The more Clark County Historical Museum employees and volunteers learned about the life of Robert Greenman, the more they became convinced people should know about him, the things he accomplished during his short life and why he should be remembered.
The museum is creating an exhibit to honor the life and military service of Greenman, a Washougal resident and United States Army soldier who died during World War II. The exhibit will be on display at Washougal City Hall, beginning May 28.
“We thought it would be a great opportunity to bring a story to life,” Bradley Richardson, the museum’s executive director, said during the Washougal City Council’s April 12 workshop. “We have Memorial Day coming up in a month or so, and we really thought it would be a good opportunity to highlight this young man and provide a display at the city of Washougal that shows and tells his story.”
Council member David Stuebe, a former United States Marine, approved of the display and expressed an interest in working with museum officials to learn more about Greenman and how the city can honor other fallen heroes.
“We need to share those stories,” Stuebe said. “This is an incredible find. Let’s let other people hear this story.”
The museum’s employees and volunteers first learned of Freeman in 2020, after Tracy Deschand, the granddaughter of longtime Washougal residents Lorraine and Richard Hancock, donated a box her grandparents found in their attic while preparing their house for sale.
The Hancocks moved into the former Greenman home in 1949.
“As we got this box into the museum, we started to realize what a gem it was,” Richardson said. “The amount and type of material that we were able to get was just astounding. As we started to unpack (Greenman’s) story more and more, we realized what a young man he was and what he meant to the city of Washougal.”
Poring over the box’s contents, they discovered Greenman was born in Portland in 1922 to Richard and Florence Greenman, who moved to Washougal in the 1930s. Richard worked as a weaver at the Pendleton Woolen Mills, and Florence was a homemaker. Robert graduated from Washougal High School in 1940, joined the United States Army on Jan. 17, 1941, and was called to serve in World War II, becoming a member of the U.S. Army Air Force’s 24th pursuit group.
“He was an accomplished musician,” said museum volunteer Peri Muhich. “More than once, he was called upon to help boost the morale of the soldiers.”
The 24th pursuit group was wiped out in the Battle of the Philippines in early 1942. Some of the survivors — including Greenman — were captured by the Japanese Imperial Army and forced to participate in the “Bataan Death March,” the transfer of approximately 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war from Bataan to Tarlac, Philippines, a roughly 65-mile trek that was characterized by severe physical abuse and gruesome killings.
Greenman turned 20 on April 14, 1942, five days into the nine-day march. Less than one month later, on May 13, 1942, Greenman died of dysentery in a Japanese prison camp.
“The families were not told what had transpired in the Philippines, so Robert’s parents did not know that their son had died in a prisoner camp,” Muhich said. “Mrs. Greenman spent many hours writing letters to the military and soldiers who might be able to tell her what had become of her son. It was almost two years before she received confirmation from the military of his death. I cannot imagine the heartache she went through.”
After Florence learned of her son’s passing, she created “a very specific collection” of mementos that eventually ended up in a box in the attic, Richardson said during the April 12 meeting.
The box contained the Purple Heart Greenman was awarded by the U.S. Army after sustaining an injury in battle; a certificate from the city of Washougal honoring his accomplishments; a variety of photographs; and several letters, one of which was written to Florence by a fellow soldier.
“I was a friend of your son from the time we left the States until he passed away,” the letter, dated Oct. 2, 1945, states. “I have a deep feeling of him in my memory. He was a great guy. I’ll never forget the second day of the ‘death march.’ I was running a high fever from malaria. Your son was taking a small rest by the side of the road. He had a little bottle of quinine. He called me over and gave me half of it. That may not sound like much, but I believe it saved my life. At the time, it was every man for himself. Your son was one of the few people who weren’t. I met a friend of his at the Gardner Hospital, and he gave me your address, so I thought I would write to you this letter and let you know your son was a real man and a regular guy to the very end.”
The box also held a mystery the museum hasn’t been able to solve.
“There is a photograph of a young lady among the Greenman family photos that we have not been able to identify,” Muhich said. “The photo is in a cardboard photo frame, which indicates that the young lady was a 1941 graduate of Washougal High School. Could she have been the girlfriend Robert left behind? There doesn’t seem to be a yearbook for the class of 1941, so I have not been able to compare the photo to any yearbook pictures. I’m hoping to find someone who might recognize her.”