entering adolescence.
Because of his young age at the time, Art Munn said he never knew much about where his uncle had been deployed to overseas.
Franklin Munn was drafted into the Army on June 16, 1942, a day after his 22nd birthday.
After Pvt. Munn's death in the war, Art remembers, "the mother became tight-lipped."
"We always for years thought he was killed in action or went missing in action in France during D-Day," he said.
Nevertheless, the family tragedy didn't deter Art Munn from enlisting in the Massachusetts Army National Guard.
It wasn't until decades later that he ran into an old comrade from the guard, William "Bill" Basinait. The two met in Pittsfield in February 1979, after Basinait transitioned from active service with the Army. Sgt. 1st Class Basinait retired in 1991, but has remained active in supporting veterans in the community. This includes his interest in researching and collating military service profiles for his own family members and for relatives of friends.
A few years back, Munn and Basinait came across each other at their favorite dinner spot — the city's former Old Country Buffet — and got to talking. Basinait mentioned some of his research projects, so Munn brought up his Uncle Frank and the soldier's history.
Basinait took it upon himself to put out an inquiry into Pvt. Munn's death records.
A second tragedy
In a correspondence dated Jan. 20, 2014, Basinait received word from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis that Pvt. Munn had likely suffered a second fate — he was one of millions of military personnel whose records perished in a "disastrous fire" that took place at the center on July 12, 1973.
An estimated 16 million to 18 million Official Military Personnel Files were lost in the incident, including 80 percent of records of Army troops discharged between Nov. 1, 1912 and Jan. 1, 1960, along with 75 percent of Air Force personnel records between September 1947 and January 1964.
"It was disappointing at first," Munn said.
The fire not only destroyed the personnel record for Pvt. Munn, but also the list of any commendations, badges and medals he may have received, including a CIB — Combat Infantry Badge — to show that he had actively fought in ground combat during his service.
"I believed there might be proof that someone could show that he had it," Basinait said.
So he began looking for other threads to pull.
"Things get lost, and when they do, it's annoying," he said. "There are clerical errors or paperwork gets lost and there may not be a next of kin. But I figured we could try."
Basinait began searching internet databases for any clues or mentions of Pvt. Franklin W. Munn. Meanwhile, Munn looked for family records and correspondences and found a few telegrams exchanged between his grandmother, Franklin's mother, and the Army.
One was a correspondence dated May 12, 1944, from Harriett Munn to the Army in her continuing inquiry of details about her son's death. In it, she asks for more details: how he died, whether it was in the field or a hospital, by gunfire or bombs, whether he had any last wishes.
She writes how in a previous correspondence with her son, he had sent a photograph and in it, he looked ill. She also asks whether his fellow troops knew any more information or the whereabouts of his money belt and any other personal effects.
"I just hope that you can tell me something of his death to relieve my mind a little," she wrote. "It's a terrible thing to go through and what I can find out about my dear son would mean so much to me. I trust you can do something for me and I would love to have his belongings if possible."
Her inquiry to her son's fellow troops, however, led to the revelation of another grim discovery regarding the unit with which he served.
A brutal ambush
Pvt. Munn was part of the 3rd Reconnaissance Troop attached to the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions of the 3rd Infantry Division. According to war records and various historical accounts of the Battle of Anzio and subsequent Battle of Cisterna, a massive Allied effort was deployed to the Italian coastal towns of Anzio and Nettuno, located some 30 miles south of Rome. The plan was to bypass the concentration of German forces in central Italy and try to surround and advance on their enemies to overcome them and secure Rome. But a breakdown in communication and separation of troops, along with a lack of armament, resulted in heavy battle fire and profound human loss.
According to a brochure by Clayton D. Laurie of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the 3rd Division and the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Ranger Battalions under Col. William O. Darby were responsible for the initial attack in a region known as Cisterna di Latina as the troops moved into central Italy, closer to Rome.
Private Munn's recon division was part of a Jan. 30, 1944, movement to close in on what was to be a sparsely arranged German line. The attack was to be made early in the morning of Jan. 31. But failed radio communications misdirected the American battalion, which was largely comprised inexperienced replacement troops from previous casualties. They also misinterpreted the fact that the Germans had become aware of their presence.
It was two battalions totaling 767 men supported by 43 men of the 3rd Reconnaissance Troop that deployed in darkness only to find themselves face-to-face at the dawn's early light with the German tanks of the 715th Motorized Infantry Division. The enemy ambush wasted no time.
"The Americans had only grenades and bazookas for antitank weapons, and as they attempted a fighting withdrawal in small and scattered groups they were cut down mercilessly," Laurie wrote.
After the approximately seven-hour battle, only six of the 767 battalion Rangers and one member of the 3rd Recon Troop returned to the Allied lines.
A newspaper clipping includes an interview of one of the few survivors, Sgt. Thomas B. Fergen, of Parkston, S.D., who told reporters "the tanks hurt us the most. They caught us in a field and seven moved in firing with everything they had."
It's hard to say how Pvt. Munn was involved in this incident and what his reaction might have been, though in the end, it wouldn't have mattered. Any survivors were taken as prisoners of war.
The context was there, but Basinait knew he needed more details to prove that Pvt. Munn had done his service and had been an honorable soldier. So he kept digging.
A cause of compassion
A veteran himself, with his father, stepfather and uncles having served, military culture and lifestyle is a profound part of Basinait's being.
"One of the reasons that got me so interested in the history of World War II was that I and about 20 others were fortunate to spend time during the summers of 1972, '73, '74, and '76 at the British Army Base at Bergen-Hohne, Germany training with the 9th and 12th Royal Lancers of the British Army," he said.
Basinait spent time visiting concentration camps and becoming entrenched in the stories of the both foreign and domestic experiences and outcomes.
"It's amazing to me when I think of all the military men and women who died in World War II and all wars whose heirs and loved ones had no idea as to what happened to them due to the fact of miscommunication or whatever and the poor deceased are just lost to history," Basinait said.
Year after year, he began discovering new leads and clues to map details of the young soldier's life searching for the ones that would be key to restoring his honor. It wasn't until the past six months that Bill Basinait finally found what he was looking for.
In the case of Pvt. Munn, once realizing that the soldier died in Italy — and not during D-Day in France — the local vet expanded his outreach by visiting The Stockbridge Library, Museum and Archives. He also began calling and working with Art Munn to correspond with a pair of liaisons from the Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox in Kentucky, and Veronica Stasio, an interpretive guide for the American Battle Monuments Commission of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy.
One of the first and most surprising leads emerged back in December due to the help from a young man named Joshua David Hall, the Stockbridge library's assistant curator and genealogist, who works under the direction of Curator Barbara Allen.
"Genealogy has been one of my hobbies since high school so I thoroughly enjoy helping people with it when requests come in," Hall said.
When Basinait explained to Hall his effort to find photographs and information about Pvt. Munn's service, Hall experienced a flash of recognition.
"The name Munn was one that I was familiar with as it connected to my own family," Hall said.
As it turns out, Franklin W. Munn's mother, Harriet Webster Munn, was the sister of Hall's great-great-grandmother, Cora Webster Hall; the women grew up in West Stockbridge.
"I was intrigued by what the gentleman was doing and set to work looking for what we might have," Hall said.
The facility makes available to the public an extensive archive of files started by Grace Wilcox, the original curator of the former Historical Room, now the Museum and Archives. She took it upon herself to clip newspaper articles about servicemen from Stockbridge during World War II, each man getting his own file.
She also kept a scrapbook of thank-you notes from Stockbridge servicemen received in response to the letters and donations townspeople sent to them. Thanks to Wilcox's diligent record-keeping, Hall was able to locate an article and photograph about Pvt. Munn's death, printed in The Berkshire Eagle on Feb. 25, 1944. Finally, Basinait had the evidence that he needed to rebuild Pvt. Munn's military file, which Art Munn could then use to apply to have his uncle posthumously honored.
A legacy reborn
A letter was sent out to the U.S. Army Human Resources Command the day after the newspaper clipping was found. In it, Munn says that The National Personnel Records Center had given authorization for Pvt. Munn to be eligible to receive the Purple Heart, Honorable Service Lapel Pin, World War II Victory Medal, European Middle Eastern African Campaign Ribbon with one Bronze Service Star; further authorization was being requested for Pvt. Munn to receive the Good Service Medal, Combat Infantry Badge and Bronze Star Medal.
Because of Basinait's research, Munn was able to enclose a variety of documents for verification purposes, including a burial record and photo of Pvt. Munn's grave marker in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery provided by interpretive guide Veronica Stasio.
Apparently, Harriet Munn gave the Army permission to bury her son in Italy versus having the government send him back to the Berkshires. Private Munn's remains were moved a couple of times before coming to permanent rest beneath a white marble cross in Nettuno 5202, Block H, Row 1, Grave No. 40.
"Before all this, we thought everything about my uncle was gone," Art Munn said. "It was Bill and his detective work that found out for our family that he ended up killed in Italy."
In an interview over a cup of coffee in a Friendly's restaurant, the descendant couldn't help but pause as a few prideful tears welled in his eyes. "It's real emotional, I tell ya. It's a feeling ... I'm just flabbergasted. And happy. It's so exciting."
Since January, Basinait sent copies of Pvt. Munn's reconstructed military file to Stasio for safekeeping in Italy.
"For us, collecting material about the American service members honored here is extremely important," Stasio said in an email. "At all the ABMC [American Battle Monuments Commission] sites, we keep an internal archive and database and use the information we have to tell their stories to the public."
Stasio herself regularly takes visitors to grave sites, taking time to tell the story of the interred service person.
"This really helps visitors connect with the place and its meaning," she said, "and also we make sure these men and women are never forgotten."
Some 555 Massachusetts military personnel are buried in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery.
In the case of Pvt. Munn, a Good Conduct Medal was awarded in March to his reconstructed file in St. Louis. Earlier in May, Basinait received information from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Pennsylvania indicating that Pvt. Munn's unit was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation, now known as the Presidential Unit Citation for the Battle of Anzio campaign.
On Saturday, more information was discovered about the young soldier's past — confirmation that he also participated in the North African Campaign at Tunisia.
"That will give him another Bronze Service Star," Basinait said. "I seem to pick up something new every time I start looking at these letters and dates." His quest for the Combat Infantry Badge continues.
Pvt. Munn's nephew said he couldn't be more pleased. Already, Basinait has helped create a memorial plaque for a future memorial wall that Art Munn and his daughter are planning in their family home.
"I wasn't expecting all this," Munn said. "I just hope other people would do the same thing to find their relatives."
Both Stasio and Joshua Hall said that they are often contacted by family members, researchers, historical organizations and scholars seeking more information about servicemen and women whose histories have been similarly fragmented.
Stasio said she's feels particularly heartened by Basinait's dogged dedication to the cause.
"I thought that only a great passion and a great heart might put so much energy, time and resources in this," she wrote. "It gives me a lot of hope to see that there are still people like Mr. Basinait who don't forget about these young men and women who left everything to give us a better future."
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