Staff Sgt. Robert Greenman had just turned 20 years old when he died.
The young man from Washougal was a long way from home — 6,684 miles, give or take — when a bout of dysentery took his life at a prisoner of war camp in 1942. He was one of about 70,000 soldiers from the American and Filipino armies captured by the Imperial Japanese Army and forced to walk more than 60 miles to the camp, a notoriously treacherous hike that historians would later name the Bataan Death March.
Back home, Florence Greenman was working desperately to find out what had happened to her son. He’d been listed as missing in action until January 1944, when the government made public the details of the march. For nearly two years, Florence sent letters to military officials trying to track him down.
She held on to those letters, along with a treasure trove of mementos: a yearbook including Robert’s picture with the 24th Pursuit Group, 21st Pursuit Squadron, V Interceptors Command. A Purple Heart, awarded to her son “for military merit,” according to its inscription. She kept a tiny tin cup with his name embossed on it that he’d used when he was a baby. She kept photographs and newspaper clippings and graduation announcements, holding on to her son through two decades’ worth of keepsakes.
It’s unclear how, exactly, those keepsakes ended up in a box in the Greenmans’ attic. They could have been packed away by Florence, before she died of a heart attack a few years after hearing confirmation of her son’s passing. It could have been Robert’s father, Richard Greenman, who lived as a widower in the house at 602 17th St. for another year before remarrying and moving.
The point is that the box ended up there. It sat quietly, gathering dust on its red block lettering, serving as a time capsule for one local man’s historical military service and a frozen testament to his family’s grief.
It remained there when Richard Greenman sold the house to a woman named Lorraine Hancock in 1949. It remained as Hancock stayed in the home for more than six decades, going about her life, having children and eventually grandchildren. It stayed there until Hancock’s granddaughter, Tracy Deschan, volunteered with her husband, Darren, to help clean out the attic.
It was only then that the couple stumbled across the box, realized the significance of what they’d found, and thought they ought to tell somebody who could do something about it.
Which brings us to the present day. In November, the Clark County Historical Museum received a box of clues that had sat undisturbed for nearly 80 years.
“That’s a huge piece of this whole story: How many times this could have easily been missed,” said James Matlick, collections manager at the Clark County Historical Museum.
The museum put together a small exhibit at the Washougal Cemetery, where the contents of the box and an informational panel will be displayed on Monday for Memorial Day. Florence’s grave will be marked for people who want to pay their respects. Afterwards, the exhibit will travel to the Washougal Community Center, Matlick said.
Clues from a short life
Peri Muhich, a volunteer historian, took on the task of putting the puzzle of Greenman’s life together.
It’s meticulous work, but it’s also affecting. Muhich, over months of intense research, came to feel like she knows the Greenmans.
“I’m very emotionally attached to the story. Because he’s a young kid, and the family didn’t know what happened to him. And then the more I read the stories from the survivors, the more it touched me,” Muhich said, tearing up. “War is bad for anybody, but these were kids, you know?”
Richard worked at the Washougal woolen mill. Florence was a homemaker. The pair married in Portland and Florence gave birth to Robert soon after, and then the family made the move to Washougal sometime in the 1930s. Robert was their only child.
The son graduated from Washougal High School in 1940 and enlisted in the military in early 1941. He shipped off to Hamilton Field, Calif., for basic training and learned how to be an aircraft engine mechanic.