Private Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr. (1916–1944)

Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr. (Courtesy of the Standard-Speaker)
Home StateCivilian Occupation
PennsylvaniaRailroad brakeman
BranchService Number
U.S. Army Air Forces33140446
TheaterUnit
MediterraneanCompany “A,” 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion
AwardsCampaigns/Battles
Bronze Star Medal, Purple HeartAlgeria-French Morocco, Tunisia, Naples-Foggia, Anzio campaigns

Author’s note: Delaware’s World War II Fallen occasionally highlights men and women without a direct connection to the First State. I encountered the heartbreaking story of Private Mulreaney’s sacrifice during background research on the Anzio campaign and U.S. Army medicine during the war. I was inspired then to research and tell his full story, not just the fateful last moments of his life.

A young Robert Mulreaney (Courtesy of Robert P. Mulreaney, III)

Early Life & Family

Robert Patrick Mulreaney, Jr. was born in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, on February 7, 1916. He was the eldest son of Robert Patrick Mulreaney, Sr. (a conductor and later yardmaster for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, 1877–1956) and Mary Bridget Mulreaney (née Shovlin, 1890–1982). Based on census records and lists of survivors in obituaries, it appears that he had six younger brothers and three younger sisters. Two of his brothers died as young children.

During Robert Mulreaney’s youth, his family moved several times, but remained in Hazleton. The Mulreaney family was recorded on the census on January 12, 1920, living at 260 Poplar Street and at 94 Pine Street on the next census, taken on April 17, 1930.

The Mulreaney brothers circa 1938. Standing from left to right: Robert, brother-in-law Bernie McGeehan (their sister Mary’s husband), John. Kneeling from left to right: Eugene and Henry (Courtesy of Robert Mulreaney, III)

A March 1, 1944, article about Robert and one of his brothers printed in The Plain Speaker stated:

          Robert, who like John, was a former St. Gabriel’s High School football and basketball star, was born in Hazleton and spent all his life here.  He was a member of St. Gabriel’s church, the parish Holy Name Society and the Knights of Columbus and was graduated from St. Gabriel’s high school in 1933. […] Along with his football and basketball activities, he was a well known baseball player.”

The Mulreaney family was living at 163 South Wyoming Street in Hazleton as of April 13, 1940. By that time, Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr. was working as a railroad brakeman for the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

When he registered for the draft on October 16, 1940, the registrar described Mulreaney as standing about five feet, nine inches tall and weighing 154 lbs., with brown hair and hazel eyes.


Training & Overseas Service

Four of the Mulreaney brothers served in the military during World War II. Robert, John, and Eugene served with the U.S. Army in the Mediterranean Theater, while Henry served in the Pacific with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr. (center) with two unidentified men during his stateside service in 1942 (Courtesy of Robert P. Mulreaney, III)

After he was drafted, Robert Mulreaney joined the U.S. Army at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, on February 12, 1942. A July 12, 1948, article in The Plain Speaker stated that he “trained at Fort Belvoir, Va.; Pass Christian, Texas [sic], and Fort Dix, N. J., before going to England in June, 1942.”

Mulreaney’s future unit, the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion, had been activated at Jackson Army Air Base, Mississippi, on January 21, 1942, and moved to Pass Christian around April 1, 1942. Presumably, after finishing basic training, Private Mulreaney joined the unit there, since most the unit’s enlisted personnel transferred in from Fort Leonard Wood and Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, or Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Indeed, a photograph in the Mulreaney family collection places him at Pass Christian.

Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr. in Mississippi, with the Pine Hills Hotel in the background (Courtesy of Robert P. Mulreaney, III)

Engineer aviation battalions were primarily responsible for building and maintaining airfields, although they sometimes performed more general construction and roadwork. At Pass Christian, the men divided their time between training and construction and maintenance work at several locations, including the nearby bombing range.

Around May 19, 1942, the 815th boarded a train, arriving two days later at Fort Dix, New Jersey. On June 3, 1942, the unit moved to the New York Port of Embarkation to board the ocean liner-turned troop transport R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth. According to the unit history, the men boarded the ship at 0500 hours on the morning of June 4, 1942. The ship set sail at 1100 hours that same day and arrived at Gourock, Scotland, on June 9, 1942.

The 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion built runways, taxiways, roads, and buildings at R.A.F. Harrington during the summer of 1942. In late October 1942, the unit shipped out from England aboard several different vessels to participate in the invasion of French North Africa, Operation Torch.

The various detachments of the unit arrived in Algeria between November 8–12, 1942, although much of their heavy equipment sank with a British steamship, S.S. Browning, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Oran on November 12, 1942. Following a brief period working at Tafaraoui Aerodrome, most of the battalion moved to the airfield at La Sénia, near Oran, on January 2, 1943. It wasn’t until January 10, 1943, that replacement equipment arrived. During subsequent months, the battalion built several airfields in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

A Spitfire comes in for a landing at an airfield on Corsica as a member of the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion looks on (Official U.S. Army Air Forces photo, National Archives via Fold3)
Spread from a microfilmed copy of a 1945 photo book of photos commemorating the 3rd anniversary of the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion which shows the unit hard at work at various airfields (Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency)

Following the end of the Tunisian campaign, the 815th did some construction projects and training for the invasion of Sicily scheduled to begin on July 9, 1943. Part of the battalion arrived in Sicily in late July 1943, while the rest arrived in early August. Company “A”—which Private Mulreaney was a member of by January 1944 if not before—shipped out from Bizerte, Tunisia, on August 7, 1943, and arrived at Licata, Sicily, on August 9, 1943. After working on several airfields there, the unit embarked again at Milazzo, Sicily, on September 25, 1943, to ship out for mainland Italy. Company “A” arrived in the vicinity of Salerno on September 27, 1943.

Eugene Mulreaney (Courtesy of Robert P. Mulreaney, III)

During the fall of 1943, the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion performed maintenance or construction work at 14 different airfields in Italy. Robert Mulreaney’s younger brother, Eugene, joined the battalion sometime between September 1943 and January 1944. Eugene had been drafted about a year after Robert, entering the U.S. Army on March 2, 1943, and going overseas on August 21, 1943. Interestingly, by early 1944, Eugene was a private 1st class, outranking his older brother despite having less time in the service.

On November 25, 1943, tragedy struck the family. Robert’s younger brother, Staff Sergeant John M. Mulreaney (1918–1943), a soldier in Service Company, 756th Tank Battalion, was killed when the jeep he was traveling in struck a land mine, near the Volturno River in the north of the Province of Caserta, Italy.

Royal Air Force Spitfires of the No. 92 Squadron, almost certainly taken at Marcianise Airfield in early 1944 (Courtesy of the Weiner family)

As of December 25, 1943, Company “A” was stationed at Marcianise Airfield, near Caserta, Italy. Although their work was hampered by constant rain, the 815th Engineer Battalion war diary reported that on Christmas Day 1943,

The weather cleared and was quite warm and nice for this day [our] second Christmas overseas.  Everyone enjoyed a day off in celebration of the event and most everyone got the Christmas spirit to varying degrees.  A very good turkey dinner was served at all the companies and many of the men went to town on passes afterward.


Disaster at Anzio

1st Lieutenant Irving B. Pierce, Jr. wrote in the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion war diary for January 10, 1944:

Rumor has it that there is to be a big push up front soon, accompanied by a sea borne landing in which we will take part.  If the columns of tanks that have been moving past our camp this evening are any indication it shouldn’t be very long.

Indeed, Allied forces began landing at Anzio on January 22, 1944. Though intended to bypass German defensive lines to the south, the enemy quickly moved to contain the Allied invasion force. The battalion war diary recorded that on January 24, 1944, “A Company was alerted to move tomorrow by LST [Landing Ship, Tank] to Anzio.” They began loading their ship the following afternoon.

According to an 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion history, Company “A,” with a detachment from Headquarters and Service Company, plus a few medical personnel, shipped out aboard an L.S.T. on January 26, 1944. The two Mulreaney brothers—Private Robert Mulreaney and Private 1st Class Eugene Mulreaney—must have been among them. They arrived at Anzio on January 27, 1944, and moved to the airfield at nearby Nettuno. The battalion war diary reported that on January 28, 1944, that “A Company began the work of reconditioning the field at Nettuno today consisting of lengthening, grading, and planking.”

Eugene Mulreaney (right) with three unidentified men at the Anzio beachhead in 1944 (Courtesy of Robert P. Mulreaney, III)
These men at the Anzio beachhead are likely members of the Mulreaney brothers’ unit. The original caption stated that “playing cards is practically the only form of recreation available to members of an aviation engineers outfit charged with the job of maintaining an airfield on the beachhead south of Rome.” (Official U.S. Army Air Forces photo, National Archives)

Up until this point, the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion had been well behind the lines, in danger only from the occasional air raid. At the Anzio beachhead, however, German aircraft and artillery constantly pounded not only the front lines but also the rear echelon areas. Six men were wounded during January 27–30, 1944, and one man killed during an air raid on Nettuno on January 29, 1944.

An unidentified member of the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion working on the airfield at Nettuno on February 5, 1944, the same day that Private 1st Class Eugene Mulreaney was wounded. (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-188870-S, National Archives)

On the afternoon of February 5, 1944, the airfield was struck by German artillery fire. The 815th lost another man killed and 11 wounded, one of whom died two days later. Technician 4th Grade L. E. Kennan was quoted in the regimental history:

Today will go down as one of the most disastrous days in battalion history. […] The men had done the best they could to work under conditions that [weren’t] healthy.  Shells were flying over the runway and landing in the water all afternoon.  Everyone was jumpy.  Then at 1600 hours it happened. A shell [screamed] down and burst fully four or five feet from the ground and scattered shrapnel into a group of our men.

Eugene Mulreaney was caught in the open during the bombardment. His son recalled: “He told me that the last thing he recalled was running on the beach looking for cover. He saw a large truck and wanted to seek cover under the truck and then he remembered a huge white flash.”

Eugene regained consciousness at the 95th Evacuation Hospital. In addition to his head injury, the exploding artillery shell badly injured his foot.

On February 7, 1944, Robert Mulreaney’s birthday, he obtained permission from his commanding officer to visit Eugene in the hospital. In their book And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II, Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee wrote what happened next:

A group of German fighter-bombers had made a raid on the harbor and airfield that afternoon. […] According to eyewitnesses among hospital personnel who were watching from the ground, a British Spitfire pursued a single German fighter-bomber over the hospital area. In an effort to gain altitude and speed, the German pilot jettisoned his remaining load of five antipersonnel bombs.

The 95th Evacuation Hospital. Although probably taken in France, this photo illustrates the same kind of tents used at Anzio (Courtesy of the family of Lieutenant Othelia Rosten)

Against sturdy structures, tanks, or bunkers, the antipersonnel bombs would have done little or no damage. Unfortunately, the 95th Evacuation Hospital was housed in tents which provided no protection from the blizzard of bomb fragments which followed. That the attack had been an accident was of little comfort.

28 men and women were killed in the bombing: 22 members of the hospital staff, four patients, and two visitors (both from the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion). Robert dove across Eugene’s hospital bed as the bombs rained down on the 95th Evac, shielding his younger brother with his own body. Robert was struck by bomb fragments in his back, buttock, and hip and killed.

March 1, 1944, article in The Plain Speaker (Courtesy of Robert P. Mulreaney, III and the Standard-Speaker)

Aftermath & Recognition

Thanks to his brother’s sacrifice, Eugene Mulreaney (1924–2009) did not sustain any additional wounds in the bombing. He arrived back in the United States on May 7, 1944, and was discharged from the U.S. Army at Valley Forge General Hospital on June 2, 1945. He married Virginia May Nussbaum (1926–2007) on December 13, 1946. The couple raised three daughters and a son.

Despite his recovery from his physical wounds, the psychological toll on Eugene was immense. His son, Robert P. Mulreaney, III, recalled that Eugene suffered nightmares about the bombing for the rest of his life. The younger Robert was a teenager before his father told him how his namesake died. Only after drinking a few beers was Eugene able to tell of that horrible moment after the explosion when he saw his brother’s eyes wide open and believed that he was alive, only to realize that he was not.

After the war, Private Mulreaney’s body was returned to the United States and buried at St. Gabriel’s Cemetery in Hazleton on July 26, 1948.

Private Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr.’s sacrifice moved the survivors of the 95th Evacuation Hospital and many others in the years that followed. 50 years after Mulreaney’s death, in a speech delivered at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy on June 3, 1994, President Bill Clinton delivered remarks which stated in part:

The late General Ernest Harmon, Commander of the 1st Armored Division, put it well when he said, “All of us were in the same boat. We were there to stay or die. I have never seen anything like it in the two world wars of my experience, a confidence in unity, an unselfish willingness to help one another.” That spirit is known as brotherhood, and that is why the statue behind us is called “Brothers in Arms.”

Our duty is to preserve the memory of that spirit, memories like that of Private Robert Mulreany. [sic] On February 7, 1944, his brother, Private [sic] Eugene Mulreany, lay wounded in the field hospital. [sic] Robert was visiting when they heard the sound of planes overhead. As the bombs fell, Robert threw his body on top of his wounded brother. He saved his brother’s life, even as he gave his own.

Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr.’s Bronze Star Medal citation (Courtesy of Robert Mulreaney, III)

In his later years, Bernard Mulreaney (1932–2006), Robert’s youngest brother, pushed for Robert to be decorated for his sacrifice. In a ceremony on July 18, 2005, Private Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr. was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his actions of February 7, 1944. Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Nicholson presented the medal to Eugene.


Notes

Date of Birth

Most records give Robert Mulreaney, Jr.’s date of birth as February 7, 1916. I believe that is accurate and indeed, the census recorded him as being three years, 11 months of age as of January 12, 1920. Curiously, his Pennsylvania veteran’s burial card gave his date of birth as February 7, 1917. His headstone application had that same date but was corrected to 1916.

Brothers

The reason I am not certain of the number of brothers is that Mary Mulreaney’s obituary listed seven sons, of whom four predeceased her: Robert, John, Daniel, and Edward. I have not been able to account for Edward in census records. There was a death certificate for a Baby Mulreaney who survived only 1½ hours after birth on August 27, 1929, suggesting that he might be Edward.

Find a Grave listed Daniel Joseph Mulreaney (1921–1925), would seem to explain one of the discrepancies. However, Eugene A. Mulreaney’s obituary stated he was predeceased by six brothers, with Daniel and Joseph listed as separate people, but no Edward mentioned.

Brother’s Name

John Mulreaney’s records indicate that served in the military under the last name Mulraney. That spelling also sometimes appeared in newspaper articles about the family.

Departure Overseas

According to an application for WWII compensation filled out by his parents in January 1950, Robert went overseas on June 3, 1943. It seemed like a remarkable coincidence that Mulreaney went overseas almost exactly one year to the day that his unit did. I suspect that they meant to write June 3, 1942. Indeed, his burial card stated he served 20 months overseas prior to his death, and the July 12, 1948, article in The Plain Speaker stated that he went “to England in June, 1942.”

Unit Movements

Lieutenant Colonel George Kumpe wrote that the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion’s dates of movements prior to the fall of 1942 are approximate because they had to be reconstructed after most unit records were lost along with the ship carrying its heavy equipment on November 12, 1942.

Brother in Unit

The date Private 1st Class Eugene Mulreaney joined the unit is unclear, but Technician 4th Grade Kennan wrote around February 7, 1944, that he “joined our outfit only a short time back.”

815th Engineer Aviation Battalion War Diary

1st Lieutenant Irving B. Pierce, Jr.’s prose was remarkably casual for official records. In addition to recounting rumors, in a January 28, 1944, entry, he complained:

Our period of relaxation ended abruptly before it could hardly get started.  Orders were issued to build a tent camp for the Air Corps.  Now we’ve done everything for them except blow their noses including digging latrines.  Considering the condition of our equipment if someone doesn’t call a halt soon to give us a chance to fix it up right instead of so much patch work it will all fall apart on the job some day.

Spitfire

The Spitfire was a British plane. However, a few American units (including the 307th Fighter Squadron, which was based at Nettuno at the time of the incident) also operated it. To the best of my knowledge, no unit records for either British or American units can be matched with certainty to the aerial engagement that precipitated the bombing of the hospital on February 7, 1944. Perhaps the best match is that on the afternoon in question, a Royal Air Force No. 601 Squadron Spitfire reportedly shot down an FW 190 which had been attacking ships off the coast of Nettuno. Later that afternoon, No. 93 Squadron also engaged some Bf 109s and Fw 190s that were attacking ships offshore from the beachhead.

Grade

Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr.’s Bronze Star Medal citation gave his grade as private 1st class. All World War II era accounts that I have discovered so far (casualty list, newspaper articles, an excerpt from a report of the bombing of the 95th Evacuation hospital, and the unit war diary) gave his grade as private. For that reason, I have used that grade in the article, though I am unable to explain the discrepancy.


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Private Robert P. Mulreaney, Jr.’s nephew, Robert P. Mulreaney, III, for contributing information as well as several of the photos used in this article. Thanks also go out to Kevin Charles, for identifying the unit in the Spitfire photo above and for looking into the mystery of which unit was involved in the air combat that resulted in the tragedy at the 95th Evacuation Hospital. Finally, thanks to the Standard-Speaker for permission to use photos originally published in its predecessor, The Plain Speaker, and to the families of Dr. Irving Weiner and nurse Othelia Rosten for the use of their photos.


Bibliography

Adams, Bonnie. “Long-ago heroics saluted.” Times-Leader, July 19, 2005. Pg. 1A and 10A. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/67535134/robert-mulreaney-bronze-star-pg-1/, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/67535238/robert-mulreaney-bronze-star-pg-2/

“Additional Bodies Of War Dead Arrive In New York On U.S. Army Transport: Remains Of Mulreaney Brothers Here.” The Plain Speaker, July 12, 1948. Pg. 9. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/67539515/mulreaney-brothers-return/

Allabaugh, Denise. “WWII, Korean veterans honored at VA ceremony.” The Citizens’ Voice, July 19, 2005. Pg. 5. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/67535437/mulreaney-bsm-second-article/

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Ballard, Allen G. “History of the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion (1 January 1944 – 31 March 1944.”)

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“Eugene Aloysius Mulreaney.” Standard-Speaker, April 11, 2009. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/67534439/eugene-a-mulreaney-obituary/

“History of the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion (17 August 1943 – 31 December 1943).” Reel A0247. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

“History of the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion (1 January 1944 – 31 March 1944).” Reel A0247. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

“History of the 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion (21 January 1942 – 17 August 1943).” Reel A0247. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

Kumpe, George. “Operational History of 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion.” October 1, 1943. Reel A0247. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, Marriages 1946–1947. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61381/images/TH-1951-21457-44062-63

“Mary Mulraney, Gold Star Mother, dies at age of 92.” Hazleton Standard-Speaker, October 15, 1982. Pg. 2. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/67500763/mary-mulraney/

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Mulreaney, Robert P., III. Phone interview on January 12, 2021, and email correspondence on January 13, 2021.

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Pierce, Irving B., Jr. “War Diary, 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion Month of December 1943.” Reel A0247. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

Pierce, Irving B., Jr. “War Diary, 815th Engineer Aviation Battalion Month of January 1944.” Reel A0247. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

“Robert P. Mulreaney Jr.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/124013134/robert-p.-mulreaney

“Second Mulraney Boy Killed In Italy: Third One Wounded.” The Plain Speaker, March 1, 1944. Pg. 12. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/67367149/private-robert-mulreaney-jr/

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4384843_00165

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World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=GP23&tf=F&sc=24994,24995,24996,24998,24997,24993,24981,24983&bc=,sl,fd&txt_24994=33140446&op_24994=0&nfo_24994=V,8,1900&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=3627408

WWII Draft Registration Cards for Pennsylvania, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44033_11_00213-00234

World War II Veterans Compensation Applications. Record Group 19, Series 19.92, Records of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/3147/images/43191_647350_0733-00882, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/3147/images/43191_647350_0733-00863

Article last updated on February 7, 2022


Last updated on April 11, 2022

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