MONROE — It was a commitment tugging on her conscience that led Pat Fitchen to the cemetery time and time again last summer.
Before her mother-in-law died in 2018, she had taken Fitchen to see the family plots.
Fitchen promised she would see to it that the Harriman family headstones were cleaned.
That was no easy undertaking. There were many Harrimans. They were prominent early pioneers of the Skykomish Valley, the patriarch having paddled upriver by canoe in 1864, hacked his way through trees and underbrush, and homesteaded on 160 acres.
The stones were spread over three plots and spanned four generations. Some of the weather-beaten slabs wore a grimy black coat.
Fitchen enlisted two of her grandchildren. They spent hours in the sun, hunched over memorials at the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery on the outskirts of Monroe.
The grandkids, now 15 and 13, felt good about themselves as the headstones began to show white again. With soft brushes and thorough scrubbing, the names of ancestors revealed themselves, and Fitchen would share what she knew about the figures from the family’s past.
One name could not be found among the headstones. Joseph Harriman — born Sept. 2, 1918; died April 29, 1950 — seemed little more than a notation on the family tree.
His absence didn’t register with Fitchen at the time.
That changed in September.
A stranger had been on a three-year quest, quietly looking for Joe Harriman. He’d compiled a trove of documents and newspaper clippings, paid his own visit to the Odd Fellows Cemetery in search of Joe and even diagrammed the Harriman family tree, which led him to Fitchen. She is Joe’s great niece by marriage.
Tony Whitley had a question for her: How could a man who served on the front lines with the First Special Service Force during World War II have been buried 70 years in an unmarked grave?
Looking for Uncle Fred
Whitley was a field service engineer for a biomedical manufacturer before he retired a dozen years ago. It’s been more than three decades since the Georgia transplant moved to Monroe, but he still speaks with a soothing Southern accent.
His father, Paul Whitley, who served in the Army’s 79th Infantry H Company during World War II, died in 1961 when Tony was 9. As a boy, Tony Whitley played with his dad’s wartime canteen and mess kit and admired his medals and uniform.
His uncle, Fred Whitley, became like a second father after his dad died. Uncle Fred also served in the Army in World War II but never really talked about it. He was a quiet, reserved man. Fred Whitley died in 1966.
Over the past 20 years, Tony Whitley has become a bit of an amateur military historian. A cousin in Georgia knew that and called him four years ago when she discovered a box in a closet containing some of Uncle Fred’s wartime documents.
Whitley began poring over emailed copies and was fascinated to learn that Uncle Fred was part of the 1,800-troop First Special Service Force, a highly trained unit that came to be known as the Devil’s Brigade for its dangerous, often clandestine missions. In the box was an intriguing certificate from the then-prince of Norway thanking Uncle Fred for helping liberate the Scandinavian country from German hands.
Uncle Fred had never mentioned it, or the First Special Service Force for that matter.
Whitley waded deeper into the story of the Devil’s Brigade, a joint Canadian-U.S. force with a nickname taken from a German soldier’s diary. His “die schwarzen Teufeln” reference translates to the black devils. The special forces were known to darken their faces and strike at night, often without firing a shot. The soldiers were trained in stealth tactics, hand-to-hand combat, explosives, parachuting, amphibious and mountain warfare, rock climbing and as ski troops.
They fought in the mountains at high altitudes, in rugged terrain and in severe weather. Such was the case in December 1943, when the special force ascended the face of Italy’s Monte La Difensa to overtake the German line.
During 251 days of combat from beachheads to mountain peaks, from Rome to remote islands in the Mediterranean Sea along the southern coast of France, the force suffered 2,314 casualties, “or 134% of its authorized strength … and never failed a mission,” according to a 2013 resolution awarding the First Special Service Force the Congressional Gold Medal for its World War II contributions.
Whitley reads about the Force’s exploits and thinks of his uncle.
“I am looking down every path I can follow for my Uncle Fred,” he said.
One of those paths led him to page 345 of a 1947 book by Robert Burhans about the First Special Service Force. On that page was listed the name Joseph C. Harriman of M onroe, Washington.
It seemed a small world that Harriman grew up in Tony Whitley’s adopted hometown. When World War II began, Monroe was home to fewer than 1,600 residents. It has well over 10 times that now.
Whitley wanted to know more about Harriman, but he needed to be creative in where he looked.
A 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, damaged or destroyed millions of military personnel files, including Harriman’s. Whitley pieced together shards of information from other sources: 1920s U.S. Census data, Harriman’s selective service registration cards, medical records, his obituary, his death certificate and even billing papers and Veterans Administration correspondence for the funeral.
He also made his way to the cemetery to visit his grave site.
There he met Aloha Zurfluh — or “Sis,” as she prefers to be called. She’s the caretaker at the Odd Fellows Cemetery off Old Owen Road. Her house touches the edge of the grassy expanse where generations of local families are buried. She and her husband, Ed, moved there more than 50 years ago. She remembered seeing Joe around town, although she was only a child then.
“She walked me out to the grave site or where she thought his grave site was and said, ‘It was supposed to be out here where the rest of the Harrimans are.’”
They returned to the cemetery office to review maps and log books that guide her to find different markers. They went back out for another look, but there was no sign of Joe, only grass growing over his grave.
Getting to know Joe
Tony Whitley, who served in the Army in the early 1970s, knew the military requirements. A family member would have to order Joe Harriman’s bronze grave marker.
It took him three years to build a Harriman family tree to find Fitchen and make his pitch.
He first contacted her through a message on her Ancestry.com page in September and later met with her and her grown daughters at a coffee shop.
Fitchen knew a lot about the Harriman family history. She has done her genealogy homework over the years.
And that history is rich.
Charles Harriman — Joe’s grandfather — was an adventuresome fellow who left his native Maine as a young man to work in the woods of Minnesota before heading to California in search of gold in the early 1850s. By 1864, he’d found his way to the Tualco Valley near Monroe. He married se-Liz-beths Whea Kadin of the Snohomish and Snoqualmie tribes in May 1867. Also called Elizabeth, she was the daughter of Patkanim, chief of the Snoqualmie and Snohomish tribes. Theirs was among the first marriage licenses issued in Snohomish County.
Charles Harriman served on the county commission for eight years and in the House of the Territorial Legislature. When he died in 1905, businesses in town closed for the afternoon as a long procession of horse-drawn carriages made their way to the cemetery.
By contrast, Fitchen found information about Joe Harriman scarce.
Until Whitley reached out to her, she had not known that Joe Harriman fought in the Second World War, that he was wounded in Southern France in late 1944, and was at Madigan Hospital at Fort Lewis until he was discharged from the Army in the spring of 1946, months after fighting ended.
Whitley shared draft registration records that placed Harriman at Moran State Park on Orcas Island in the San Juans at the beginning of the war. He was part of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, a voluntary New Deal public works relief program for unemployed, unmarried men from 1933 to 1942.
That experience, as well as a childhood on the family farm, made Harriman a promising candidate for the First Special Service Force, which looked for recruits who’d worked in the woods or other outdoor jobs.
Hang out at the Monroe Historical Society and Museum on East Main Street on a Monday afternoon and a few more slivers of information can be found about Joe Harriman and his brother, Arthur. Merv Boyes, still a twice-a-week swimmer at age 93, remembers the Harriman brothers were both good baseball players.
Arthur Harriman, Boyes recalls, had a fine piece of farmland with cows when the war broke out. There were those who encouraged him to file a 4-F form to avoid military service and continue to work the farm. Arthur sold his cows and enlisted in the Army.
“A very nice guy,” Boyes said.
Boyes, long retired from the Snohomish County PUD, once leased five acres from Arthur to grow strawberries. He attended his funeral in 1971.
Boyes remembered that Arthur looked out for his brother after the war.
“When Joe came home, he lived with Art,” Boyes said. “He was in tough shape.”
Obituaries record the tragedies that marked the beginning and end of Joe Harriman’s life.
The day Joe was born is the day his mom died. Adelaide (Jimmicum) Harriman, who was of Snohomish and Snoqualmie tribal descent, was 43.
Joe died on a Saturday morning in April 1950, at Monroe General Hospital.
A story in the Monroe Monitor explained the circumstances: “A World War II veteran of three theaters and receiving a disability pension from the government, Harriman slashed his throat last Wednesday morning. He had been in a despondent condition for some time.”
Medical records show that Pvt. Joe Harriman was wounded in the line of duty in the winter of 1944. He’d suffered broken bones to the tibia and fibula and paralysis and nerve damage in a leg from artillery fire. He likely continued to endure intense pain from the shrapnel.
Fitchen can only guess why Joe Harriman had no headstone. Perhaps it was because his death was suicide and the family had connections to the Catholic Church. She simply doesn’t know. Records show there was a funeral with an organist and singers and pallbearers from the local Eagles club. His family wrote a card of thanks in the local newspaper for the community’s support during their bereavement.
The important thing now is to honor a soldier who served his country, she said.
“Joe really was a hero,” Fitchen said. “It’s a shame he’s been forgotten so long in an unmarked grave.”
The bronze marker arrived in December and was placed over Joe Harriman’s grave on Christmas Eve.
He is next to his mother and close to Arthur.
The marker includes a reference to the First Special Service Force and an image of a medicine wheel, a Native American symbol of health and healing.
During a ceremony Saturday morning, Muriel Wolfer of Snohomish offered a prayer for Joe Harriman and others affected by PTSD. The term post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t exist in Harriman’s lifetime, but it seems clear to Whitley and others that the war took more than a physical toll on the Monroe farmer.
Seventy years after his death, nearly 50 people gathered near Harriman’s grave. They included Snoqualmie tribal members, veterans and local history buffs. Most were too young to have remembered him.
An honor guard folded an American flag and presented it to Fitchen. A bugler played Taps and a drill team fired rifle shots to salute their fellow veteran.
“When the war broke out, Joe enlisted in the Army,” Steve Gorski, whose father served in the First Special Service Force, told the gathering. “And when the call came for volunteers to join a new unit with a secret mission that required fit young men experienced in the outdoors and willing to jump out of an airplane, Joe stepped forward and joined the First Special Service Force.”
Afterward, wrapped in a red blanket given to her by the Snoqualmie Tribe, Fitchen thought about Joe and all of the hours she spent in the cemetery last summer.
“I had no idea I was walking all over him,” she said.
She glanced toward Joe Harriman’s new bronze marker, decorated with flowers and a flag, and smiled.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.