A Normandy riddle is solved

After 30 years in the hands of a Frenchman, the name on the American dog tags becomes a person

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Thirty years ago, a young Frenchman walking in Normandy came across an American soldier's rusted dog tag among the rocks at Nacqueville, west of the port of Cherbourg.

The name read: "Addison W. Arthurs."

Etienne Desquesnes, now 46, wanted to return it to the owner or his family. But who was Addison Arthurs?

Mr. Desquesnes wrote to the U.S. embassy in Paris but never got an answer.

He finally has one now, and just in time for Veterans Day, thanks to some Internet sleuthing by his friend, Bertrand Goucovitch, 49, an amateur D-Day historian, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

After a recent flurry of Googling, e-mailing and phone calls, the owner of that tag has come into sharp relief: Addison Winfield Arthurs of Shadyside, a Pittsburgh blue-blood, decorated lieutenant colonel in charge of 400,000 German prisoners at Normandy and founder of the former Arthurs Lestrange & Short investment firm in Gateway Center.

Mr. Arthurs died of a heart attack in 1984 while skiing at Hidden Valley. He was 78 and left behind no children.

But his closest relative, second cousin Addison Armstrong, 46, of Stamford, Conn., and Addison Arthurs' second wife, Nancy McDonald, 74, of Oakland, were pleased to hear about the relic from 65 years ago. The Frenchmen will probably mail it to Mr. Armstrong, an energy broker who knew Mr. Arthurs as "Uncle Ad" as a teenager in Pittsburgh.

"I was shocked," he said of the discovery. "It really brought back a lot of great memories. He was very much a second father."

Ms. McDonald, a neighbor of Mr. Arthurs' who married him in 1981 after both of their spouses died, has since remarried and moved to a penthouse apartment not far from the Howe Street house where she lived with "Ad" until he died on the slopes.

She said Mr. Armstrong should receive the tag, along with old documents, certificates and news clippings she has about the distinguished man she knew as gentlemanly, smart and handsome.

"He was probably the best-dressed man in Pittsburgh," she said. "He was a vibrant guy who liked to live. I always respected his intelligence."

The Legion of Merit

Addison Arthurs was a well-connected fellow from a prominent family. His ancestors fought in America's wars and played a role in Pittsburgh politics and real estate. Both Addison and Arthurs streets in the Hill District were named for his relatives.

Mr. Arthurs' great-great-grandfather, John Arthurs, was among the first settlers of what was once called Minersville, and his great-grandfather, William Arthurs, was the first real estate promoter in the Hill.

His grandfather, Dr. Addison Arthurs, had been a Civil War doctor, president of Pittsburgh City Council and chief surgeon for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Born on the site of the Grant Building, his father, Addison E. Arthurs, flew as a captain with the Army Signal Corps in World War I. He ran an investment business in the city in the 1930s and then worked for the Pittsburgh Housing Authority for 20 years.

Mr. Arthurs carried on the tradition of accomplishment.

Born Aug. 10, 1905, he attended Pitt and the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. It's not clear exactly when he earned his degrees. In a letter recounting his background, he joked that he spent the years between 1926 and 1947 "seeking that elusive degree without success" and said he got so old that "when I'd appear in class, people thought I was the instructor."

He was old for a soldier, too. When the war started, he was 37 and a partner at the investment firm of Moore, Leonard & Lynch. He entered the Army in December 1942 and served with the Baltimore-based Third Service Command, assigned to the Officer Procurement Service in Pittsburgh.

The nine service commands provided support for the fighting units. Mr. Arthurs arrived in England in March 1944, and after D-Day he became the Prisoner of War Officer-in-charge.

He was later honored for the job he did. In a 1946 ceremony attended by Mayor David L. Lawrence and Gov. Edward Martin, the Army gave him the Legion of Merit for administering 400,000 prisoners, including the evacuation of 100,000 of them to England.

In 1947, the French honored him for alleviating a food shortage in Cherbourg and for reconstructing towns and removing land mines.

Many of his friends and colleagues are long dead, but those who remember him say he never mentioned anything about losing his dog tag. Although most aspects of Mr. Arthurs' life were in order, he did tend to misplace things on occasion.

"Could Ad lose something? Absolutely," laughed Wallace Hough, 64, a Merrill Lynch adviser who worked for Mr. Arthurs in the late 1960s. "But he never talked about the war."

A man about town

Mr. Arthurs founded Arthurs Lestrange in August 1947 with offices Downtown and in McKeesport. He and his first wife, Margaret, had no children, so he devoted himself to his company.

"Without children, the firm was really his life," said Mr. Armstrong. "He was very well-respected in the Pittsburgh business community. He touched every part of Pittsburgh society."

There were lean years, but he built the company into a success. In one note on an old photo, he wrote, "Retirement? That's crazy! They'll carry me out." When he died, a former colleague said, "We all had nothing but the greatest respect for him."

He appeared in the newspapers discussing investments, especially gold. During the war, he saw the catastrophic results of inflation in Europe and said gold kept its value. In France, he wrote, "I had a chance to see how a gold piece sewed into an overcoat lining saved more than one lost soul from starvation or captivity."

So he put a lot of his clients' and his own money into South African Krugerrands when gold was $35 an ounce. On Monday gold closed at $1,100 an ounce.

"He was a goldbug. He would be having a heyday now," said Robert A. Woeber, 79, of Upper St. Clair, who took over the firm in 1979.

Mr. Arthurs belonged to all the best clubs: the Duquesne Club, the Long Vue Club and the Civic Club of Allegheny County. He became governor of the Investment Bankers Association of America, head of the American Wind Symphony and a director on the boards of 14 companies.

In his personal life, he cut a dashing figure. He loved skiing, boating and fishing, and in 1946 even set a bonefishing record in the Florida Keys. It didn't last. A few days later, former President Herbert Hoover beat his catch by an ounce.

Mr. Arthurs often traveled overseas on ski trips that his family suspects might have been spy missions. There's no proof of that, but Nancy said he told her he had rescued Hungarian scientists from the Communists during the Cold War. She also said he once had a secret phone line at the Howe Street home.

During the revolt in Hungary in 1956, according to news clippings, he helped bring a Hungarian widow and her young son to Pittsburgh after they fled Budapest. With Mr. Arthurs as their sponsor, they arrived in 1957.

"The family legend is that he remained active after the war well into the 1960s," said Mr. Armstrong. "Margy (his first wife) never knew anything about it. His cover was that he told her he was going on ski trips."

A Normandy keepsake

In pre-Internet days, Mr. Arthurs' dog tag might have stayed in France forever, its owner just another name consigned to D-Day history.

But Mr. Desquesnes, a welding engineer at a nuclear submarine plant in Cherbourg, knew that fellow engineer Bertrand Goucovitch was involved with an organization that tracked down pilots who saw action at Normandy. Mr. Goucovitch has a personal connection with the war.

"My grandfather was killed in April 1943 during the first allied bombing of Caen and my mother's house was flattened by another bombing of Caen in July 1944," he said in an e-mail.

Mr. Desquesnes had another dog tag that he found in a second-hand shop. The two men recently traced it to an infantryman from Maryland and figured they could find Mr. Arthurs' family, too.

An Internet search turned up Mr. Arthurs' obituary, which appeared in the Post-Gazette in 1984. They contacted the newspaper by e-mail, and Post-Gazette reporters were able to track down relatives and former co-workers of Mr. Arthurs.

"Now, thanks to the miracle of the Internet (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette online archives), but also good will of individuals, this task is achievable," said Mr. Goucovitch. "Mr. Desquesnes valued this (tag) for nearly 30 years and is happy in the idea that it will go back to its owner's next-of-kin."

Mr. Armstrong said the tag will have a place of honor at his home, alongside the World War I flight diary that belonged to Mr. Arthurs' father and the golden dress epaulets that his grandfather wore as a Civil War major.

"I'll keep it with the rest of the Arthurs family military memorabilia," he said, "and share it with my sons."

Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?