A tragedy in Pleasantville
The photo of Robert Thornburg shows a young soldier standing in front of a curtain wearing a smile with his uniform.
It was so unlike the headlines in the Pleasantville newspaper in 1943.
Robert, uncle of Merlyn Thornburg of Estherville, was reportedly the last soldier killed as American forces moved from Sicily to the Italian mainland.
Robert was the son of Charles and Emma Thornburg who lived south of Superior then east of Estherville with their family before moving to Pleasantville in the 1930s.
Robert was killed because he was doing his duty – even above and beyond, you could say. He was evacuating the barracks that were targeted by enemy fire and had the last man out when a shell finally zeroed in and took the barracks – and his life.
He received a purple heart and bronze star, posthumously.
His brother Floyd, who had also served in the European Theatre of operations, told their mother, Emma, there was no sense in bringing back Robert’s body since there were plenty of fine cemetery overseas.
But their mother wanted her son’s body back.
“You bring him back, you’re going to be sorry,” Merlyn recalls his uncle Floyd as saying.
So they brought back Robert’s body for the funeral. And Floyd went up in the hay mow and found a good, strong rope and hanged himself.
Merlyn remembers Floyd’s wife Olive running around with a butcher knife, saying she wanted to cut him down. It was too late, though. The war had claimed another casualty. This time not on foreign but on Iowa soil.
Olive managed to raise her two daughters by Robert – Shirley and Janet. She married Robert’s brother Emile and they had a son, Robert, named for his uncle.
The Robert who died in Sicily left no heirs. But there was a girlfriend in Des Moines. “I think she took it pretty hard when he got killed,” said Merlyn.
Merlyn doesn’t recall much about his uncle Robert, but he remembers his uncle Floyd very well. He stayed summers with the family near Indianola. “He was a nice, loveable guy,” Merlyn said.
When he went down to visit after Floyd was gone, little was said about him.
That was the way things were done after the war. A soldier could go through hell and was expected to come back and fit into society and raise a family as though nothing had happened. What is so remarkable is how many did just that.
Emma, who had lost her husband to cancer in the middle of the Great Depression and had to raise a large family on her own, dwelled on Robert’s death for long after.
“Too bad Robert couldn’t come home alive,” Merlyn remembers her as saying.