WWII Fallen Soldier’s Helmet United with Family - TribPapers
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WWII Fallen Soldier’s Helmet United with Family

Cédric Lemaître from the Memorial Museum of the Combats and the Liberation in Northern Alsace at Pope’s grave with the helmet.

Woodfin – Millions of Americans went off to war in the 1940s, with hundreds of thousands never returning home to their families. With just a telegram from the government proving their loved one was gone, the news was challenging and closure difficult. Now, the family of a local man who was killed in WW2 and never returned has a bit more closure. 

“My great-grandfather, Private Ellis Pope, was killed in western Germany during WWII just two months before the end of the war. For his acts of heroism, which saved his platoon but led to his death, Ellis was honored posthumously with the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross,” Alex Roberson, now a resident of Washington DC, told the Tribune. “He did not return to the US and is instead interred at the Lorraine American Cemetery located just outside Saint-Avold, France.”

While Roberson didn’t know his great-grandfather, his grandmother, Woodfin resident and commissioner Jackie Pope Bryson, married Ellis’ son, Roy.

Private Ellis M. Pope. Photo submitted by Alex Roberson.

Private Ellis Pope

A resident of Woodfin, Ellis, was already a family man with a wife and children when he left for the war. Ellis was a member of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division and the 232nd Infantry Regiment. According to information sent by Roberson: The 42nd originated during WWI and was reconstituted during the second World War. (The 42nd Infantry Division was one of three Army divisions to help liberate the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, in April 1945.) The 232nd Regiment, specifically, was a new regiment that was activated at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, in 1943 before being shipped out to France in December 1944. Ellis wasn’t in Europe long before being killed. The 232nd served an integral role in the western allied invasion of Germany, Operation Undertone. In fact, the 232nd was the first infantry unit of the 42nd to cross the Siegfried Line in March 1945, and from what I can gather, Private Ellis Pope was killed just the day before the attack of the Siegfried Line was issued.

A journey of discovery 

“Despite my deep passion for and interest in history, I grew up totally unaware of this remarkable story,” said Roberson. “Ellis’ son and my maternal grandfather, Roy, died when my mom was a teenager, so I never had the chance to hear any of it from him. But after I graduated college, Ellis’s other son, McClain, indicated to my mom that he wanted me to have Ellis’ Purple Heart. It was then that I learned of its history.” 

Inspired by the story of his great-grandfather, during the summer of 2015, Roberson explains he and his sister made plans to visit Ellis’ gravesite while traveling through France. “It was a truly moving experience as we’re the only family members to have had the opportunity to visit.”

Fast forward to December of last year and Roberson said he was home when his “…mom mentioned that she received several suspicious comments and direct messages on Facebook from a man in France named Cedric claiming to have something that belonged to our family. He said he had my great-grandfather’s helmet.”

“My mom thought it was a hoax, but I asked, as one does, ‘Did you Google him?’” No, was the reply so Roberson started looking into the man. “Sure enough, this fellow seemed to be who he said he was, a WWII enthusiast that ran a museum in northeastern France,” Roberson told the Tribune. “I took over my mom’s Facebook and began furiously messaging Cedric asking about the helmet, how he found it, how he knew it belonged to Ellis Pope, etc. He immediately replied with photos of the helmet, which was quite emotional and a bit overwhelming for us.”

(L to R) McClain Pope, son of Private Ellis Pope and Alex Roberson, grandson of Ellis, with Ellis’ helmet. Photo submitted by Alex Roberson.

The helmet finds its way home

Roberson says, “As it turns out, someone discovered it [the helmet] in a barn not too far from where Ellis was killed. Somehow it made its way to Cedric and he began to clean and restore it for display in his museum.” As he cleaned it, he discovered a laundry number inside the helmet, P 8765. “After months of research, he and his team linked the number to my great-grandfather and somehow identified my mom as a descendent before finding her on Facebook,” reveals Roberson.

“I, of course, asked Cedric if we could have the helmet and he kindly agreed. He said part of the joy of his job was returning war-era items to families. Before shipping the helmet, Cedric visited the cemetery to take photos beside Ellis’s grave,” said Roberson.  “It just so happens that he went on the day of my grandfather Roy’s birthday. My parents received the helmet in the mail a few weeks later on July 4, six years to the day after my visit to the cemetery.”

In a recent visit back home to Asheville this year, “My mom, my grandmother, McClain’s daughter, and I surprised McClain with his father’s helmet. Safe to say he was shocked and there wasn’t a dry eye
 in the room.”

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