A Citizen Soldier Comes Home: Ashbrook Scholar Alumnae Honor Their Long-lost Grandfather

July 21, 2022

A Citizen Soldier Comes Home: Ashbrook Scholar Alumnae Honor Their Long-lost Grandfather

Clean, white snow came down in blinding sheets on the hills outside Reipertswiller, France. In another time, the new snow, piled up on rooftops and swirled into drifts along the narrow streets of the small village in the foothills of the Vosges mountains, would have only added to the beauty of Reipertswiller where a few hundred inhabitants might have spent the day stoking their fires, reading, playing parlor games, or tuning into their favorite radio broadcasts. But this was Saturday, January 20, 1945, and the sound of war filled their ears. The villagers hoped and prayed that the conflict would stay clear of their village.

About a mile away, the fresh snow was mixed with the blood of battle. Several hundred American soldiers, most of the 3rd Battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment, were surrounded by Nazi forces. The Americans had extended into enemy lines four days earlier and found themselves with their flanks exposed. The German forces, SS mountain infantry units trained for this type of combat, took advantage immediately, cutting the men off from their allies and pounding them with artillery and mortar fire. The soldiers had run out of food, water, and medicine, and they were quickly running out of ammunition. The many attempts to break through to support them had failed. Today, January 20th, Colonel Walter P. O’Brien, commander of the 157th regiment made one final attempt to get the trapped men out ordering them to attempt a break out while other American forces in the area fired everything they had to distract the Germans.

One of the men in the 3rd Battalion of the 157th was a 26-year-old Ohio boy named Sanford Keith “Keety” Bowen. Most of the men in the 157th—part of the 45th “Thunderbird” division—were Mexican-American, Native American, or Southwestern cowboys from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma. Pfc. Bowen hadn’t expected to see combat, yet as American casualties added up, he found himself as a radio operator among these brothers in arms 4,000 miles from home and under fire in a blistering snowstorm. The cutoff men took their orders and radioed back, “We’re coming out, give us everything you’ve got!”

A Small Town Boy Goes to War

Sanford Keith “Keety” Bowen

Keith Bowen was born in 1918, one of five siblings. He grew up in the small college town of Ashland, Ohio. His mother died when he was four, and his older brother Paul helped to raise him. Keith graduated from Ashland High School in 1937, where he showed a knack for management, serving as the stage manager for the drama department and the business manager for the yearbook. He went on to attend Ohio University for three years before wartime labor shortages brought him back home to Ashland to work at the family company, Hess & Clark, an agricultural pharmaceutical company. He soon became a department supervisor and continued his studies at Ashland College. One day while walking home for lunch, he ran into Virginia “Ginny” Page, a beautiful young woman whose lunchtime walk happened to coincide with his. The two struck up a conversation and before long, Keith was walking her home during lunch and after work every day. Their romance blossomed during those walks in the shade of the beautiful Victorian homes that lined Ashland’s historic Center Street.

In 1942 before the allied invasions of Italy and France, Keith was drafted and assigned to non-combat service due to his poor eyesight. He was training to be a quartermaster at Camp Perry in Ohio. But as American causalities mounted, Keith was transferred to a combat unit. By all accounts, Keith accepted his new post without complaint and proudly went forth to serve his country.

Keith and Ginny.

Ginny and Keith were soon engaged. Their wedding plans were expedited, so the couple could be together as Keith was relocated to Mississippi and later South Carolina for training. Only a few months later, Keith shipped out. It was April, 1944.

Keith joined up with his unit during the Battle of Anzio, a critical phase of the Italian campaign. He fought with the 157th Regiment when they helped break out of a beleaguered beachhead in Anzio, leading to the liberation of Rome, an accomplishment for which they were awarded the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation for their bravery and service. While in Rome, Keith was given a St. Michael medal, which had reportedly been blessed by Pope Pius XII. A symbol of protection and the perseverance of good against evil, Keith sent the medal home, perhaps hoping to confer the protection it offered to his wife and unborn child who were living through wartime rationing.

After the liberation of Rome on June 4th, 1944, the 157th fought their way up the Italian peninsula and into France. On November 8, 1944, they withdrew to a rest area from bitter combat during which they were engaged in a bayonet fight near the German border. That same day, back home Ginny gave birth to a son, Sanford Reed Bowen. Keith would cross the border into Germany briefly in December, only to have his unit called back from offensive operations to take up defensive positions inside France. Germany had launched the Ardennes Offensive further north, known to history as the Battle of the Bulge, and all available forces were needed to prevent a German breakthrough. Around this time, Keith received a letter from his wife containing a black and white photo of his son. According to his family, Keith wrote home and said his glasses had been broken, leaving him even more bleary-eyed than the rest of the battle-worn 157th.

Ginny and son, Sanford “Sandy” Reed Bowen.

As the 157th withdrew into France, the increasingly desperate German command launched Operation Nordwind on New Year’s Eve, 1944, hoping to draw attention and reinforcements away from the Battle of the Bulge. It was this offensive—the last major German offensive on the Western Front—that drew Keith’s unit into battle near Reipertswiller.

The Last Full Measure

And so, as night settled uneasily on his wife and son halfway across the world, Sanford Keith Bowen saw the sun come up on France the morning of January 20th, 1945, and prepared to follow orders. In less than 12 hours, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would give his fourth and final inauguration address back home, which, at 556 words, represented the sort of economy that Americans had learned to adopt during the war. In his address, Roosevelt would say that “We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test.” A test, he said, that if met “successfully and honorably—we shall perform a service of historic importance which men and women and children will honor throughout all time.”

Keith with men from his unit, I Company, 3rd Batallion, 157th Infantry Regiment, in France. Keith is in the middle of the front row, with his hands crossed, wearing glasses.

It’s almost certain that Keith didn’t have honor on his mind that morning. More likely, he thought of his fallen brothers in arms and hoped he’d survive to see Ginny again and to meet his young son. He had written home previously that his dream after the war was to purchase lakefront property, “so the Bowen family has a place to gather.” Perhaps it was this dream, and the black and white photo of his son, that gave him comfort as he made ready to break through the Nazi line.

Whatever Keith had on his mind; he gave his last full measure of devotion that day. He would not go home to Ginny. He would never meet his son. Out of the hundreds of men who had been trapped by the Germans, only two made it out. The others, including Keith, were killed or captured in their struggle to make it back to allied lines.

Keith was one of over 400,000 American soldiers who died in World War II, and one of approximately 79,000 soldiers whose remains were not recovered by the time of the war’s end. He paid the ultimate price along with so many others, but his sacrifice was not in vain. Keith’s 45th “Thunderbird” division went on to push the Nazis back into the heart of Germany, totaling more than 500 days of combat in under two-years at war. Such courageous fighters were the 45th Division that General George Patton later described them as “one of the best, if not the best division in the history of American arms.” Keith’s 3rd battalion went on to liberate Dachau, the first and most notorious of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps.

Because of men like Keith, the war was won, securing freedom for hundreds of millions born and yet unborn.

Why He Fought

Ginny and son Sandy Bowen.

Keith’s sacrifice allowed his wife Ginny to raise their son, Sanford “Sandy” Bowen, in a free country. Sandy grew up and had two children of his own, both daughters, Lisa Bowen Simpson and Lori Bowen Reinbolt. Though Lisa and Lori knew little about their grandfather growing up, they honored his life by the lives they chose to lead. Both followed in his footsteps, attending Ashland College, where they participated in the then newly formed Ashbrook Scholar Program. In this program, they gained a greater appreciation for their freedom by reading America’s Founding documents and coming to understand that our republic is like none other in the world. Ours depends on the people to preserve it—in peacetime as well as wartime.

“The Ashbrook Scholar Program taught me how to think,” said Lori, who was in the program from 1989 to 1993. Lori is currently the President of the Orrville Area Chamber of Commerce in Ohio. She credits her Ashbrook education with helping to prepare her for this role, especially during the hectic early months of the COVID pandemic, when she had to think on her feet and coordinate with multiple levels of government to keep businesses afloat. Outside of her work, Lori says the program “made me more conscientious as a citizen trying to do what I can in my own civic duty.”

Lori’s older sister Lisa, who was an Ashbrook Scholar from 1987 to 1991, says that the program broadened her horizons and gave her opportunities she wouldn’t have otherwise had, such as travelling to Washington, DC, and meeting world figures like George H.W. Bush, himself a World War II veteran. The program also helped her to secure an internship with Ohio Governor Richard Celeste that had a lasting impact on her. Today, Lisa gives back to the rising generations of American citizens as a middle school counselor at The Midview Local Schools in Grafton Ohio.

Lisa and Lori’s Ashbrook education gave them historical perspective for the surprise they experienced when, over 75 years since his death, the Army called to inform them that their grandfather’s remains had been identified, and they wanted to bring him home. Lisa and Lori were his closest living relatives, as their father Sandy died in 2017, a year before their grandmother Ginny in 2018. “They said that the Army is going to pay for everything,” said Lisa. “They wanted our grandfather to have military honors and a burial.”

Sacrifice Not Forgotten

Over the next few months, Lisa and Lori learned more about their grandfather Keith, including the details of the battle that led to his death. Though his body had been declared irrecoverable in 1951, ongoing research by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency on soldiers missing from combat around Reipertswiller was able to establish a possible link between Keith and an unknown soldier buried in Lorraine American Cemetery in France. They exhumed the remains and after extensive testing, confirmed that it was in fact Keith. “The American military never gives up,” said Lori. “I’d always heard no one left behind, but it’s true. They do whatever they can to continue to bring everybody home.”

Keith’s name at Epinal American Cemetary. His name is now marked by a bronze rosette, indicating that his remains have been recovered.

Lori also credits the French citizens who to this day still comb the battlefields of World War II searching for artifacts of the war. Many of their discoveries have helped to connect the dots and identify other unknown American soldiers. One of these citizens reached out to Lori a few years ago after she had memorialized her grandfather in a Memorial Day Facebook post. The Frenchman explained to Lori that he was a volunteer at the Epinal American Cemetery, where Keith Bowen’s name is inscribed among 423 others on the tablets of the missing, and that Keith was one of the American soldiers that he had adopted to remember by name. He sent Lori a picture of flowers he had recently placed by her grandfather’s name. Keith’s sacrifice had not been forgotten, even by those French citizens who he had fought to liberate from Nazi oppression.

In the months since receiving the first call from the Army, Lori and Lisa have connected with family they had never met before, sons and daughters of Keith’s siblings, Leta Topper, Wilma “Billie” Clark, and Paul Bowen, who affectionately call him “Uncle Keith.” These nieces and nephews had known Keith before the war and kept his memory alive after it, remembering him at every family gathering. And now they share those memories with Keith’s own grandchildren. These memories helped to make their grandfather more real to them, adding color to the black-and-white photos among their grandmother’s things. “It’s very humbling,” said Lisa. “I tried putting myself in his position. He was a college student. He was engaged and working at Hess & Clark. He had everything to look forward to, and he had to give it all up to go serve the nation.”

The Army told Lisa and Lori that Keith could be buried in a national cemetery, but they declined. After she knew he wasn’t coming home, Ginny had purchased a memorial headstone for Keith back home. She, as well as her son Sandy, now lay to rest on each side of that headstone. Although Ginny remarried, her family reports that she talked about her hero soldier until her dying day. “He was the absolute love of her life,” said Lisa. “She never ever got over him.”

A Homecoming

Granddaughters Lori (left) and Lisa (right) look on during the dignified transfer of Pfc. Bowen’s remains, which took place on July 15, 2022. Photo by Coffy Creations Photography.

“It really is a homecoming. It’s not a sad occasion,” says Lori, reflecting on her grandfather’s upcoming funeral, which will be held on July 22nd. “It is more of a celebration of bringing him back to his hometown and giving him the honor that he had been denied for all of this time.” The City of Ashland is prepared to welcome one of their own back home with full honors, flags flying down Main Street and down Center Street, where he and Ginny first met. Keith will be interred at Mount Hope Cemetery in Shiloh, where the United States Army Honor Guard will conduct military honors, including the awarding a Purple Heart and Bronze Star to him. Most of Keith’s living relatives, including a 91-year-old niece who was 12 when he left for the war, will be in attendance. He may not have gotten that lakefront property he wrote home about, Lori remarked, but he is gathering the Bowen family together after all these years.

Lisa and Lori both hope the funeral will give the community an opportunity to remember the history of World War II and to honor on the sacrifices of those who came before. “Hopefully it will give parents an opportunity to share with their children and give them an appreciation for the sacrifices of the World War II generation,” Lori said. The only regret, Lisa said, is that their grandmother and father couldn’t be here for this. Ginny and Sandy had both waited their whole lives, hoping that Keith would be found and brought home. Sandy had even begun writing a biography of his father, which he dubbed the story of a “citizen soldier.”

“It’s important to remember stories like my grandfather’s,” Lisa said. “Simple people like my grandfather gave their lives for us to have freedom. His life wasn’t in vain. Because of his sacrifice and the sacrifice of so many others like him, we can enjoy the United States of America as it is today.”

Funeral services will be held on Friday, July 22, 2022 at 1:00 p.m. in the Jack and Deb Miller Chapel at Ashland University, 456 College Avenue, Ashland, Ohio 44805 with Reverend Dr. JoAnn Ford-Watson presiding. Interment will follow in the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Shiloh, Ohio, where the United States Army Honor Guard will conduct military honors with a special commendation for Keith.

Denbow-Gasche Funeral Home, 313 Center Street, Ashland, Ohio 44805, will open their doors to the public, on Thursday, July 21, 2022 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. for the public to pay their respects.

The family will host a visitation on Friday from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the chapel prior to the beginning of the ceremony. For those unable to attend, online condolences may be shared at denbowfh.com