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World War II: Lewis R. Billman

Tech 5 Billman, Company B, 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion

The story of Lewis Billman was never fully written.

Listed as a WWII casualty in the paper as a Massillon resident, Tech 5 Lewis R. Billman was killed in France during Operation Dragoon. The family thought he was shot down as he parachuted on D-Day. They were unsure where he was laid to rest. His wife, Edna Gantz Billman, had come to the house shortly after he was killed and then not seen again. What happened to Billman? How was he killed and where was he buried? What did he look like?

Archivist Mandy Altimus Stahl compiled the amazing story of Billman's service and death, with help from researchers, family members, WWII soldier memoirs, books, and websites. Many of his photographs and artifacts are now preserved in the permanent collection of the Massillon Museum because of an amazing series of events. Read more below.

A Trip to France


MassMu delegation at Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial in Draguignan, France, 2013. Left to right: Joshua Coon, Judy and Charles Paquelet, Alexandra Nicholis Coon, Trisha Merchant

In 2013, Museum representatives—Alexandra Nicholis Coon, Museum Executive Director, and her husband, Joshua Coon; Trisha Merchant; and Dr. Charles and Judith Paquelet—traveled to France to participate in the Bishop Massillon symposium, marking the 350th anniversary of the birth of Jean Baptiste Massillon for whom Massillon was named.

While in France, they visited the Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial in Draguignan to honor the four Stark County soldiers buried there. They placed a wreath at Massillonian Lewis Billman’s grave and small American and French flags at each of the other Stark County gravesites. The flags were brought home to present to the families of the soldiers if they can be located.

The soldiers were: Staff Sgt. George F. Judy (Purple Heart and Silver Star), who prior to the war worked at the Timken Roller Bearing Co; Private 1st Class Delmar W. Blyer, a Canton resident; Tech. Grade 5 Lewis R. Billman, a former Massillon resident who received a Purple Heart; and Pvt. William W. Williamson (Purple Heart) of Stark County.

This commemoration was the idea of Judy Paquelet, who unfortunately passed away in 2019. Click here to read the article "Massillon woman left mark on museum, community" about the life of Judy Paquelet from the Massillon Independent. (April 16, 2019)

Bronze Star Discovery & Donation


 

In August of 2018, after acquiring a box of military medals from an auction and finding an article about the Museum visit to France, donor Dr. Joseph M. Crews of Texas presented the Lewis Billman bronze star to the Massillon Museum’s permanent collection.

“We are so humbled that Dr. Joseph Crews would choose our Museum to preserve this medal, said Massillon Museum Archivist Mandy Altimus Stahl. "We are dedicated to preserving and sharing stories of veterans from this area, and we are proud to commemorate Lewis Billman’s sacrifice.”

Click here to read the article "Museum recognizes centennial of WWI Armistice" about the Bronze Star donation from the Massillon Independent. (November 9, 2018)

Tech 5 Lewis R. Billman’s Engraved Bronze Star
c. 1944
Gilding metal and brass

The Bronze Star Medal was authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 to award soldiers for heroic or meritorious service, and to also honor any soldier with a Combat Infantry Badge. Lewis R. Billman likely received this honor for the combat related to Operation Dragoon in August 1944.

Gift of Dr. Joseph M. Crews (2018.28)
Collection of the Massillon Museum

Personal Artifacts & A Purple Heart


 

One year after the donation of the Bronze Star, in August of 2019, the Carson Family purchased a storage locker at auction. Inside was a footlocker full of photographs, certificates, and a Purple Heart belonging to Lewis Billman. DJ and Jessica Carson researched the name engraved and discovered an article about the Bronze Star donation to the Massillon Museum in 2018. They knew that Billman's artifacts should be donated there to join the Bronze Star in the permanent collection.

Tech 5 Lewis R. Billman’s Engraved Presentation Purple Heart
c. 1944
Gilding metal and brass

Billman was awarded the Purple Heart medal posthumously for injuries that occurred on August 21, 1944, that led to his death.  Lewis R. Billman’s name is engraved on the reverse side, which means this is a Presentation Purple Heart, signifying that he was killed in action.

Originally the Badge of Military Merit, George Washington established the award in 1782. The Purple Heart was designated in 1942 to signify wounds received in service.

Gift of the Carson Family (2019.32.1)
Collection of the Massillon Museum

Click here to read the article "WWII Army soldier Lewis R. Billman’s belongings uncovered, donated" from the Massillon Independent. (September 3, 2019)

Archivist Mandy Altimus Stahl wanted one thing from these donations: for the Billman family to reach out and be able to see the artifacts and know the full story. And 9 of them reached out just after the article appeared in the newspaper in September 2019.

Click here to read the article "And now the rest of the Billman story" from the Massillon Independent. (September 6, 2019)

 

The Billman Family


Clara Billman Lidderdale (sister of Lewis Billman) and Archivist Mandy Altimus Stahl
September 5, 2019


After Billman's photograph appeared in this article, family members began calling the Museum to speak with Archivist Mandy Altimus Stahl. The family never knew the full story of Billman's service or death, or even where he was buried. Stahl knew she had to exhibit these artifacts and tell Billman's story.

When people visit the graves of Americans at a cemetery in Europe, the cemetery staff place American flags to denote the grave. When the visitors leave, they take the flags with them. Flags from each of the Stark County veterans at the Rhone Cemetery were collected and saved by the Massillon Museum staff. As they were in the ground, a bit of French soil remains on these flags, so that family can save a piece of their loved one's grave. With no family to contact, the flags were stored for 6 years. Lewis Billman's sister, Clara Billman Lidderdale, was the first to reach out to the Museum. Archivist Altimus Stahl proudly presented her with the flags from the Rhone Cemetery.

 

Lewis R. Billman exhibit


Clara Billman Lidderdale and Norma Billman Cole (sisters of Lewis Billman) November 11, 2019

For Veteran's Day 2019, Archivist Mandy Altimus Stahl organized an exhibit of Lewis Billman's artifacts. In a private reception, the Museum hosted Billman relatives, the Carson Family (donated the photographs and Purple Heart), and Dr. Charles Paquelet (who organized the trip to France in 2013).

Edna R. Gantz Billman
c. 1940

Lewis's wife, Edna Billman, moved to Lorain, Ohio, and married John Allison after Billman’s death.  She had one daughter, Sharon Allison Lackey.  She later married Harold Weily. Edna Weily passed away in April 2013 at the age of 91.

Gift of the Carson Family (2019.32.9)
Collection of the Massillon Museum

 

 

Operation Dragoon

Lewis R. Billman in uniform, with parachute pins and insignia, c. 1944
Gift of the Carson Family (2019.32.4)
Collection of the Massillon Museum

551st Parachute Infantry Battalion jumps into Southern France near La Motte
August 15, 1944
Photograph by the Signal Corps
Courtesy the Library of Congress


Map of Operation Dragoon, August 1944
c. 2018

The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB) jumped into Southern France near La Motte on August 15, 1944 (indicated by green).  The group fought their way northeast toward Cannes. On August 21, 1944, Company B of the 551st PIB was caught in heavy shelling by the German 88-280mm guns along the coast that had not been taken out.  Tech 5 Lewis R. Billman of Company B and seven of his fellow soldiers were killed here near Hill 105, outside Cannes (indicated by red).

Map adapted from original by Gene Thorp
Courtesy European Center of Military History

Tech 5 Lewis R. Billman's grave decorated for the 75th Anniversary of Operation Dragoon
August 2019

Lewis R. Billman is certainly not forgotten, even though he is buried in France. His grave is regularly decorated by the 551st Parachute Infantry Association.

Courtesy 551st Parachute Infantry Association

 

View more photographs related to Lewis Billman's service, life, and burial below.

WWII: Lewis R. Billman

 

 

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