Figure 1. Owen monument. Maplewood Cemetery, Durham, N.C. Photo: author.

Shirley Lee Owen, Jr. (11 October 1921 – 28 September 1943), whose monument and headstone both reduce his name to S.L. Owen, was, as his monument states, a Captain in the U.S. Army in World War II and died in North Africa. He was named for his dad, who lived until 1965.

I’d like to tell you he won a Medal of Honor: he didn’t. I’d like to tell you he died in a major battle in North Africa: he didn’t. But a little looking around on ancestry dot com does turn up some facts that flesh out a picture.

He graduated from High School in 1938, was 5 foot 10 inches tall, and weighed 184 pounds. He enlisted at Fort Bragg on 03 August 1940. His enlistment record states his civilian occupation was automobile manufacture. A private at enlistment, his serial number was 1574308 and he was ultimately promoted to Captain. He was a protestant.

I cannot find him in a yearbook photo that supposedly contains him, but I see his individual 1938 portrait, in which he looks a little hard, quite serious. You can see it, too, atop this page. He was vice president of his homeroom in junior year, a member of band in sophomore, junior and senior years, a member of the Page Literary Society in sophomore, junior and senior years, and in the Photographers’ Club in senior year.

I like the man in the small cameo photo on his monument. He still looks serious, maybe just a little cocky. But he also, despite his crooked smile, has a sad look in the eyes, I think. I note that his garrison cap bears the insignia of a Lieutenant; this was presumably the last portrait his parents had of him.

Figure 2. Captain Shirley Lee Owen, Jr. Owen monument. Maplewood Cemetery, Durham, N.C. Photo: author.

On his left collar peeking out over his leather jacket appears to me to be the insignia of an officer of the Quartermaster Corps (figure 3). I’m not sure that this insignia was worn on the shirt collar in practice; perhaps it was added by the photographer to signify the area of service.

Figure 3. Quartermaster Corps’ badge. Public domain. Wikipedia.

How did he die? In a small action that got no notice in the large-scale timelines of World War II but which meant everything to the soldiers killed in them? Did he die of illness, or in an accident? Is this monument a cenotaph?

Figure 4. Williams monument (other side of the Owen monument). Maplewood Cemetery, Durham, N.C. Photo: author.

The other side of his stone serves to commemorate the Williams family (figure 4). Why is the name Owen in a recess so deeply cut? It is the size of the Williams name on the other side. Did the Williamses donate one side of their own monument to the grieving parents of a dead soldier? Was the name Williams on that side cut out to bear the name Owen?

For me Shirley Lee Owen, Jr., now serves as a proxy for all of those who died unheralded in the war, thanks to the small ceramic portrait his parents had inserted into his monument catching my eye.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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  1. Very sad. From the photo, it looks like the lieutenant’s bar might be silver indicating a first lieutenant. Hard to tell. Shirley as a boy’s name has really fallen out of favor. I doubt any boy is named that today.


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