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Clues reveal few hints about fate of missing

soldier
Jessica Ebelhar/Las Vegas Review-Journal

His family doesn't know whether he died in uniform


from injury or illness, or from an unexplained incident
in France at the end of World War II. But one thing is
certain: Roman G. Padilla risked his life for his
country and died for it too.

"Every step I take may cost me my life so I decided I'd


write you a nice long letter cause it may be the last
one," Padilla wrote in a 3-foot-long letter penned in black ink on government-issued toilet paper.

"I'm not even allowed to tell you all the dead people I've seen but I can tell you that we are
camped in an area about an acre square and in that area there must be at least 50 dead Germans,"
reads the letter to his sister, Frances Salazar, dated Aug. 18, 1944, from "somewhere in France."

Gina Greisen of Las Vegas said her grandmother "really, really loved her little brother. There
was intense fear for losing him. I don't think she ever got over him dying."

Padilla, an Army "Tec 5" specialist, had just turned 20 when he wrote the letter "on toilet paper
cause I have no other kind and please don't send none cause it's just more junk I have to carry
around."

"Tell the old man he ought to be here with me. There is plenty
of wine around here.

"Yesterday, the boys found 2 (two) 50 gallon barrels of it in a


bombed home and according to them it's good stuff. It's a good
thing I never touch the stuff but I probably will before long
being that there's no beer around here."

Sixty years ago on Memorial Day - May 30, 1952 - Padilla's


name and the names of dozens of other Nevadans who died in
World War I, World War II and the conflict in Korea were
unveiled on a monument erected by the Desert Chapter
American Gold Star Mothers of Las Vegas.

Etched tenth from the bottom of the center panel on a black granite slab, his name has weathered
with time. The slab stands beside a white stone monolith that juts from the lawn at the southwest
corner of Bonanza Road and Las Vegas Boulevard.
Despite the monument's clear message, "Lest We Forget," the story about what Padilla did in the
war and why he's listed as a nonbattle death vanished when his divorced parents took those
secrets to their graves.

Greisen and her cousin, Joe Salazar, a Clark County firefighter, sought answers to their great-
uncle's death.

In 1997, Joe Salazar made a trip to Draguignan in southern France, where Padilla is buried along
with 860 soldiers and Marines at the Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial.

Salazar said the trip was important to give closure to the family and
especially his grandmother, because "nobody had been to visit and put
flowers on his grave."

The trip also turned up a clue about Padilla's role in the war. In
addition to the date of his death, Sept. 27, 1945, the white cross
headstone that stands in an open area surrounded by cypress, olive and
oleander trees, contains initials for his rank, unit and state: "Tec 5 732
Ry Operating Bn Nevada."

That means when he died, he was a technician fifth grade assigned to


the 732nd Railway Operating Battalion. It was one of the units that
rebuilt bombed-out rail lines and bridges so trains could deliver
equipment, gasoline and supplies to Lt. Gen. George S. Patton's Third
Army as it swept across northeastern France and Belgium to drive Nazi forces back to Germany.

About a year before Frances Salazar died in 2003, the family surprised her on her birthday with a
framed collection of photographs of Padilla, the soldier, and that cherished memento, the toilet
paper letter.

Today the collection hangs on the wall at the Las Vegas home of Ray Salazar, Joe's father. Ray
Salazar also has a wooden-handled Nazi dagger that was shipped home after the war with his
uncle's personal belongings. The steel blade is stamped with the words, "Ulles fur Deutchland,"
Ray Salazar also has some of Padilla's letters written on Army stationery that give hints that his
military occupation carried over from what he did in civilian life. He worked with his brothers at
their family-owned restaurant, El Gorditos on Fremont Street.

One letter mentions the "Jeep-in Cafe," the name he gave to their portable mess hall. He
complained about running out of eggs to feed the troops.

"Sometimes they bring their own eggs and meat to us and we cook it for them," Padilla wrote on
Aug. 24, 1944.
"Well, Sis, the time is now 4:30 in the morning and I'm getting sleepy so I'll finish now and start
slicing bacon for morning so that I won't fall asleep. So long and good luck to you all and please
don't worry about me.

"I'm no baby and I can take care of myself at last. I've done it for 6 or 7 years, and I still consider
myself man enough to do so."

But one thing didn't jibe with the unit reference on his headstone marker. In one photo, Padilla
with his boyish face and neatly combed, dark brown hair is holding an M1 carbine. The shoulder
patch on his olive-drab uniform is a red-trimmed white circle with a blue star in the middle, the
unit patch for the 718th Railway Operating Battalion.

As Greisen learned this month from reading a 100-page narrative written by the chaplain for the
718th Railway Battalion, her great-uncle wasn't the tip of the spear, but the part that helped
Patton throw it at the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge.

The 718th railway team landed at Utah Beach in Normandy on Aug. 15, 1944, about two months
after the D-Day invasion of France and three days before Padilla penned the toilet-paper letter.

"The 718th was selected to serve the railheads of the Third Army, then engaged in the drive on
Metz. ... The 718th consistently and diligently hurried supplies to the Third Army railheads,"
reads the narrative by Capt. Floyd R. Williams, chaplain and battalion historian.

Based on the dates in the narrative, Padilla probably wrote the toilet paper letter in an orchard at
Folligny, near the coast in northwestern France where the 718th built shanties from wood scraps
in the orchard and cooked on stoves that the Germans had left behind. That's where they saw the
first casualties, German bodies, as Williams described them.

Rebuilding the railroad was a daunting task, because it had been bombed and demolished by both
Allied and Axis forces.

"The scene presented was one of perfect destruction, the result of a smashing American advance
and demolition by withdrawing Germans," Williams wrote.

After a month's work rebuilding rails and refurbishing engines, the 718th moved into the thick of
battle, arriving at Bar-le-Duc in northeastern
France and on to Sezanne.

On Oct. 7, 1944, the 718th endured seven hours of


artillery bombardment and experienced its first
casualty when a soldier was killed in a rear-end
collision of French trains.

At Bar-le-Duc, the battalion kept busy running


prisoner-of-war trains from the front and sending
hospital trains to the front.
On Dec. 4, 1944, less than two weeks before the Battle of the Bulge began, the battalion
encountered almost continuous strafing at night, "however supplies rolled on to the Third Army,"
Williams wrote.

"During December the Germans opened their famous counterattack through Luxemburg and
Belgium into territory operated by the 718th. The shifting of the Third Army from the Metz front
to the north to meet the German threat was a noteworthy achievement in military history, and it
fell upon the 718th to play an important role in moving supplies and equipment by rail from one
sector to another."

On Jan. 10, 1945, Sgt. Joseph Cushman of Company C died "in a spectacular train accident"
when its ammunition cargo exploded.

As the battalion moved north to Gouvy, Belgium, crews had to replace 27 bridges before the line
could operate and pass through 18 tunnels.

"For some unknown reason the enemy demolished the bridges but left the tunnels intact,"
Williams wrote, adding, "Hazards from mines, bombs, artillery became a daily diet for the
detachment."

One day, the unit accomplished a "Herculean task" by shuttling 18,000 prisoners from the front.

Then in April 1945, the battalion worked with the 347th Engineers to build a single track bridge
over the Rhine River at Mainz, Germany. The Roosevelt Bridge, named in honor of the late
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was completed in 9½ days and dedicated in person by Patton,
who made the first trip across it with the 718th.

"Padilla, Roman G. Tec 5," is listed on the May 9, 1945, V-E Day roster for Headquarters
Company of the 718th Railway Operating Battalion, but what happened during the next four
months is unclear.

At some point, Padilla was assigned to the 732nd Railway Operating Battalion and sent to
southern France near Marseille where he was put in a hospital at Saint-Victoret on Sept. 23,
1945. He died four days later, according to morning reports.

Seven years later, one of Padilla's comrades, James H. Casey, wrote his parents, explaining that
he and 19 others were sent to Marseille, France, "for the purpose of filling the roster of an outfit
to the Pacific Theatre."

"We were in the staging area there when the war in the Pacific ended and our orders were
cancelled just before time to board ship. This was very disheartening to all of us because we
were sure that if we got aboard ship and got started, we stood a good chance of being sent
home," according to Casey's Sept. 12, 1952, letter to Greisen's grandmother.
As a result, Greisen's great-uncle never came home from the war. She hopes the National
Archives and Records Administration can find his records. Some might have been lost in the
1973 fire at the records center in St. Louis.

But she will always know that Roman G. Padilla was a soldier and a gentleman.

"I knew him only as a soldier," Casey wrote. "But having known him so, I can assure you that he
was always a true friend and a gentleman in every respect, and I know you take great pride in
having played a great part in making him the man that he was.

"His untimely death was a terrible shock to me and all who knew him."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

Letter written on toilet paper


The following letter was written during World
War II on government-issued toilet paper by
Army Tec 5 Roman G. Padilla, of Las Vegas,
to his sister, Frances Salazar, of Sanger, Calif.
Padilla was in the 718th Railway Operating
Battalion, which landed Aug. 15, 1944, at Utah
Beach in Normandy, France, about two months
after the D-Day invasion.

Somewhere in France
August 18, 1944
Dear Sister,
Just these few lines to let you know that I am O.K. Hoping you are the same.
Well here I am right in the battle front now, right where I wanted to be all the time and boy it's
really hell. We're really going through some hard times. Every step I take may cost me my life so
I decided I'd write you a nice long letter cause it may be the last one.
I can't tell you the things I've seen and done but you can imagine what it would be. I'm not even
allowed to tell you all the dead people I've seen but I can tell you that we are camped in an area
about an acre square and in that area there must be at least 50 dead Germans.
You know the kind of outfit I'm in and that is the Transportation Corps. We are supposed to keep
the supplies moving, and believe me, we are doing it. Well, I can't talk or say nothing concerning
military information so I'll just keep quiet on that matter and write about something else.
By the way, how is Valerio, the Old Man, and Joe? How come Valerio hasn't answered my letter
I wrote from Camp Claiborne when I was back in the states? Is Flory still with him or did she go
back to Vegas? Have you heard anything from Gilbert? I received a letter from him when I was
in England and I answered him right away but I haven't heard from him since. Tell the Old Man I
don't write to him cause if I write to him in Spanish it will take 3 weeks longer to get there. By
the way, when is Joe coming in the Army? I wouldn't be surprised if Gilbert isn't in already.
Tell the old man he ought to be here with me. There is plenty of wine around here. Yesterday,
the boys found 2 (two) 50 gallon barrels of it in a bombed home and according to them it's good
stuff. It's a good thing I never touch the stuff but I probably will before long being that there's no
beer around here.
By the way, the 9th of this month was my birthday and I would like to have my wrist watch. I
didn't even remember it till right now. I would also like to have some toothpaste, aftershave
lotion, and a pipe and some tobacco. About the money and shoes I asked for when I was in
England, I don't need them anymore.
I'm writing this letter on toilet paper cause I have no other kind and please don't send none cause
it's just more junk I have to carry around. Well, I have nothing more to say, so I will close and if
I should die out here please tell Gracie when she grows up she had an uncle that loved her very
much, and don't forget the bond money is for her education only.
Out of ink so I'll quit.
So long and ans. (answer) soon.
Your Brother,
Ray
P.S. Also please send a bottle of ink and tell Valerio to ans. (answer) and tell Flory to say hello
to Tony for me when she writes to mother cause she doesn't answer me, she's just like you.