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New Canaan WWII vet's story rediscovered by chance and the internet age

Updated 2:03 pm, Friday, November 8, 2013

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  • Medics of the 10th Mountain Division load wounded infantry man on a jeep for evacuation. Mt. Belvedere, Italy. Feb. 10, 1945. Photo: Pamela Purdy, Contributed / New Canaan News Contributed
    Medics of the 10th Mountain Division load wounded infantry man on a jeep for evacuation. Mt. Belvedere, Italy. Feb. 10, 1945. Photo: Pamela Purdy, Contributed

 

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In an old barn in the hills south of Bologna, Italy, Michele "Mike" Bonfiglioli happened upon a World War II-era canteen with "W. R. Conner" engraved on it. The year was 1992 or 1993.

Bonfiglioli knew that almost 50 years earlier the area had been the site of battles on the Gothic Line, the Allies' last major line of defense in the last years of the war, in northern Italy. Something of a World War II historian -- the reason he was in the old barn in the first place -- he knew that the area had been home specifically to the Americans' 10th Mountain Division.

Bonfiglioli looked up the name in the 10th Mountain Division Veterans Association archives and found a match, Army medic William Rodney Conner, killed in action March 3, 1945, near Cimon Della Tiella, Italy. He was shot by a German sniper while attempting to drag a wounded soldier to safety.

An estimated 60 million men and women died during World War II, more than 22 million of them soldiers. Of those soldiers, more than 416,000 were Americans, and of those Americans, 36, including Conner, were from the small town of New Canaan.

"Because there are so many other parents who are praying for their boys' safe return I search my heart for something to say that might be of comfort to them. From the bottom of my heart I hope they will know a happy reunion," Mabel Conner wrote in a letter published in the New Canaan Advertiser on March 29, 1945, in memoriam for her son.

"I had believed that good was more powerful than evil and if one held staunchly to that faith no power on earth could harm my boy. I fought defeatism, any sense of fatalism," the letter continued. "Rod has passed from all the love we could shower upon him to the infinite love of God. Some glorious day we will be together again."

ROD

William Rodney Conner was born on May 19, 1922, and grew up in a home at 199 South Ave. His parents were William "Pop" and Mabel Muldoon Conner. Pop was a booster of town athletics, managing the New Canaan Maroons, the adult recreation team, in both baseball and basketball. Conner Field, which is behind Saxe Middle School on South Avenue, is named for him. Rodney went to Center School, then Saxe Junior High School, and graduated from New Canaan High in 1941.

"Rod was a good athlete, pretty popular, and a musician at the same time," his nephew, Ron Donahue said in a recent interview. Donahue is now 82 and lives in Newport Beach, Calif. He grew up in the same house with Rodney, after his mother, Cherida, moved back home after a divorce. With Rodney eight years his senior, Donahue saw him as an older brother.

"He was one of the better players on the football team. He was a fullback on the old single wing and a linebacker, though back then it was called right half and left half."

After high school, Rodney enrolled in Boston University, where he studied music. He considered a career as a journalist -- his uncle, William Muldoon, was the city editor of The New York Times from 1893 to 1896, according to Muldoon's 1920 obituary in the New York Times, and had been a part of the take-down of Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall machine, Donahue recalled.

Instead, Rod was drafted into the Army on Dec. 30, 1941, one semester into college, according to the Gold Star Book of New Canaan, a collection of stories and histories of New Canaan's WWII veterans. He was a medic with a regiment in the Aleutian Islands, the island chain off the coast of Alaska. The Japanese took control of the small, rocky island of Kiska in 1942. It was one of the only piece of American land the Japanese held during the war, along with Guam. The good guys took it back in 1943 and Conner came back to the U.S. He was moved to the newly constructed Camp Hale, where he was placed in the 10th Mountain Division, which trained soldiers to specialize in alpine, rugged warfare.

DEATH

In January 1945, just five months before the German surrender, Conner's regiment was deployed to the Po Valley region of Italy. On Feb. 6, he wrote to his mother:

"The weather has improved considerably, the sun is shining brightly and the skies are clear again. Let's hope this portends a bright future. The best news I've heard of late is the success of the Russians. Perhaps they'll settle this thing sooner than we think."

He wasn't far off -- the Soviets launched a final offensive, encircling Berlin in April 1945. But he would never know that. On March 3, he was part of a battle near the mountain Cimon della Piella, roughly 35 miles southwest of Bologna.

A March 9 letter from U.S. Army Chaplain Gary Roush addressed to Conner's mother recounted Rodney's participation in the battle that day:

"Your son was killed on March 3, 1945, while faithfully performing his duty in action against the enemy in Northern Italy. William (Rodney) had made repeated attempts to reach a wounded man who laid under direct enemy machine gun and rifle fire. He had been pinned down and was fired at two or three times in his effort to get to the wounded man. He finally crawled out to him in full view of the enemy, placed his Red Cross flag on a stick and shoved it in the ground beside the patient, and just started to work when he was killed by an enemy sniper."

Donahue recalled the day he learned Rodney died. He was in first period social studies in eighth grade, when his teacher came in and said hello to the class.

"He said, `Does anyone here know Rodney Conner?' I raised my hand and said, `I do, he's my uncle,'" Donahue remembered. "He stopped in his tracks. He said he was killed ... That was one sad son-of-a-gun day. I went home at lunch time and the house was like a morgue. Everyone was lying on their beds crying."

The death of Conner had a profound impact on the family, which did not talk about it for years afterward, according to Donahue. He even said the family stopped celebrating Christmas, at least with the same joy it once did.

"We would exchange gifts, but there was no tree, there was no real day of it," he said.

New Canaan's Sandra Conner Lefler was only 8 months old when her uncle died. It wasn't until she was 8 years old that she even knew she had an uncle, she said.

Lefler took piano lessons when she was a child and loved practicing at her grandparents' South Avenue home, which had a grand piano. There was a framed photo of a soldier on top of the piano. Eventually, she asked about it. Through tears, her grandmother told her about Rodney, she remembered.

"I always knew her to wear black her whole life," Lefler said of her grandmother.

RE-EMERGENCE

In 1987, the 10th Mountain Division was completing a new medical facility at its home base in Fort Drum, N.Y. The leaders of the facility chose Rodney, who'd posthumously won a Silver Star and Purple Heart, as its namesake.

"Technician Fifth Grade Conner's courage and high regard for his fellow man are a living example of the highest callings of both the 10th Mountain Division and the Army Medical Department," the program for the Conner Memorial Troop Medical Clinic reads.

Some members of the family attended the ceremony, but Rodney's niece, Pamela Purdy, was unable to go. In 2011, she and her husband arranged for a trip up to the clinic, which was written about in the newsletter Mountaineer Health & Wellness, which is published both in print and online.

In August of this year, Bonfiglioli was Googling Rodney Conner's name, as he had done every so often since finding the canteen, when the newsletter story popped up. He emailed Pamela out of the blue to tell her he'd been holding onto her cousin's canteen for years, and was a big admirer of his story. The two emailed pictures and information back and forth, and Bonfiglioli revisited Cimon della Piella to take photos of the area where Rodney died, for Pamela. While he was there, he was directed to a collector of WWII merchandise, who said the name W. R. Conner sounded familiar. Several days later, the collector called Bonfiglioli to tell him that his friend, also a collector, had Conner's helmet, which he was wearing when he was killed. The collector had found it in the 1980s in the basement of a farmhouse he was remodeling.

"I can not tell for sure how the helmet ended in that house that is more than 15 miles north of where Rodney was killed but you must know that, right after the war, Italians were so poor that (we) used to take anything left behind by G.I.s that could possibly be re-used," Bonifolglio wrote via email. "Helmets were often used as pots or cooking pans or even melted to forge new tools. This helmet, for some reasons, did not end up that way."

Now, 68 years after his death, New Canaan's Rodney Conner and his story is back in the limelight. Bonfiglioli is planning on writing an article about him in Italy, and is in talks with political officials there about installing a memorial to him.

"The mayor of the town where Rodney was killed offered me to erect a commemorative stone but I want to do more, as I think everybody should know what he, as well as many other thousand soldiers, did for our country," Binfiglioli wrote in an email.

Purdy is giving a Veterans' Day sermon at her church in Massachusetts about Conner.

"To me, it was just mind blowing that all this was surfacing, and of course it wouldn't be except for the computer age," she said. "The love that the Italian people have for America and for the troops gave me goose bumps when he (Bonfiglioli) wrote to me ... It's a beautiful thing to think that my uncle is loved in a realm other than my own family."

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6582; @Woods_NCNews