Several months ago, the Bedford County Archives received a call from Belgium. The request was to help find relatives of a Tennessee soldier who was killed in action during World War II and buried in …
Several months ago, the Bedford County Archives received a call from Belgium. The request was to help find relatives of a Tennessee soldier who was killed in action during World War II and buried in an American cemetery in Liège, Belgium.
His name was Edward Bills. And according to his draft papers, he was born in Fayetteville, had blond hair and blue eyes, was 5 foot 10, and wore corrective glasses. He was also a First Lieutenant killed on March 11, 1945 at the age of 30.
According to county archivist Carol Roberts, it is very common for European cemeteries to give significant honors to American soldiers who fought during the war.
“Americans came in to defend their world,” she said.
So, it wasn’t too surprising when Meeus Hubert, who serves as a primary sentinel of memory for Edwards at the Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery in Belgium, got in touch with Roberts looking for relatives.
The first relatives contacted were in Florida, distant cousins to Edward Bills. But when they said they still had family in the Bedford County area, the search was on.
Roberts said they used forensic genealogy to track down close-by relatives. And eventually, Bedford resident Judy Williams was found.
“I remember Cousin Edward,” Judy said while sitting in the archives with Roberts and archives assistant Kathryn Hopkins. “I remember being in the backyard of the old farmhouse and seeing him in his uniform, though I was only three or four years old at the time.”
Judy said she even found a letter from her aunt deciding to keep and bury Edward’s body in Belgium.
This wasn’t uncommon, according to Roberts, who also has a relative buried in France.
One, because the process was practical. And, two, because… “Burial was quick and precise at the time,” said Roberts.
Looking at a picture of Edward’s headstone — a white cross, just one of thousands — Judy reads the engraving.
“Edward Bills / 1 LT. 52 INF DN 9 ARMD DIV / Tennessee, March 11, 1945”
It would have been the information on his dog tag.
In the picture, you can see where Hubert even placed a bouquet on Edward’s grave.
“This is a treasure,” said Judy. “It’s very sentimental.”
Judy recalled the life of Edward — how he was never married but was engaged. How he helped run his family’s business, Star Laundry in Shelbyville, and eventually moved to Memphis before joining the Army. He was the eldest of three brothers: Capt. Lenoir Bills, U.S. Army Air Forces and Verne Bills of North Carolina.
Edward has entered the service on March 11, 1942. He was commissioned at Fort Knox, Ky., in January, 1943.
In an article from the Nashville Banner from April 4, 1945, a headline reads, “Lt. Edward Bills.” The first line reads, “First Lt. Edward Bills, 30, reported missing in action in Germany last week, was killed in action March 11, according to a message received yesterday by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. R. E. Bills of Shelbyville, Tenn., from the War Department.” It had been exactly three years.
These short and to-the-point articles were common across newspapers at the time—letting mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, and wives know who was returning and who was not.
The same Nashville Banner article describes the time up to his death. As a commanding officer of an armored infantry company with the First Army, Edward had served overseas since August 1944. During the German breakthrough in that December, he was cut off at Bastogne, Belgium with the airborne troops but got out safely.
“I remember my father getting a postcard from Edward,” Judy said. Her father’s nickname was “Happy,” and the postcard read: “Dear Uncle Happy, War is hell. Love, Edward.”
So, anytime there’s an opportunity to honor these men, cemeteries like this one on Belgium take the opportunity to do so.
In a letter from sentinel Hubert, it says part of the job is to locate relatives and collect photos of the American soldier “who gave his life for our freedom.”