My dad died almost 16 years ago. I miss him every day. Yet, this year I celebrate Father’s Day with great joy because of the gift another father and his daughter gave me — a long-lost sketch and the memories behind it. The story begins years ago, during the last months of World War II.
My dad, Joe Thornhill, served on a five-man artillery forward observer team with the 78th Infantry Division. The team worked closely with the infantry, lugging equipment to elevated observation posts, usually in exposed positions like church steeples and on hilltops, to call in artillery strikes.
Dad’s forward observer team entered the war during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Shortly after the battle, a new soldier, Lou DeRuccio, joined the team as a casualty replacement. Together Dad, Lou, and the rest of the team fought through the battle for Schmidt and the Roer River dams, then crossed the Rhine at the Remagen bridge. The division moved north as part of the Ruhr encirclement and was fighting there when Germany surrendered in May 1945. With the fighting over, the division was assigned to Berlin occupation duties which included guarding notable German civilians interned at the war’s end. One of these detainees was German artist Franz Stassen.
Although ordered not to fraternize with the internees, the young soldiers considered this order more of a “suggestion” than a directive. And, over time, Lou came to know Stassen well enough to have him draw Lou’s picture on a napkin. Lou showed it to my dad, who decided he would like a sketch of himself as well. Stassen agreed and sketched my dad in exchange for a couple of cigarettes. When my dad received orders to return to the U.S. in December 1945, on the spur of the moment, he gave Lou the picture and said “here, you can remember me.” That’s how Lou ended up with my dad’s sketch.
Lou came home in 1946, bringing the sketch with him. Over the years, Lou and my dad both married, had families and moved on with their lives. My dad told our family about the drawing and some of the antics in Berlin but forgot Lou had the sketch. So, we knew it had once existed, and had heard a vague story associated with it — but nothing more.
Dad spoke fondly of Lou over the years, but sadly their paths never crossed again, and my dad passed away in 2007.
That’s where matters rested until November 2022. It turns out Lou remembered the sketch and wanted to return it but had misplaced it decades ago. His son-in-law, aware of Lou’s desire, helped with the search and eventually found it in a folder in the back of a file cabinet. Then, Lou turned to his daughter Diane to find someone related to my dad in order to send it ‘home.’ Diane began an internet search and eventually found my sister. Gentle queries followed until identities were confirmed. Diane, fulfilling her father’s request, sent the sketch to my sister. Diane also questioned Lou on our behalf about those momentous events so many years ago. That’s how we learned, after all this time, a little more about dad.
My dad would talk about the war, but never in much detail. From Lou, we learned what type of soldier, and, more importantly, man, he was under fire. Lou told us some stories and summed it up, noting “he was very brave. He did not get shaken when shelled like some of the others. He was steady. And good to be with.” Lou, in short, saw in my dad the same qualities that my brothers, sister and I did. Because of Lou’s quest and his daughter’s persistence, 77 years later, for a brief moment, my dad was once again 22 years old, with a full life ahead of him. A fine soldier, friend, husband, and father — my dad will always be my hero.
Happy Father’s Day to Joe and Lou, two ordinary yet remarkable young soldiers who grew into loving, extraordinary fathers.
Paula Thornhill is a retired Air Force brigadier general, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) and author of Demystifying the American Military.
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