Family Visits Grave of Sailor

By Amy Horton

The Brunswick News, [Georgia] June 24, 1999

[Courtesy of The Brunswick News]

When Michael Higgins first began his modern-day search for the identities of four World War II merchant sailors buried in graves of the unknown in Brunswick, he adopted St. Anthony -- patron saint of lost items -- as the mascot for what he was sure would turn out to be a lost cause.

When declassified war documents brought a successful end to his search for the men's identities last October, he returned to St. Anthony with what he was sure would be an impossible task: locating survivors of the four men killed when a German U-boat torpedoed their ship 13 miles off the coast of St. Simons Island [Georgia] on the morning of April 8, 1942.

wreck of the SS Oklahoma
The wreck of the SS Oklahoma

"It may sound tacky, but I was even thinking of going on that television show 'Unsolved Mysteries' and having Robert Stack say, 'Maybe you can help solve a 57-year-old mystery,"' Higgins recalled.

But St. Anthony came through once again, delivering the sisters and nieces of one of the four men buried at Palmetto Cemetery to Brunswick early Wednesday morning.

Verna Mae Ryder Ardoin and her sister, Winnie Pearl Ryder Ardoin, left Louisiana at 7 a.m. Tuesday with their nieces, Betty Ryder Mallett and Judieth DeVille, bound for Brunswick.

They traveled 800 miles and arrived at midnight Wednesday. They stole a few hours of sleep and made their way to Palmetto [Cemetery] and the grave of their brother and uncle, Osswald Ryder. Ryder was killed when the tanker SS Oklahoma was torpedoed in the 2 a.m. attack almost six decades ago.

When Higgins caught up with them at the International Seamen's House, the four women were giddy with the rediscovery of their lost loved one's final resting place.

An article by The Brunswick News picked up by the Opelousas, LA, Daily World and associated broadcasts on the CBS-TV affiliate in Lafayette and radio stations in Ville Platte and surrounding towns tipped the women off.

Mrs. Mallett, who lives in Lafayette, and Mrs. DeVille, who still lives in Ryder's hometown of Ville Platte, organized the impromptu trip for their elderly aunts, who were 13 and 17 when their 21-year-old brother was killed.

[Winnie Pearl Ryder Ardoin, left, and Verna Mae Ryder Ardoin, right, place flowers on the graves of 5 merchant mariners killed off St. Simon Island. They do not know which one of the graves is of their brother. Photo by Jerry Matherly]

Winnie Pearl Ryder Ardoin, left, and Verna Mae Ryder ArdoinVerna Mae, now 70, remembers being dressed in her Sunday best for a 4-H Honor's Day at school when she was told about her brother's death.

It was a loss her parents never fully accepted because they had no body to bury in the family plot on the family farm, just a tombstone marking an empty grave.

"All they had was a letter that said the ship had been torpedoed and the country and the people were grateful for the sacrifice he had made," Mrs. Mallett said. "I've read that letter a million times."

"I know my mother went to her grave thinking that he was going to walk back in that door," Winnie Pearl said.

"When you don't have a body, you still wait," Verna Mae said. "It's a shame Mama and Dad's not here, but I'm sure they know."

Verna Mae and Winnie Pearl didn't have the heart to tell them that there was little doubt their son died in the attack. That fact was attested to by an uncle and a friend who were serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine at the same time.

"My uncle was in the Merchant Marine and he passed right by and saw my brother's boat
burning," Winnie Mae said. "He knew it was my brother's boat. There was nothing he could do."

The U-boat's G7e "eel" torpedo struck the Oklahoma in her starboard after quarter, blowing a huge hole in the hull below the waterline in the engine room and exploding upward.

"A friend of (Ryder's) that was on the same boat said his room was on the motor [above the engine room] and he was probably laying in the bed reading," Verna Mae said.

He was one of five Oklahoma crewmen who were burned beyond recognition and buried in anonymous graves at Palmetto.

His sisters were relieved to learn from Arlie McNeill, whose funeral home, Edo Miller and Sons, handled the burials in 1942, that Ryder's body was indeed recovered and is buried in one of the five graves.

"He is definitely one of the five," McNeill told them.

"Somebody asked us if we were going to bring the body back but that's too much red tape and we don't know which one he is," Verna Mae said.

[Left to right, Winnie Pearl Ryder Ardoin, her niece Judieth DeVille, and sister Verna Mae Ryder Ardoin look at a 22 foot replica of a Liberty Ship in Brunswick's Courthouse Square. Photo by Jerry Matherly]

Winnie Pearl Ryder Ardoin, Judieth DeVille, Verna Mae Ryder Ardoin

They were content to buy five red roses for each of the five graves, along with a dried arrangement decorated with sea shells to serve as a permanent marker for Ryder. They've adopted the farthest grave on the right hand side of the plot as Ryder's, since it correlates with the location of an inscription of his name, rank and hometown on a marker installed at the gravesite by the Brunswick Propeller Club on National Maritime Day, May 22.

Mrs. Mallett left a special arrangement for Ryder on that grave, along with a postcard with her name and address sealed inside a plastic bag, just in case survivors of the other four men visit the gravesite and feel like getting in touch.

One of the four men buried with Ryder, Charles Rivette of Leonville, La., was identified in 1979 when his sisters tracked his grave to Brunswick.

As Higgins told the story of Rivette's family's visit 20 years ago, Winnie Mae interrupted him excitedly.

"Did you say Charlie Rivette was from Leonville? I knew those Rivettes. When I get back home I'm going to call those Rivette people," she said.

The other three are: Alfredo Carmona of San Juan, Puerto Rico; Joseph Geary of Boston, Mass., and Arthur Genter of New Orleans.

Although they never met their Uncle Osswald, Mrs. Mallett and Mrs. DeVille knew the story of his life and death and were relieved to learn that he did receive a proper Catholic burial and is being remembered and honored for his service.

"I just always thought he was at the bottom of the sea in a ship," Mrs. DeVille said. "If Mr. Higgins hadn't done all this work, we wouldn't have known. We want to thank you so much for doing all of this."

Osswald Ryder was the oldest of six children, born in 1921 to French-Cajun parents in Ville Platte, a town of 11,000 souls in Central Louisiana. He terrorized his younger siblings, punishing their transgressions by making them kneel on hard, dry corn kernels.

"Our youngest sister was always happy to see him go because she wanted to be boss and he'd always correct her," Winnie Pearl recalled. "She'd say, I'm free. I'm free."'

But his sisters remember him lovingly today, describing him as a good-looking young man with a big heart and an engaging personality, who continued to give unselfishly to his family, even in death.

The Ryder family received a $10,000 insurance payment from the government after Osswald's death. His father, John, used the money to buy a farm, where Verna Mae and Mrs. DeVille and several other family members still live.

Winnie Mae lives in nearby Opelousas.

"This is just a wonderful day," she said after Higgins and McNeill joined hands with her and her sister and nieces and recited the Lord's Prayer at their brother's gravesite.

"In a way, they're burying their brother again, and maybe even for the first time," Higgins said.

News Articles
Close to Home