Trafalgar resident, student help remember the life of World War II veteran

Piece by piece, the picture of a young man came together.

Claude Doty was born and lived in Johnson County for his entire life. He went to Center Grove schools in the 1920s and 1930s. He played basketball as a child. After leaving high school, he worked in a Greenwood factory.

Doty was a husband, a father, a son and a brother. In his final role, he was a soldier.

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Emily Lewellen, a Trafalgar resident and teacher at Brown County High School, has spent the past month researching Doty’s life. She and one of her students, senior Chloee Robison, have interviewed family, dug into historical records and studied military history to get this picture of his life.

“It’s special to be able to do something like this — to really get to know these people. We feel like we know Claude, and he’s someone who’s our friend,” Lewellen said.

Doty was killed in World War II on Nov. 20, 1944, after he and three other men in the 29th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army were struck by artillery during an operation the Netherlands. He is still buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery, along with more than 8,000 other U.S. troops killed during the war.

Though his death occurred more than 70 years ago, Doty’s life and memory have been reconstructed by Lewellen and Robison. They were chosen for a project that pieced together a local soldier’s life, with the opportunity to travel to Europe to deliver a eulogy at Doty’s grave.

The opportunity has been one-of-a-kind, not only for the experience of traveling to the Netherlands, but of honoring the life of an American hero.

“It feels like we know him. There was a level of closeness we don’t get with most historical research,” Robison said.

The project to study Doty is being organized by National History Day, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes the teaching and learning of history through a variety of programs for teachers and students. The largest program is the National History Day Contest, which attracts entries from more than 500,000 students around the country.

But the organization also puts together immersive programs for teachers. Past programs have studied World War II in Hawaii, memorializing soldiers killed in the Korean War and traveling to Europe to research and tour World War I cemeteries.

Lewellen was one of 18 teachers chosen for the World War I event, and took the emotional trip to battlefields and burial grounds throughout France and Germany over the summer.

“During that time, I was researching a soldier from Brown County. I went through that whole program, creating a lesson plan and a complete profile over this soldier. Then I wrote a eulogy for him and delivered it over his grave in France,” she said.

When Lewellen received a message from National History Day organizers about a similar program focused on World War II soldiers killed in the Netherlands, she was again interested in taking part. After applying, she was chosen, the only teacher from Indiana.

This project would pair her with one of her students working together on the research, and Lewellen chose Robison to take part. She had been Robison’s teacher in middle and high school, and had helped her with multiple National History Day projects. They participated in the national finals for the competition four times, and Robison is in Lewellen’s Advanced Placement government class this year.

“I just knew she’d be the perfect one to do this,” Lewelle said.

For Robison, the opportunity to do a serious, in-depth research project was too enticing to pass up. A trip to the Netherlands was an added bonus; this will be her first trip to Europe.

“It really allowed history to come alive for me,” Robison said. “I don’t think I’ve ever done this quality of research. I’ve never been the first person to analyze these documents myself, without having everything accessible. We had to do the digging. It wasn’t readily available to us. It kind of makes you feel like a detective.”

The main component of the project is researching a local soldier who took part in operations in the Netherlands. Those primarily consisted of campaigns attempting to invade Germany, including Operation Market Garden in late 1944, and Operation Varsity in spring 1945.

Lewellen and Robison were unable to find any Brown County soldiers who had died in those campaigns. As Lewellen is a Trafalgar resident, and Robison lives just south of the county line, they instead turned their search to Johnson County.

There they found Doty.

Doty was born on Oct. 21, 1919 on a farm in White River Township. He went to Center Grove schools, where he played on various basketball teams throughout his childhood. He married his wife, Mary Louisa, in 1941, and they had a son, Donald, who was 1 year old when Doty was killed.

Prior to his war service, Doty had worked at Noblitt-Sparks Industries, making equipment for the war effort. He was drafted into the Army in 1944.

To do their research, Lewellen and Robison reached out to any potential relatives or people who might know about Doty. They contacted history teachers and alumni of Center Grove seeking out information, which led them to Doty’s son, Donald.

They also connected with Doty’s niece, Gloria Vansickle. She shared family history about his younger life, and what he was interested in.

“She really helped us the most. She gave us a ton of photos, and really broke down the whole family aspect, because it was kind of confusing,” Robison said.

The pair also spoke extensively with Joseph Balkoski, a military historian and author who also served as the archivist for the 29th Infantry Division.

After he was drafted, Doty was sent to Camp Blanding in Florida. The camp specialized in training infantry soldiers to replace those already serving overseas who had been killed. He was in training for 17 weeks, then sent overseas to a replacement depot, a waiting area, Robison said.

Balkoski was able to provide context about what life would have been like for Doty when he arrived in Europe in October 1944 — the living conditions, the environment, how he and other replacement troops approached their foray into the war.

“He explained how it was terrible, and lonely. These men were in a situation where they weren’t part of a unit yet, and didn’t have that camaraderie,” Lewellen said.

During this time, Doty wrote a letter home to his family. Lewellen and Robison were able to see that letter when meeting with Vansickle, reading about Doty’s boredom waiting to be assigned to a unit, and his deep concern for his family.

Eventually, Doty was assigned to the 29th Division, 116th Infantry Regiment Cannon Company. He and his fellow soldiers were in charge of the anti-tank artillery used in the war.

In November of 1944, the Army was focused on pushing into Germany. Their research is not entirely conclusive on how he died, Lewellen said. But it seems that Doty and three other soldiers were transporting artillery by truck when an enemy shell struck their vehicle.

“We think they might have been on a truck, more than likely setting up the gun, and the Germans wanted to take the gun out. And unfortunately, it ended tragically for four men,” Lewellen said.

Through their discussions and research, Lewellen and Robison have created a picture of Doty’s life. They will use that information when they travel to the Netherlands this week. The pair will fly to Amsterdam on Wednesday, and their trip will last five days. During their time there, they’ll visit the Anne Frank House, as well as touring sites associated with Operation Market Garden and Operation Varsity.

Robison will give a eulogy for Doty using the research they’ve uncovered. They also will hopefully get to meet the Dutch resident who tends to Doty’s gravesite; tradition in the Netherlands assigns people to particular soldiers’ graves in the Netherlands American Cemetery to watch over and lay flowers.

“All of the graves have been adopted by Dutch families,” Lewellen said. “Hopefully, we’ll get to meet the man taking care of Claude’s.”