This is a blog post that I have been slowly writing my entire life. It is difficult to explain but there really are two stories here to tell. I didn’t really know where all of this would take me, but in a search to learn more about my grandfather’s service in World War II, I encountered a set of dog tags for another World War II veteran whom I did not know. That’s really the first part of this story: returning lost dog tags to the veteran’s family.
I have written a little about my grandfather before, but all of my life his wartime service has been mostly a mystery to me. Moreover, what made it even stranger and more difficult to decipher was that for decades, I’ve had someone else’s dog tags. Since he died when I was four, I never got to ask him much of anything let alone ask who Steven E. Olowinski of Erie, PA was. Were they friends that served together? Did they go to basic training together? Were they neighbors? Did they meet after the war? I had no idea. And for twenty years or so I really couldn’t do much to find out. Even in advent of the internet age, searches were basic (or I had forgot all about this issue altogether). But recently I packaged them up and mailed them to their proper home, to the son of the veteran whose dog tags I’ve had sitting in an old card box since I was 12. But in an attempt to get these dog tags to their rightful owner I seem to have only deepened the mystery surrounding my own grandfather.
As I grew from a child into an adolescent, I asked about my grandfather from time to time. As my interest in the Army and World War II grew, my grandmother would slowly turn over things to me that were his if she would come across them. Now, I was a way younger man back then so I didn’t know what questions to ask, and of course when you’re 10 or 12 you don’t pay attention to much else than what you’re interested in – nor do you really appreciate what is there in front of you. My tenacity to understand more about the man only really kicked in with the passing of the only other resource that I could ask questions to; my grandmother (who died in 1998). After the funeral, as we prepared to liquidate the home and all of her goods, I was able to identify things left over from that period of his life that my grandmother had not previously turned over to me. Let’s talk more about that in a little while, though. I acquired a few more things after that entire side of my family was gone, but the box containing the Olowinski dog tags I had since around age 12.
I wasn’t sure why, but I dug them out sometime in September 2017, but only really looked at them this past 11 November. In my oddly timed and random (or renewed) desire to figure out who Steven E. Olowinski was, I began to look over all of the information that I had on my grandfather. My first good resource was his basic training graduation book. I looked through each name from every company, but no Olowinski. So, they weren’t buddies from basic. I Googled his name, his full name, parts of his name; name with service number; I Googled Joesephine Olowinski, I googled Olowinski, Erie PA; I typed in the address listed on the dog tags but it wasn’t registered as owned by an Olowinski. I considered filing a FOIA to try to get his war records and figure out who he was, where he served or what unit or units he was assigned to. And that’s when I decided to give the way too-easy method a try.
I typed ‘Olowinski Erie PA’ into Facebook.
Lo and behold, the first two names at the top of the list stood out. Both had the surname Olowinski, and either live or had lived in Erie PA. I quickly looked at both profiles and it looked like a brother and sister (based on some comparison of their publically viewable photos where I saw them both in a group shot). I mulled it over for an hour or so, taking a shot in the dark I composed a message to them both explaining who I was, and what I was trying to do (and promising them this was not some sort of scam). To my surprise, I got a reply from what turned out to be the granddaughter of Steven E. Olowinski. After a brief message exchange, I found I had the right family and that for whatever reason, yes these clearly were her grandfather’s dog tags. She put me in touch with her father (also named Steven) and arranged a time when he and I talked on the phone.
This is what I know about Steven E. Olowinski from talking with his son. He was a Staff Sergeant in the Army and he served in Papua New Guinea. The dog tags list his next of kin as Josephine Olowinski, who was his mother. Mr. Olowinski passed away from cancer in 1991. His son wasn’t really a man of many words, at least not to a relative stranger on the phone mind you. But I think he and I were both a little in shock at making this connection. I was appreciative of what he was able to tell me, and glad that now the dog tags are safely back where they belong, with the Olowinski family for them to have and relish. One more memento of their loved one’s time in service and contribution in World War II.
I don’t have any other information, photos or stories about Staff Sergeant Olowinski, but I’ve left my contact information with the family in Erie. Perhaps if they ever can put together some pieces of the puzzle for me they will reach out. That is where we come to the second story: Just how in the world did my grandfather come to have those dog tags? This is but one of many curious questions. Though I may never answer that, in an attempt to find out I uncovered more about my grandfather’s service in the war than I ever had known.
“X marks the spot” – Pvt. Bocian & platoon, basic training
Sadly, much of it is tangential and I’ve had to piece together this entire story into what I know, and what I think most likely happened. To first understand what I know, lets briefly travel back in time to just after my grandmother’s funeral in 1998. I now had a small collection of all of the artifacts from my grandfather. That cache that I received mostly piecemeal consists of the following: a sort of duffel bag or laundry bag; a military basic training handbook (a manual of arms, etc.); the 8th Quartermaster Replacement Regiment graduation book [Tucked into a manila envelope inside this book were old copies of his discharge papers and a colorized ‘glamour shot’ photo he clearly had taken and mailed home to his wife]; an old musty service cap with some weird unknown patch safety-pinned to the inside of it (I threw this hat away at some point in my adult life); some other post-war photos of him from the late 40’s and 50’s; the flag from his casket; and an old leftover Christmas card box filled with random things.
Odds and ends – decoding this mystery began here
What was in the box? It had a few ribbons and medals; his collar insignia (Quartermaster); the old ‘ruptured duck’ lapel pin; a 1942 driver’s license from the state of New Jersey; some photographs of him in various uniforms in various locations; military ration-type cards and passes; and a letter entitling him to the buy and wear the American Campaign ribbon. And the dog tags (his dog tags, tied together by a worn khaki piece of thread, and Steven E. Olowinski’s). My grandfathers are relatively shiny, while Mr. Olowinski’s were tarnished, slightly dented here or there, and corroded in spots with some wear and tear. From this cache (and with a little help from my better-half) I have determined the following.
Colorized glamour shot circa 1944/45; note the collar insignia
What we know:
Stanley Bocian enlisted in the Army on the 10th of November, 1941 at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He enlisted as military occupation 819, Assistant Commissary Steward, Quartermaster Corps.
Of Note: I’ve gathered from the conversations I recalled having with my grandmother that today he would have been classified as a conscientious objector. As war raged on in Europe, he saw the writing on the wall but had no desire to get drafted into the infantry. He wanted nothing of the sort to do with killing anyone, so he joined under his own terms, and he found a job he felt he could fill that would also support the United States without having to kill a soul. That is all I know about his motivation for enlistment. They both were very religious.
Pvt. Bocian (right) & friend; soldier identity unknown
From Fort Dix he was sent to Camp Lee, Virginia where he was trained. He was in Company G, 8th Quartermaster Training Regiment (the book contains no class number or date of graduation; I do not know how long the course was but the book shows the men having Thanksgiving dinner, but makes no mention at all of December 7th or America’s official declaration of war). His glamour shot photo from late in the war shows him wearing the unit patch of the 2nd Service Command (explained below). He was authorized to mess with the Military Police Detachment; He departed the continental U.S. for Trinidad on 9 July 1942. He returned to the continental U.S. on 14 June, 1944. He was discharged as a Staff Sergeant on 6 Nov 1945 at Fort DuPont in Delaware. He was awarded the Army’s Good Conduct Medal, the American Defense Medal, the American Campaign Medal, he is entitled to the World War II Victory medal, and he was qualified on the Springfield M1903 .30 caliber rifle as a marksman.
Now, at this point having spent about half of my adult life in the Army there are a lot of things that I know and can determine with all of these documents. For instance, I know what all of the ribbons and medals are and I can glance at a uniform and learn a lot. But World War II was a while ago, so it did take me some research to ascertain this much (in terms of discharge codes and so forth), and there are still some assumptions I make but can’t be sure of.
Company ‘G’ basic training, Camp Lee, VA 1941
What we think:
After graduation from Camp Lee, he would have been assigned to the Army Service Forces, later becoming reorganized and broken into different components known as Service Commands, he being in the 2nd Service Command headquartered in New York, NY. I have been able to determine this based on the unit patch on his shoulder in the glamour shot, and 2nd Service Command is the letterhead on the note certifying him to buy and wear the American Campaign ribbon (admittedly, it took me a long while to correlate those two, because I had never seen that patch listed anywhere in the large numbers of unit patches and insignia that were activated / existed during WWII, but sure as sugar that patch is the patch of the 2nd Service Command). Thanks to the folks over at www.fortmiles.org I was able to learn tons about the Army Service Forces, of which I previously knew nothing so I thank them for it!
(Point of order – the patch of the Army Service Forces looks exactly like the one pinned to the inside of the cap that I threw away – D’oh! That was clearly a stupid mistake…)
The Army Service Forces were essentially responsible for supplying the Army, but with the onset of the U.S. entry into the war the Army Service Forces began to take on many more critical responsibilities. As a result the service forces restructured in 1942 becoming the service commands and included organizations such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Quartermaster Corps, Medical Corps, Signal Corps, Chemical Warfare Service, Ordnance Department, Military Police, Finance, Transportation, and many more smaller, specialized functions. It’s important to point out that all Service Command duties were performed within the continental boundaries of the United States. The U.S. was broken up into nine different service commands, servicing forts and posts in their respective geographical areas. I knew my grandfather had never served in combat because I had his discharge papers and medals, but until now I had never known where, or with whom he served. The Army Service Forces/Commands also coordinated military operations with civilian organizations such as ocean and rail transportation agencies, as well as with Civil Defense. 2nd Service Command worked closely with the Civilian Defense headquarters at Fort Miles, Delaware. So we know he served in that 2nd Service Command NJ/NY/DE area. He was authorized to mess with the Military Police Detachment as his mess card shows. The affiliation with the Military Police always puzzled me, as the collar insignia on his uniform in the glamour shot are the crossed pistols of the Military Police Corps. Yet I knew he was a Quartermaster, so if you add in the mess card I can only assume he was attached to, or in the same unit with this unnamed MP Detachment.
To try and learn more, I took a trip to the Fort Lee Quartermaster Museum. The museum was packed for a Saturday (with what I assume was a company of Quartermaster AIT students visiting the museum as part of their curriculum). Amid the din of a hundred privates and their cell phones – the Army sure is different to when I was in – I did learn a great bit about the Quartermaster Corps and Camp Lee’s history during both wars. With so many young soldiers around the museum seemed lite on staff, so I couldn’t find anyone to make any inquiries to regarding where a fresh graduate from WWII might be sent if we knew they served in the 2nd Service Command. Despite not learning anything specific about my grandfather, visiting the post’s museum and being on the same grounds where grandfather stomped around in the tail end of 1941 was a worthwhile experience.
Author at Fort Lee, VA Quartermaster museum
Recalling my grandmother saying that he had been at Fort Dix during the war I can surmise that’s where he was sent after leaving Fort Lee. He enlisted there and due to his place of residence, it makes sense that he would have been assigned there with one what was called a Station Complement Unit (SCU); remember this term, as it will resurface later. The SCU’s were responsible for all non-combat related Army activities within the continental United States. They were the entities that operated all of the military bases, forts and camps; for training posts and ports of embarkation (such as Fort Dix) a complement of permanent-party soldiers would need to be stationed there as all of the other major Army units mobilized through on their way to the African-European or Pacific theaters. Members of the SCU’s ran the post; they cooked in the chow halls, they ran the post exchange and supply depots, issued weapons and equipment, ran the rifle ranges and obstacle courses – they were the garrison force that ensured that the units of the Army’s combat forces were ready for deployment overseas. They also worked with the War Department and Civil Defense Corps, so they oversaw other vital war efforts like ammunition production, elements of coastal defenses, etc.
I assume he either worked as a commissary steward or in a base warehouse (or something like that). I also know that he left the continental U.S. some point in July 1942, and was sent to Trinidad. So, what is all of that about? I have his permanent pass for Trinidad, dated 30 July, 1942. Trinidad Base, or Trinidad B.W.I. (British West Indies). Now the 2nd Service Command was not assigned to or operating in Trinidad, that much we know. So, I have been trying to figure out more about how he came to be ordered there, or what unit he may have been reassigned, or detailed to that would have him spending nearly two years in Trinidad. After all, it was where he spent the vast majority of his wartime service, where he rose through the ranks to make E6, and where a lot of the photos I have seem to be from. I found a War Department circular from June 1942 that amended orders and now allowed for Army Service Forces, stationed only within the continental United States, to be attached to forward-deployed units outside of the continental United States. So, it seems like Grandpa got somehow swept up in that.
Permanent Pass for Trinidad issued to Pvt. Bocian
Trinidad is located in the Caribbean and in 1941, Trinidad under British colonization but leased to the United Sates, fell under the responsibility of the newly established Caribbean Defense Command. Anti-submarine (U-Boat) operations and protection of the Panama Canal were the primary missions, given a large presence of Nazi U-Boats intend on disrupting British shipping. As such, Trinidad became home to a large number of U.S. Army bases and airfields – notably Waller Army Air Field, situated on what I have found described as a “large and sprawling” base called Fort Read. So, it is more likely than not that he was stationed at Fort Read. But, with whom?
“Looks lovely, but not for me!” Jungle photo with penned note from Bocian on reverse
I’ve been able to gather from U.S. Postal records that there was a Quartermaster Detachment at Fort Read. I’ve also been able to determine there was an ‘HHC, Troop Command, Fort Read, Trinidad’. There was also a U.S. Army Headquarters ‘Trinidad Base Command’. But when it comes to specific units assigned to Fort Read (or in Trinidad for that matter) all of the listings I have found have been for U.S. Army Air Corps. Units stationed at Waller Field, and 1st Battalion, 33rd Infantry Regiment (later replaced by the 2nd and 3rd Battalions) which had roles in protecting / guarding the installations and harbors, etc. Interestingly, “Merill’s Marauders” (the 1st Bn) trained there before going to the Pacific; I guess due to their jungle training with live ammunition there were routinely training casualties killed during that period.
I was able to gather from several data-points that these units were affiliated with Fort Read:
- 4 Dec 1943 to 22 May 1944: 39th Coast Artillery (HD) Regiment [anti-air defenses for Trinidad Base Command]
- 12 August 1942 to 29 Feb 1944 :84th Coast Artillery (AA)(Colored) Regiment [guarded the Port of Spain]
- 10 May 1942 to 4 Dec 1943: 99th Coast Artillery (AA)(Colored) Regiment [anti-air defenses for Trinidad Base Command]
- 1942-? 395th Station Hospital at Ft. Read
- 1942-? 252nd Regiment
- 1942-? 213th light anti-aircraft (?)
- 1942-? 135th Combat Engineers
There is also a discrepancy on his discharge papers. The outside continental U.S service block shows his departure and arrival dates to and from Trinidad (he left for Trinidad in 1942 and departed in 1944). Yet a separate section that lists total length of continental service and foreign service shows his foreign service as 11 months, 5 days. Knowing that the Army makes mistakes I can overlook this as an error, since his departure dates and return dates and locations are clearly recorded.
Bocian in Trinidad, B.W.I. sometime between 1942-44
There are some forums and webpages online that discuss the American experience in Trinidad and Tobago, but more specifically discuss the impact that American servicemen had on the local people and culture. Some soldiers were model citizens, but others far away from home and with money in their pockets found themselves getting into trouble with the locals. Prostitution, local-girlfriends, fights with the locals, and some sort of rift that occurred between the colored and white soldiers stationed there are all listed as issues that contributed to the widespread demoralization of Trinidadians. I still have yet to find good accounts of life at, or more specificity about the Army’s Fort Read post.
Bocian, lower right, with unknown soldiers in Trinidad, 1942-44 time frame
What he did when he returned to the States in 1944 was the next mystery link in this chain I needed to solve. Thankfully there was a war bond defense stamp savings booklet within my small cache of pins and papers from this time frame. I originally paid it no mind at all, but inside the cover where it says “this booklet of defense stamps has a cash value and should be safeguarded as such”, filled in as the owner information was:
“SSG Stanley Bocian, 1226 S.C.U.E.B.U.S.D.B. Stormville NY”
Well… alright, now I had a new alphabet soup acronym to decipher. I paired up the 1226th SCU with the 2nd Service Command letterhead, so that was a no-brainer. I did some Google research on the ‘EBUSDB’ portion to no avail. But when I started looking into Stormville, NY and World War 2 is when I made a discovery that both shocked me and gave additional context to this story. When you break out those letters, in conjunction with Stormville, NY you get what was the Eastern Branch, United States Disciplinary Barracks located at Greenhaven, NY – a few miles from the nearby town of Stormville. Holy Shit I thought to myself. What was my grandfather doing stationed at a military prison? And then the weird tangential connections to the Military Police all made sense; the mess card for the MP Detachment, the MP insignia on his collar in the photo, the fact that from 1947 until his retirement he worked as a Pittsburgh Special Patrolmen (a security guard, essentially – he was a guard at the Armour Meat plant). It was an unarmed position, a gate guard for the meat plant but I had his badge and his certificate appointing him as a special patrolman.
Certificate issued to Stanley Bocian by City of Pittsburgh Police
Did he parlay the time he spent working at the Greenhaven military prison until the war ended into his civilian career in security? What did he do at Greenhaven? Was he a guard, or did he do more of the traditional ‘supply guy’ stuff in line with the Quartermaster training? I had no idea. At this point all of the paperwork and pins had no more secrets to give up. I called my dad and asked him if he ever knew that his father worked at a prison. He said no, he had no clue. My grandad and my father did not really have a loving or close relationship. In fact, when my dad left home at the age of 19 they pretty much ceased to talk other than at holidays and visits – even though they lived a mile apart. I asked my dad if he remembered anything at about his father that he may have mentioned, or overheard him talking about from his time in the Army. He said no, that he really didn’t. The relative void, hollow reaction to my questions sort of clued me that I probably was barking up the wrong tree since my own father didn’t have a solid relationship with his. I was about to thank him and change the subject when he offered up a tidbit that made the hair on the back of my neck stand-to.
“All I remember really, is that he had these pictures of dead people that he kept in the glove compartment of his car. I remember seeing those when I was about sixteen and thought, whoa man, this is weird.”
You could’ve knocked me over with a feather at about that time because the memories came flooding back. I remembered when I originally found some old black and white pictures among his things, back when I was ten or so. Pictures of the jungle, pictures of Quonset huts, pictures of smiling Army guys (including my grandfather); and pictures of bodies. When I showed my grandmother, she took the photos and tore them up. She was very upset and said I ought not to be looking at rubbish like that. I never figured out whose bodies they were, or how or why. In my mind, I remembered them as German soldiers because as a ten-year-old kid – well he was in the war, right? Had to be Germans. I can still sort of see them in my mind somewhat. I really wished my grandmother hadn’t had such a visceral and abrupt reaction to them, or at least I wished I wouldn’t have said anything at all. The pictures I have now came from that same set of pictures I had found then. Perhaps if I still had them it would help me piece this together more. But they’re long lost to time and the dustbin. I just remember there were singular bodies, and clumps of bodies, two or three together. Crumpled disheveled human masses in the grass. That’s all I remember.
Mess card issued to Bocian by Military Police Detachment
But now even as things were starting to come together, they were making even less sense. Were these pictures from, Trinidad? Were they from Greenhaven? Looking up old judge advocate general proceedings, a lot of soldiers were sentenced to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks for wartime offenses like profiteering, stealing and selling military supplies (cigarettes or gasoline), tons and tons for desertion or fleeing combat, and for murder; murdering European civilians, and murdering other U.S. soldiers. A lot of those sentences for severe crimes was death by hanging, sentence to be carried out at the U.S.D.B. at Greenhaven, NY.
Well, in reality, graves and registration are a department of the Quartermaster Corps. Mortuary Affairs. Did he somehow serve in this capacity while in Trinidad, or in Greenhaven? Was he an NCO in charge of something like graves and registration? Surely if he were, he would have had to do such duties as photograph the deceased, write reports, categorize articles and personal effects, etc. But, if this were the case, and one of the reasons that he wanted to put his wartime service behind him – then why would you keep those? And of all places, why would you keep them in the glove box in your car?? Were they in there to keep them out of the house, away from his wife and kids? Did he keep them there for some other reason? And why were they then stuffed away among his other things in the house a decade later for me to find?
Patrolman Bocian on the job, 1949, Pittsburgh, PA
I don’t recall my grandmother seeming surprised or shocked – the way I remember it would be almost as if she had some sort of inkling about those photos, to have such an instinctual and quick reaction, destroying them on the spot with such extremely stern and angry words for me. “Looking at rubbish like that filth” is how I think she said it. Why would a man allegedly so objected to killing hold on to photos of people who died or were killed? For what purpose? To what end? Go back to the first photo of Pvt. Bocian goofing off in the barracks (way above); notice he’s the only one leveling a rifle towards the camera. No one else is. Why? And why the dead body photos? That unfortunately, we will never know. Much like the Olowinski connection these two major facts will remain a mystery.
I still am trying to figure out aspects of the 1226th SCU, or what they did at Greenhaven. And I am still trying to figure out what exact role Fort Read played in his overseas service. The desire to dig deeper comes and goes. In all reality I need to visit the National Archives to dig through the thousands of documents regarding the history of the Service Forces and Service Commands. And the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA seems to have a lot of about 1,200 black and white photos of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Greenhaven. The exhibit in storage seems to list them from the 1946 time frame, but if I go sign them out and look at them myself perhaps there will be some from 1945. Until I do, or until I find out more here is where the story ends.
When I was seventeen I officially petitioned the Army for a replacement copy of all of my grandfather’s service records and awards as his next of kin. It took three years, but I did get replacements. Knowing what he earned, and now armed with knowledge about the units he was in, I went online and ordered World War II era replacements for myself. I decided to build a shadow box with his things to honor his service to America during what many call ‘the last just war’. The greatest generation they were, but still plagued with the same types of behaviors and issues that our society remains rife with today. For a complicated man, mean-spirited and cold to some but loving and cherished by others, his efforts deserve to be recognized. It hangs on the wall in my “I Love Me” room next to my shadowbox. Two totally different men with two totally different experiences; different values perhaps and different personalities. But each equal with the other in their desire to try and do right by America, and be part of something bigger than themselves. Two men who loved each other. A family bond by bloodline, and bonded by service.