I visited Vienna in the early 1960s when post-WWII reconstruction was still evident.
Austria’s beautiful capital had been devastated by war and restorative work was still being carried out on the historic ‘symbol of the city’ - the 12th century Saint Stephen’s Cathedral.
One of the soaring Gothic monument’s four towers is over 136 meters tall, its 13 mighty bells reached by 343 stone steps.
Saint Stephen’s was, and is, a signature on the skyline of a city that survived horrendous invasion, but there was (and probably still is) an almost invisible reminder of those terrible times on my hotel bedroom’s windowsill - a name and date, roughly scratched in stone - Pte Higgins 1945.
The tiny signature was undoubtedly left there by an allied soldier, billeted in the hotel after the occupying Nazi forces had been defeated.
For me, the unseen name spoke as loudly of good versus evil as the soaring glory of Saint Stephen’s.
I’ve often wondered - who was Pte Higgins?
WWII historian Andy Glenfield was recently delighted when a similar question was unexpectedly answered.
“This is fantastic,” Andy told me last week, “I took a photograph on the North Coast about seven years ago and got a wonderful surprise in my e-mail this July.”
Andy noticed some names carved on an old building at Benbane Head on the North Antrim Coast where he was “having a look around to see what, if anything, remains of a site that had been used as a shooting range during WWII.”
He found several red-brick buildings, former shelters “where troops would have relaxed between their time on the ranges.”
Andy imagined the soldiers “sitting joking with each other as to how accurate, or perhaps inaccurate, their shooting had been!”
He noticed some names carved into the brickwork in an area of wall marked with ‘New York, 1943’
“Some names were easier to see than others,” he told me, but he deciphered D. Krawczyk, R. Schtz and D. Smiley.
Another brick was carved clearly with C. Patton 1944.
Andy, author and compiler of a magnificent website called ‘The Second World War in Northern Ireland’, posted his photos on the web and “last July was amazed to receive a message from a lady called Lucia Sanford telling me that she was the daughter of one of the men who had carved his name on the wall.”
Lucia told Andy her dad’s amazing story, an unhailed hero whose name remains, mostly unnoticed, on a wall overlooking one of Europe’s finest cliff-walks.
C. Patton was Clydis J. Patton, Service Number 16051469.
He worked with Illinois Power Company before enlisting with the U.S. Army on December 20, 1941, a few weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.
With his electrical know-how, Clydis was assigned to battlefield communications.
He volunteered to become a paratrooper and subsequently served with the U.S Army’s 507 Parachute Infantry Regiment.
He married in 1942 but only saw his new-born son briefly before he was deployed to Northern Ireland.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Clydis Patton parachuted into Normandy from a Douglas C-47 based at Fulbeck, Lincolnshire.
He dived from the plane at 02.38 in the morning, landing with his comrades in fields deliberately flooded by the Germans.
Helplessly entangled in their parachutes, some soldiers tragically drowned.
Clydis probably escaped death when a comrade helped him from his parachute.
Walking from the drop zone, a soldier alongside him was killed by a German sniper, shielding Clydis from the bullet.
During Operation Varsity, the crossing of the River Rhine, Clydis parachuted again from a Douglas C-47.
Strapped with weighty communications equipment he landed heavily, stunned, with injuries to his back.
In pain and under fierce enemy gunfire, he cut himself free from his parachute and crawled to join his unit.
His injuries troubled Clydis for the rest of his life but he never complained, often saying that the pain probably kept him alive while crawling, bent in agony, below enemy fire.
He received multiple awards for heroism, and promotion to Second Lieutenant.
His unit got the U.S. Presidential Citation (Army) and the hugely esteemed French Croix de Guerre.
After the war Clydis returned to the Illinois Power Company, was promoted to management in the 1950s and on retirement had worked with them for 43 years!
Like many war veterans Clydis rarely spoke of his experiences, except occasionally in the company of other veterans.
His daughter Lucia often offered to help him revisit various places in Northern Ireland, England and France where he’d served.
Clydis always politely declined.
Nor did he ever watch war films, though he once painted a picture of an old soldier on a battlefield saluting the ghosts of paratroopers dropping from the sky.
For a few years during the 1960s he had nightmares about being in combat and on occasions threw himself out of bed, rolling across the floor before waking up.
Clydis J. Patton died of cancer only a few weeks before what would have been his 87th birthday in 2005.
“This story is a poignant illustration of what can be found in Northern Ireland relating to WWII,” Andy Glenfield told Roamer.
His website ‘The Second World War in Northern Ireland’ is at www.ww2ni.webs.com