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EDITOR'S DESK: Missing a grandfather we never knew

Honoring first father to lose life in World War II combat

November 18, 2013
Andy Flynn - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

It's nice to be back on Mill Hill. I bet Roland Douglas would have liked to have said that after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Unfortunately, he was killed in action in September 1944 in France, so he never got the chance to come home alive and see his family. The train station platform was the last piece of Lake Placid ground he touched before heading overseas in the spring of 1944. Roland left a wife, Elizabeth, and three young daughters: Helen, Betty and the youngest, 4-year-old Alice.

Alice Douglas Bourquin is my mother-in-law. She lives in Saranac Lake and does not have any memories of her father, only a few photographs. My wife and I never got to know him. I can only imagine what he was like.

Article Photos

Roland Douglas in his Downtown Barber Shop on Mill Hill in the 1930s (Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum)

While writing my "Adirondack Attic" newspaper column series, which ran in the Lake Placid News for several years, I dug up some history about my wife's grandfather, and much of this article was printed in the LPN in 2005. As we pass another Veterans Day, I'm still haunted by this stranger in a photograph, an image that captures life on Mill Hill in Lake Placid in the late 1930s.

The address for the Lake Placid News is now Sentinel Road - formerly South Main Street - but locals still know it as Mill Hill. Roland operated a tiny barber shop at the top of the hill, in the basement of the building now occupied by Wilson's Appliance Center.

I first saw the black-and-white photograph of Roland in the Adirondack Museum's collection. Alice had donated it to the museum in 1989 along with her father's barber shop tools. It was taken in the late 1930s (exact date unknown) in his Downtown Barber Shop. Some of his tools in the accession can be seen in the photo. Alice used the shears and hair trimmers in beauty school in the 1950s and to cut the hair of her three daughters: Dawn Bourquin Flynn of Saranac Lake (my wife); Laurie Bourquin Muncil of Lake Clear; and Ramona Bourquin Boylan of Piercefield.

Roland Edward Douglas was born on July 15, 1911 in the Franklin County town of Bellmont, the son of Mose and Maud Douglas. His mother had grown up on a farm in the hamlet of Owls Head in the town of Bellmont. Roland lived in Saranac Lake until age 6, when he moved to Owls Head and eventually to Lake Placid at age 11. The 1925 New York state census shows the Douglas family living on Parkside Drive in the village of Lake Placid when Roland was 13, with Mose's occupation as a house painter (he was a painter for many years at the Lake Placid Club).

Roland attended the Lake Placid schools but was not listed in graduation stories in the Lake Placid News. The 1930 federal census lists him as part of the Douglas family unit, age 18, with an occupation as a house painter, most likely with the Lake Placid Club. His father was listed as a painter in 1930.

After attending barber school, during the 1930s and early 1940s, Roland was a chauffeur/taxi driver for the Lake Placid Club, a barber and a member of the Lake Placid Fish and Game Club and the Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department. He ended up living in the apartment next to his father and mother at 32 McLenathen Ave.

Roland and Elizabeth Ernestine Cline, of Saranac Lake, were married by a justice of the peace on May 23, 1934 in Saranac Lake. They had three daughters: Helen (born Oct. 26, 1935), Betty (born Nov. 21, 1936) and Alice (born May 21, 1940).

In October 1943, Roland was drafted by the Selective Service Local Board No. 375 of Essex County (draft card dated Oct. 16) and appeared for his physical examination at 8:15 p.m. on Oct. 22 at the North Elba Town Hall in Lake Placid. He was inducted into the U.S. Army on Dec. 10, 1943, and had arrived at Camp Wolters in Texas for basic training by Dec. 29. He trained in states such as Kentucky and Maryland and spent time during early May 1944 at home on furlough from Company I, 137th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division. When he left the Lake Placid train station, he told his family he wasn't going to return.

During the first week of May, the 35th Infantry relocated to a staging area at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. The 137th Infantry Regiment left New York harbor on May 12, 1944 aboard the SS Thomas H. Berry and arrived on the southern coast of England by May 27. It is unclear whether Roland left for Europe at that time. The 35th Infantry Division landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France between July 5 and 7 and began 10 months of continuous fighting on July 11 with the battle for St. Lo. Roland's 137th Infantry was engaged in battles in France at the Vire River, Mortain, Orleans, Montargis, Troyes and Nancy.

At age 33, Private Roland Douglas (A.S.N. 32 947 835) was killed by machine gun fire northeast of Nancy on Sept. 23, 1944 during the Rhineland Campaign while his company attacked the rear elements of Germany's 553rd Volksgrenadier Division. Roland was buried in the temporary U.S. Military Cemetery at Andilly, about 15 miles northwest of Nancy.

"You may be assured that the identification and interment have been accomplished with fitting dignity and solemnity," wrote Maj. Gen. T.B. Larkin, of the Office of the Quartermaster General, in a Sept. 23, 1946 letter to Elizabeth Douglas. The cemetery "is under the constant care and supervision of the United States Military personnel."

Roland was the first Lake Placid father to be killed in action and one of 29 village residents to lose his life during military service in World War II. Lake Placid Mayor Luke L. Perkins paid "high tribute to those missing from our company" in a proclamation naming July 4, 1946 as a "special welcome home in this community" for World War II veterans. The Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department placed a gold star next to Roland's name on its honor roll.

Roland's body was exhumed in 1948 and transported home to the U.S. with 7,571 other deceased American soldiers on the Army transport Carroll Victory, which was part of the War Department's "funeral fleets of white ships, marked from bow to stern with the purple band of mourning," according to the Nov. 18, 1948 Syracuse Post-Standard. Also on the transport was the body of Army PFC Barney J. Stone, of 9 McLenathen Ave., Lake Placid. President Harry S. Truman had signed legislation giving families the choice of having dead World War II soldiers returned to the U.S. for final burial or having them rest in American military cemeteries "abroad where they fell."

Elizabeth Douglas received a telegram on Nov. 11, Armistice Day, informing her that her husband was on his way home. She marked down the occasion in pencil on her November 1948 Rexall calendar. His body arrived on Nov. 29, 1948 at the Lake Placid railroad station, under guard, on the 6:35 p.m. New York Central train. The following day, services were held at the Adirondack Community Church and Clark's Funeral Home, and he was buried in the North Elba Cemetery.

While the Adirondack Museum has Roland's barber tools, Alice proudly keeps one of the flags from his burial service, Betty's family has his Purple Heart, and Helen has his watch. He is not forgotten.

 
 

 

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