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Robert Luther Sibley Jr.
Courtesy Sibley family

West Virginia
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Robert Luther Sibley Jr.
1917-1943

"He was committed to his men; . . . he had the reputation of being fearless."

Richard H. Sibley, M.D.

Army First Lieutenant Robert Luther Sibley Jr. was born in Akron, Ohio, on March 4, 1917. The son of Robert Luther (born c. 1889 in Spencer, Massachusetts) and Jane Goodrich Sibley (born c. 1890 in Union City, Pennsylvania), he was the oldest child in a family of four, which included sisters Alda and Eleanor and brother Herbert, according to 1920 and 1930 Federal Census data. Jane was a schoolteacher, and Robert Sr. a university professor who had left the academic world to work as an industrial chemist for Goodyear in Akron. By 1930, the family had relocated to Nitro in Kanawha County, West Virginia, where Robert Sr. was employed by Monsanto.

Prior to his enlistment in the service, Robert Jr. graduated from Nitro High School and Virginia Military Institute (1938). Between college graduation and his military enlistment, he married Hylda Henry, and they had one child, Richard Henry Sibley. Richard would grow up in the Charleston area, graduate from West Virginia University Medical School, and become an orthopedic surgeon.

Robert L. Sibley Jr. entered the U.S. Army in February 1942, was assigned to the 180th Cavalry Reconnaissance troop of the 45th Division, and went overseas in 1943. Lieutenant Sibley was killed in action in Sicily on July 13, 1943. The date and place of his death coincide with the invasion of that island (Operation HUSKY), which began on July 10 and would last through August 17. Although less well known than the invasion at Normandy, the Allied invasion of Sicily was the largest amphibian assault of the war and was the first step in getting the Allies positioned on the continent of Europe. Preceded by glider-borne troops, the amphibious landing force consisted of the British Eighth Army (four divisions under the command of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery) and the U.S. Seventh Army (three divisions under Lieutenant General George Patton). With the southern cities—notably Palermo—easily subdued (Benito Mussolini was about to be deposed, an event that happened on July 25, and Italy was in its waning days of the war), Montgomery and Patton began a pincer-shaped race to capture Messina. A month and a half later, the Allies could turn their attention toward mainland Italy.

While the conquest of Sicily no doubt played a large role in the ousting of Mussolini and the termination of Italy’s participation in the war, it came with a heavy price. One source indicates that American losses totaled 2,237 killed and 6,544 wounded or captured, with the British experiencing 12,843 casualties, including 2,721 killed. U.S. operations in the Sicily campaign were noted for a strong sense of interservice cooperation, particularly the Army-Navy effort. The campaign also marked the first time in the war that a complete U.S. field army had fought as a unit. That being said, even greater cooperation (e.g., greater aerial support) might have prevented some of the substantial losses of the Allies. [Summary of the Sicily invasion taken from the following sources: “Allies land on Sicily,” The History Channel website, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/allies-land-on-sicily (accessed Sep 23, 2011); Andrew J. Birtle, “Sicily 1943 [CMH Pub 72-16],” U.S. Army Center of Military History Online, http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/72-16/72-16.htm (accessed Sep 23, 2011).]

A keen interest in family history led Dr. Richard Sibley to investigate his roots, starting with an exploration of his grandfather’s hometown of Spencer, Massachusetts. Around the turn of this century, he researched the invasion of Sicily and decided to retrace the steps of his father during the last days of his life. But when it came to finding the exact location where his father was killed, he chose not to go that far, citing the fact that the experience was just too overwhelming. Dr. Sibley notes that one of his most gratifying moments was having a patient who had actually known his father during the war, and consequently he was able to learn first-hand some knowledge of the man.

Dr. Sibley’s research informs his knowledge that the invasion of Sicily came from Africa and began at “0425 hours—early morning, so the troops had been up most of the night. The Mediterranean was very rough in the crossing, with forty mile per hour winds and nine-foot seas. Most soldiers were extremely seasick.” He adds:

The 45th Division invasion was centered at a small fishing town, Scogletti, east of Gela. My wife and I visited Scogletti, and the beach has many protruding rocks, which must have made landing very difficult. Fifty percent of the LSTs carrying the troops wrecked or were severely damaged on landing.

Over three days, the troops advanced about twenty miles north to the town of Vittoria, where they set up headquarters west of the town. Vittoria has a plaque on the town wall recognizing the efforts of the 45th in liberating their town from German control.

My father was in reconnaissance with six men scouting the Biscari Airfield on the Acati River, west of Vittoria. The airfield housed the German Luftwaffe. Hermann Goering’s Panzer tanks were protecting the airfield, and they and their guns were hidden among the crypts of a cemetery. My father was in a Jeep with six men, five of whom exited and took cover. Dad was still in the Jeep and was killed when it was hit by fire.

My father was very well liked by his men. He had a hearing loss and initially failed the service hearing test, which made him medically ineligible to go overseas. He very much wanted to go with his men; Mother said he had one of his friends change or repeat the hearing test so he could go with them. Perhaps the hearing loss contributed to his death, but I think it was more likely he was committed to his men and the job of taking the airfield.

My father was initially buried in a cemetery in Gela. It was a tough decision by my mother and grandparents to bring his remains home to be buried in Cunningham [Memorial Park], but I am very glad they did so, as the funeral was so moving to me and others. I was six years old and still had hope there was a mistake and he would come home some day. I feel the military funeral gave me and others closure and the ability to go on with our lives—which I am sure is what he would have desired for us. That is why he went to war and gave the ultimate sacrifice.

When Lieutenant Sibley’s remains were returned to the United States, he was buried in St. Albans, West Virginia, on August 3, 1948. Hylda would eventually remarry and would return to school for a degree and teaching certification, becoming a teacher in Nitro. Dr. Richard Sibley notes that he has a half-sister fourteen years younger than he.

Family information and picture provided by Robert’s son, Richard H. Sibley, M.D.; article by Patricia Richards McClure

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