Ohio man working to give Athol WWII hero proper burial

  • Athol native Ralph I. Musson joined the military in January 1941, earning the rank of second lieutenant. He died in a prison camp at the age of 25 after surviving the Bataan Death March. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Athol native Ralph I. Musson joined the military in January 1941, earning the rank of second lieutenant. He died in a prison camp at the age of 25 after surviving the Bataan Death March, and a distant relative is now working to bring home his remains. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Althea Bramhall tends to her Uncle Ralph I. Musson’s memorial plaque at Hillside Cemetery in Athol. Irvin “Jay” Musson III, of Akron, Ohio, is working to bring home Ralph Musson’s remains. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Althea Bramhall stands next to her Uncle Ralph I. Musson’s memorial plaque at Hillside Cemetery in Athol. Irvin “Jay” Musson III, of Akron, Ohio, is working to bring home Ralph Musson’s remains. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Ralph I. Musson’s memorial at Hillside Cemetery in Athol. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Akron, Ohio resident Irvin “Jay” Musson III is working to bring home the remains of 2nd Lt. Ralph I. Musson, his first cousin twice removed, a U.S. service member who died of malaria in a prison camp following the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942, during World War II. The elder Musson was a 1935 graduate of Athol High School. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/7/2020 5:29:15 PM
Modified: 7/7/2020 5:29:10 PM

Estimates vary on how many died during the infamous Bataan Death March during World War II. But it generally is accepted that nearly 10,000 Filipinos perished along with about 650 Americans.

One of those Americans was a Red Raider.

Ralph I. Musson graduated from Athol High School in 1935 and attended college before joining the military in January 1941, earning the rank of second lieutenant. He trained as a pilot but served with ground forces in the Philippines and was one of the 60,000 to 80,000 people on the infamous forcible transfer of prisoners by the Imperial Japanese Army in April 1942.

Musson survived the march but died of malaria in a prison camp later in the year at the age of 25. His captors tossed his corpse in a common grave at Cabanatuan Prison Camp No. 1 on the nation’s Luzon island. The remains were recovered after the war and are now in safekeeping in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

But a distant relative in Akron, Ohio, is working to bring home Musson’s remains, perhaps for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. A genealogist, a case manager from the American History Co. working for the U.S. Department of the Army, wrote a letter to Irvin J. “Jay” Musson III a few months ago to determine if he is related to the Musson buried in the Philippines. It turns out he is.

The U.S. government is going through the remains to identify each American. So the younger Musson submitted his DNA to find out if the bones of his first cousin twice removed could be identified.

“He’s got a lot of medals coming,” Jay Musson said, adding that Ralph was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart after Jay petitioned the Department of the Army.

The Bataan Death March started April 9, 1942, after American and Filipino troops were surrendered to the Japanese following the three-month Battle of Bataan. The prisoners were beaten, abused, starved and sometimes tortured as they were moved by foot from Mariveles, on the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula, to San Fernando and then by train to Camp O’Donnell.

Most were then transferred to other prison camps and work sites. Up to 20,000 Americans and Filipinos — sometimes as many as several hundred a day — died in the march’s aftermath.

Prisoners who weren’t able to escape were not freed until Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces recaptured the Bataan Peninsula on Jan. 30, 1945. After the war, Japanese Lt. General Masaharu Homma was arrested, tried and executed by firing squad for his role in the war crime.

Jay Musson said it is important to remember the stories of the death march and other aspects of World War II, which he said is “like ancient history to young people.”

“It’s not just written down for the hell of it,” he said. “It happened to actual living, breathing human beings.”

Ralph Musson was the son of the late Dr. William R. Musson and Althea H. (Curtis) Musson, and brother to Constance A. (Musson) Mildren and Gertrude L. Musson. He was a member of the Athol High School band and later attended Oberlin College in Ohio and the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. Jay Musson said he and Ralph had the same great-grandfather, William Alden Musson, of Mogadore, Ohio, a suburb of Akron.

The North Quabbin region is still the home of Ralph Musson’s nieces and nephews — Althea Bramhall, of Phillipston, and Cynthia Stimson and Norman and Kenneth Mildren, all of Athol.

Norman Mildren said he has some photographs of his war hero uncle, who died 15 years before he was born, but he is mostly unfamiliar with Ralph or his story.

“There were always pictures hanging at my grandmother’s house of Ralph, but he’s not someone that I really know a lot about,” he said.

Jay said Ralph’s remains will be moved to Hawaii to begin the final matching process, if 60 percent of Ralph’s relatives’ DNA can be collected.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Bramhall said of Jay Musson’s efforts, adding that she is willing to submit her DNA.

Bramhall said Ralph Musson isn’t the only member of her family to give his life for the United States.

Military service is also close to Jay Musson’s heart. The 72-year-old is the son of a World War II veteran and himself was an Army rifleman wounded in the Vietnam War. Jay said 23 men in his unit never made it home.

“So I was a very lucky guy,” he said.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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