By Rich Place
For Bill O’Brien, a bit of curiosity mixed with a passion to research and uncover stories has become a recipe for ensuring the memories and legacies of fallen area servicemen are not forgotten.
O’Brien, an Ashford resident and Ellicottville native, has been involved in a handful of projects in Ashford, Ellicottville and Springville that all share the common theme of remembering those who died in service.
Most recently, O’Brien presented to the Springville Village Board earlier this month to tell them about Private Robert Folts, an Ashford native and Springville student who died in July 1943 while serving in World War II. His name, like others O’Brien has researched in the past, was not included on Springville’s World War II monument in Shuttleworth Park.
Now, thanks to O’Brien, it is.
This isn’t the first time O’Brien’s research has led to the names of fallen servicemen being remembered decades after their respective military service. Last September, he presented a plaque to the Ellicottville American Legion with the names of 16 servicemen from Ellicottville and Great Valley who died during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. That was about seven months after he presented one to Concord American Legion Post 431 with 27 service members’ names from the Springville area. He’s also done similar work with the town of Ashford.
“I just think they should be remembered by more than just their name,” said O’Brien, who is a Vietnam War veteran himself.
His quest to recognize more hometown heroes began when he was admiring the war monuments at Shuttleworth Park, located behind the municipal parking lot on Main Street in Springville.
“I’m from Ellicottville originally so those names aren’t familiar to me and I got to wondering who these people were and what branch of service they were in,” O’Brien said.
He paid a visit to the Lucy Bensley Center, a research library in Springville, and started scanning through old newspapers.
“I was over there for hours going page by page for I don’t know how many days,” he admitted. “I spent a lot of hours over there trying to find out information about them.”
At the time, the World War II monument at Shuttleworth Park had 10 names on it. So as he started to read about those servicemen, he stumbled upon some other names that weren’t on the monument. After more research, he discovered they had a connection to the town of Concord, too.
It seems as though those who were responsible for the World War II monument in 1987 knew they might not have all the names, though, because there was additional space to add more.
“In their wisdom, they knew there had to be more than 10 names so they left space on that monument, which was a really smart thing to do,” O’Brien said. “Today with the internet it’s so much easier to research this stuff.”
That empty space was filled up with six more names after O’Brien researched more about them.
“After I did this in Springville, I was talking to a cousin of mine who grew up in Ellicottville and wondered if anything like that had been done in Ellicottville,” O’Brien said. “I lived there for 19 years before I went into the Army, so I went to Ellicottville and started research down there. I found some more names.”
He made a plaque of the information he could find on those fallen servicemen from the Ellicottville area and donated it to the American Legion there on Sept. 21.
“Then I got to thinking I should do something for the town of Ashford,” he said.
The story of discovering more about Folts — who according to newspaper articles died at the age of 19 from a 24-hour illness of “meningococcic meningitis” at Camp Barkeley Station Hospital in Texas — came while O’Brien’s curiosity was piqued while researching servicemen from the town of Ashford.
While research at the Cattaraugus County Museum in Machias, Folts discovered a box with index cards containing obituaries from servicemen.
“I’m going through this and I come across this Robert Folts,” he said. “This article said he was the first World War II casualty in the town of Ashford.”
Upon more investigation, O’Brien discovered Folts grew up in Ashford but at some point moved to Springville to live with his sister and brother-in-law on Main Street. He attended school in Springville for at least three years, O’Brien said.
It’s another name — with another story behind it — that’s been added to the World War II monument because of the Springville connection. He was approved to proceed with updating the monument by the Springville Village Board earlier this month. The name was added on Tuesday.
And on Sunday, about a week before Memorial Day, O’Brien placed a flag on Folts grave at Maplewood Cemetery as one of the Legion volunteers and Boy Scouts who volunteered their time to decorate the graves of fallen servicemen.
O’Brien is expected to say a few words during Springville’s Memorial Day service on Monday.