November 10, 2011
HISTORY REVEALED - WWII Veteran Max Pulliam's Story Retold in Long-Lost Letters
In a time when most information is just a mouse click or two away, it was a chance review of an old box of paperwork that allowed the last of his line to learn the fate of one of his ancestors from more than 60 years ago.
Kenneth Pulliam knew that his uncle Max had served during World War II. But neither his parents, nor his grandparents ever talked about what happened to the former Memphis resident.
When his grandparents, George and Lena Pulliam, passed away, many of their belongings went to their daughter, Madalin Pulliam Tippett, who was affectionately known by most family members as "sis".
When Madalin passed away in October last year, family members gathered for a memorial service in Memphis and shared family tales, including some stories about Max.
Still, remaining family members were left with few details about the serviceman who had passed away. That all changed, when Madalin's son, John Tippett, of Lancaster, happened upon a box of his grandmother's items that had been left to his mother.
John quickly recognized the significance of the find, and contacted his cousin, Kenneth, the head of the last remaining Pulliam household, who now resides in Monona, WI. Ken and his son, Zach, of DeForest, WI, carrying on the Pulliam name.
"I couldn't believe what he had found." said Kenneth. "That one box contained uncle Max's story. It was filled with letters he had written to his parents, including the final note prior to his passing."
S. Sgt. Max H. Pulliam, was killed in action on July 21, 1944, the day before his 26th birthday.
Max enlisted in the U.S. army during World War II, joining the cause in 1936, receiving his training at Camp Barkeley, TX, starting March 23, 1942. He earned the rank of staff sergeant upon completion of basic training. His unit was transferred to Fort Dix, NJ, in preparation for departure to the European war theater.
One of his last letters to his parents, was written while he was at sea, making the Atlantic Ocean crossing, to England.
"We are riding along pretty smooth today, so will try and write a few lines," Max said in his letter to George and Lena. "We've had some pretty rough going, but so far I haven't been seasick... I have a pretty good idea as to where we are going, but will have to wait until later to tell you."
Max and H Company of the 359th Infantry were attached to the 90th Infantry Division. What he could not share with his parents in the letter, was the fact that his outfit was going to be part of the D-Day assault of Normandy.
The men of the 90th hit the French beach in June 1944 and fought for fifty-three consecutive days.
"They landed among the first, took the staggering blows of the prepared German might and came back with even more decisive blows of their own to sweep across France and onto Hitler's front porch," said the unit's commanding officer, Major General J. A. Van Fleet in an article prepared by the Army publication Stars and Stripes, produced by the Information and Education Division, Special and Information Services, ETOUSA. The publication is available for viewing on line at lonesentry.com, an internet collection of information from the European Theater of World War II.
Published reports, indicated that Max's 359th Infantry was aboard the troopship Susan B. Anthony, which struck a mine and sank. Miraculously the soldiers were able to wade ashore without a loss. His unit crossed the beach to reinforce the 4th Division.
Max and the 359th remained with the 4th Division until June 10th, when they rejoined the 90th near Picauville, France, joining the 357th and 358th, forming the center of a push through the hedgerow defenses beyond Normandy.
The Stars and Stripes article described the following days after helping take Utah beach - "the units ploughed through the hedgerow defenses of Normandy in the famous dash to the important rail junction of Le Mans, and to form part of the Falaise pocket at Chambois that brought terrible disaster to a frantically fleeing Nazi army."
"Odds had heavily favored the Krauts. Hedgerows were hard-packed, root-filled walls of earth four or five feet high, overgrown with thick hedges and trees. Ditches lined the earthen walls, and the enemy was entrenched in well-prepared positions. The terrain was well known to the occupying Germans."
"Automatic weapons and small arms were in the first row. Mortars held the second. Eighty-eights backed them up. Flanking hedgerows concealed more automatic weapons and mortars dug in under brush and covered with logs and dirt."
"When our troops ventured into a field, machine guns opened deadly crossfire, followed by mortars peppering the area. Those lucky enough to get back to the hedgerows' protection were harassed by 88's zeroed in on the trees above them."
Max made it through 42 days of some of the hardest fighting on the war front, earning some R & R at the rear of the advance.
According to his obituary published in the Memphis Democrat newspaper, during his reprieve, Max penned a letter home, highlighting the fact that he would be one-year older the following day.
Sgt. Pulliam never got to celebrate that birthday.
On August 8, 1944, George and Lena Pulliam received that dreaded post from the War Department. They were informed their son, Max, had been killed in action in France on July 21, 1944.
Family members noted this was the time that Lena started putting all of the previous correspondence from Max as well as incoming mail about him into a box, the same box that was uncovered more than 60 years later.
"My cousin John passed the box on to me in October," Kenneth stated. "It had been sealed away since Max's death, meaning no one had read any of these letters in 67 years."
Amongst the correspondence in the box was an answer to the family's question of what happened to Max. Not until months after his death did the family find out what transpired on that day in France.
In February, 1945, a letter arrived at the Pulliam home in Memphis from T. Sgt. Evans C. Rutledge.
"I do not know how to start this letter, but Max and I were the best of friends," his comrade wrote to Max's parents. ""We had the same job, worked together, lived together, shared our fun and our hardships and I want to say, I never knew a nicer, kinder, or a more considerate man in my life."
Rutledge went on to explain that Max was killed by an artillery attack. The shelling claimed the life of Sgt. Pulliam and two others who were sharing a fox hole.
"They did not suffer a bit. It was instant," Rutledge shared with the parents of his best friend hoping to lessen the blow.
The letter was written to the Pulliams while Rutledge was in England on furrow. He later returned to his unit, which by this time was in Germany.
Kenneth Pulliam, upon uncovering the letter, immediately went to work searching for more information about his uncle and his WWII comrades. He found some information on Rutledge, who is currently listed as residing in Crystal City, TX, at the age of 102, but has been unable to make contact.
The box contained several other letters from Max, as well as a number of notes of condolence from fellow soldiers following his passing.
Max Pulliam was initially buried in the cemetery at Blosville, France, one of six graveyards for servicemen killed in the Normandy Invasion.
Four years later, his remains were returned to the states and in April, 1948 he was finally laid to rest in the Memphis Cemetery.
Sixty-seven years later, Max has been uncovered again, but this time only in the words of letters long ago sealed away by a grief stricken mother.