John Donald Osborne of Madelia, Minn., had just turned 25 when he got word that his kid brother, Howard, had drowned when his Army rowboat capsized during a target-shooting exercise in Rhode Island in October 1942.
Howard, a 22-year-old private, was wearing a cartridge belt and steel helmet when the accident occurred. His corporal "caught him and held his head above water for about ten minutes until help arrived," but efforts to revive him were futile, according to the Madelia Times-Messenger.
It was another awful break for the Osborne family, which had lost their Madelia farm during the Great Depression. Paul, the oldest of Eugene and Annie Osborne's 11 kids, died in 1919 at age 5 from blood poisoning caused by an infected tooth. John would have been a 16-month-old toddler when Paul was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Madelia.
Like countless brothers across the United States, the Osborne boys enlisted in the Army as World War II raged. The oldest surviving brother, Clem, was stationed in California and "on maneuvers," so he missed Howard's funeral. John, training at Camp Blanding, Fla., got there in time, the Times-Messenger reported.
Five years later, the family gathered again to mourn — this time for John, killed at 27 when a Nazi soldier bashed in his head during a brutal massacre of prisoners of war at a Belgian crossroads near Malmedy in December 1944. His body, left in the snow for a month, was eventually reburied at Fort Snelling National Cemetery nearly three years later.
I learned about John Osborne from a Minneapolis ex-pat named Chris Olson, who retired as a social worker at 58 and now lives about three hours south of Paris. "I have always tried to incorporate history, and hopefully a Minnesota connection, into my bike tours," Olson said in an email.
While biking through the Bastogne region of Belgium this summer, Olson happened upon a memorial for the Malmedy Massacre at the spot where Nazi troops murdered 84 American POWs. Wondering whether any Minnesotans were among those mowed down by German machine guns, Olson found Osborne's name.
Five months before the war in Europe ended, Osborne was a staff sergeant, cooking meals for the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion — a lightly-armed unit that used flash spotting and sound monitoring to track Nazi artillery during the Battle of the Bulge.
On Dec. 17, 1944, Osborne's unit ran into a column of German Panzer tanks. The Americans, badly outnumbered, surrendered and assumed they'd be sent to a German prison camp. Instead, Nazi commanders Joachim Peiper and Werner Poetschke ordered them rounded up in a field and shot. German soldiers picked through the pile of bodies to finish off any survivors, but somehow 31 Americans escaped and shared the horror of what had happened.
When Allied forces recaptured the area nearly a month later, they recovered the bodies. Osborne's corpse was marked as No. 1 in the ensuing investigation, and a "blow to the head" was listed as the cause of death — meaning he likely survived the initial machine gun barrage, only to be finished off with the butt of a Nazi rifle.
"He was clubbed in the head and I remember, when I first came across pictures of the dead in the snow after the massacre, it sent a shiver down my spine," said Osborne's niece Sally Jo Sorensen, who writes a Minnesota political blog on rural issues at bluestemprairie.com.
Poetschke, who reportedly gave the massacre order, died three months later from battle wounds. Peiper was later hauled before a war crimes trial at the former Dachau death camp, becoming one of more than 70 Nazis sentenced to death or long prison terms. None of the death sentences were carried out, and Peiper was released after 11 years in 1956. He worked for Porsche in West Germany before moving to France, where in July 1976, arsonists with possible ties to the French Resistance firebombed his home, killing him at the age of 61.
Sorensen — whose mother, Nancy, was the youngest of the 11 Osborne siblings — heard stories of her grandmother Annie displaying gold star flags for her lost sons, John and Howard. She remembers her parents arguing about Sen. Joseph McCarthy's efforts to get Peiper pardoned.
"McCarthy argued that Peiper was prosecuted by Jews seeking revenge, and my father thought [McCarthy] was justified," said Sorensen, 66, from her home in Summit, S.D. "But my mother reminded him they had murdered POWs."
John Osborne received the Purple Heart posthumously. He would have been 106 next Sunday, Oct. 1.
"Family lore said he joined the circus after the family lost the farm in 1934," said Sorensen — whose request to her blog readers to visit her Uncle John's grave at Fort Snelling has led to flowers being left at his headstone.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.