Family Learns Details Of Veteran's WWII Experience

ASHLAND, Ky. (AP) - Raymond Cox didn't like to talk about his experiences in World War II and rarely ever did so. The memories were far too painful, his wife and children say.

"We just got bits and pieces (of his story) when we were growing up," said his daughter, Ethel Stafford of Ironton, Ohio.

Now, more than 60 years after the events happened and 12 years after his death, Cox's full story is finally coming to light.

On Friday, Col. Patrick Dolan, state chaplain of the Kentucky National Guard, presented Cox's wife, Eloise, with the Prisoner of War Medal on behalf of her late husband.

The POW Medal was authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. It may be awarded to anyone who was a POW after April 5, 1917, the date the U.S. entered World War I.

Dolan presented the medal during a brief ceremony at JSF headquarters that, in addition to Eloise Cox, was attended by the couple's daughters, Ethel Stafford and Nancy Varney, both of Ironton, and son, Raymond Jr., who lives near Cleveland.

"Daddy would've loved this. He would've been so happy," Stafford said.

Cox's story is a tale of heroism, narrow escapes, near-death experiences and what a military chaplain on Friday called "the bond of humanity" that flourishes even during the darkest of times.

Cox, a native of Pike County who joined the Army in 1942 and who lived the final years of his life in Russell, was part of Operation Torch, the 1942 Allied invasion of Africa. He, along with hundreds of other American troops, were captured at the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia when, because of faulty intelligence, they found themselves face-to-face with two armored divisions commanded by Nazi Gen. Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox."

Cox and his comrades eventually were placed in prisoner-of-war camps in Italy, where they subsisted on rations of a few grams of bread a day. After six months in captivity, Cox and 2,200 other POWs, aided by Yugoslavian rebels, escaped and scattered throughout the Italian countryside trying to avoid capture.

Cox, malnourished and emaciated, eventually befriended an Italian farmer by the name of Primo Mecossi. Mecossi and his family sheltered the young soldier, nourished him back to health and hid him from the Nazi and Facist troops that frequently patrolled the area, at great peril to themselves.

Cox stayed with the Mecossis for nine months. Eventually, Primo Mecossi loaned him a bicycle, which he used to make his way to the Allied troops and freedom.

Cox returned to the U.S. in August 1944 after four months of debriefing in North Africa. When he arrived home, "He had to convince several friends that he was not the ghost of a soldier they believed to be dead," said Dr. James Gifford, CEO and senior editor of the Jesse Stuart Foundation.

Cox continued to serve in the military and also went back to working in the coal mines, which he began doing at the age of 16. He died of lung cancer in October 1994.

About a year ago, his widow, Eloise Cox, who still lives in Russell, asked Gifford to help her and her family piece together what happened to Raymond Cox during World War II. Gifford gladly accepted the challenge.

"When we honor one soldier," he said, "we honor them all."

Gifford sought the assistance of John Trowbridge, command historian for the Kentucky National Guard. In addition to assisting with the research, Trowbridge arranged for Raymond Cox to receive a posthumous honor.

According to Gifford, Raymond Cox and Primo Mecossi corresponded for several years after the war, but eventually lost touch with one another. Today, he said, members of Cox's family have been in contact with Mecossi's daughter, Giannina Mecossi Rossi, who's now 76 years old, but can still remember sitting on Cox's lap as a youngster, he said.

Rossi even sent the family a picture of Raymond Cox dressed in civilian clothes, Stafford said.

There may be more of Raymond Cox's story to come. Trowbridge said he was still trying to obtain Cox's debriefing records, which he said would "help verify a lot of (Cox's) memories" and may contain other parts of the story yet to be told.

Dolan, a Catholic priest, said the remarkable wartime friendship between Cox and Mecossi was an inspiring example of "the bond of humanity that transcends a dictatorial regime.

"No matter how bad things get, there's a humanness that comes through loud and clear," he said.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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