A History Channel documentary will feature an Adirondack veteran of World War Two: Archie Sweeney of Saranac Lake. The 10-hour series WWII in HD, which will air over over five consecutive nights from Sunday through Thursday, November 15-19 will be narrated by Gary Sinise.
Archie Sweeney was a resident of Saranac Lake Village (where one of his sisters still lives; another lives in Glens Falls), who came to the series late in production according to Larry Miller, who did research and character development for most of the men and women in the series. “I had finished preliminary work for six characters when I got a call from the producer who told me that they wanted a character who was killed early in the war, preferably in North Africa,” Miller told me. “That was going to be a problem for several reasons. Men who died early in the war had very little time to write letters or diaries so there would probably be very little material to work with. There would be no oral histories recorded and obviously no book written.”
What Miller hoped to find was a man who had surviving family members and who had saved information relating to his experiences. “Almost immediately, my thoughts turned to the Adirondacks,” Miller says. “My chances to find surviving relatives were better if I could find someone from a small town rather than, for example, Manhattan. These families were, at the time, less mobile than those from larger cities. A side benefit would be that I could work and be in the Adirondacks simultaneously.”
Miller began his search by reading the casualty lists published in the New York Times where he found three men from the Adirondack region who had been killed in action in North Africa. A search of their obituaries told Miller that two of the men were survived by only their parents – the third was Archie Sweeney, whose several siblings survived the war. “After several months of researching newspapers, public records, service records and interviewing his surviving relatives, I had gathered enough information about the young man to write a narrative of his short life and brave death,” Miller said.
Larry Miller sent the short biography he wrote about Archie Sweeney to the Almanack. Here it is in its entirety:
Corporal Archie Sweeney was twenty one years old when he graduated from Saranac Lake High School in Saranac Lake, New York. He was not their best student. Once he teasingly told his two little sisters that when you did well in high school they used the word “flunked”, so when he came home one day and told his mother that he had flunked math, the girls greeted him with hugs and congratulated him.
“Polite” was the term most often attached to his name. It helps to be polite when you share your living space with eight brothers and sisters. And it becomes a survival skill when you are separated from your family, Archie to one relative and his two younger sisters to another, because your mother has died and your father is too ill to care for you. (His mother died from cancer and his father has a broken neck that he sustained while digging trenches along the roadside. After his accident, he spent many months in a body case.)
At the time of her death, Archie was working two jobs and attending high school. He loved his days spent on his father’s farm in Lawrenceville, a tiny village in upstate New York almost as much as the times he and his brothers spent at their dad’s hunting camp Floodwood, a speck on the map located in the Adirondack Mountains, where they hunted and fished during the fall and winter when the farming was idle. It was during those frigid winters that his sisters remember Archie bundling them up, seating them in a sleigh, hitching the horse up and driving them to church.
When the war broke out, Archie was the first young man whose number was called in the draft lottery held in nearby Lake Placid. But Archie has enlisted the previous day. On New Years Day, 1941, he told his older brother that this was a good way to start the year. It was time to move on; to see what life had in store for him. Two days later he walked to Lake Placid a few miles away, to report for his physical.
He took a train, the first time he had ever been on one, to Fort Bragg, N.C. where his politeness was put to the test training with the 39th Infantry, 9th Division.
By the middle of March, he had been assigned to Company H and proudly sent his company photograph home. There he stood, right next to the company flag, all 5’ 11”, 145 pounds of him, standing ram-rod straight and looking quite serious.
Early that summer, Archie returned home and stayed at the farm. One of his sisters took a snapshot of him standing proudly in front of their barn. That evening, as she was preparing for bed, she saw Archie, standing as comfortably as if he had been sitting, watching as the sun set. “What are you looking at?” she asked. “I’m just looking. I don’t know if I’ll ever see this again.”
On 25 September 1942 the 39th, the Fighting Falcons, boarded 5 ships and sailed out of New York harbor. On the 6th of October 1942 and about 4,000 miles later, the convoy dropped anchor in Belfast Harbor. The 39th moved to Scotland and awaited the departure of the 47th and 60th Infantry Regiments from the US and their first D-Day.
The 9th Infantry Division saw its first combat in the North African invasion when its elements landed at Algeria in Ain-Taya 15 miles east of the city of Algeria on November 8, 1942. Moving swiftly the 39th defeated the Vichy-French troops and had the city surrounded.
The next three months were spent guarding communications lines along their front.
Company B picked up a new rifle platoon leader during this period, Lieutenant Charles Scheffel.
The war was not going well. The Germans were retreating but we couldn’t face Rommel’s tanks with our big guns. The units that tried that at Kasserine Pass suffered a devastating defeat.
The U.S. plan involved the U.S. 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions, to occupy the hills on opposite sides of the El Guettar Pass which would enable the armored troops to pass through the valley without being fired on from its flanks. This force attacked Hill 369 on the afternoon of 30 March but ran into mines and anti-tank fire, losing 5 tanks. The tanks were removed, and the 1st and 9th attacked again the next day at 06:00, moving up and taking several hundred prisoners. However an Italian counterattack drove them back from their newly gained positions, and by 12:45 they were back where they started with the loss of 9 tanks and 2 tank destroyers. A further attempt the next day on 1 April also failed, after barely getting started.
Captain Scheffel recalled that, “On March 27, 1943, my first wedding anniversary, I took out Ruth’s picture and wished I was back in Enid. I kept thinking what a shitty place to spend an anniversary. At least we weren’t fired on during the first night, and for that, I was grateful.”
On April 1, Archie was writing a letter home. “It’s very quite here this evening. I think the war may be coming to an end.” [see p 7 of my notes-when the skirmish occurred a few days later.]
His older brother, Harold, received a telegram on May 8th, 1943 informing him that Archie was “Missing in Action”. Two days later an Army chaplain arrived at his door to tell them that Archie had been killed the same evening he wrote his letter.
He was twenty five years old; the first Saranac Lake Village soldier to die in action.
Photo: Saranac Lake’s Archie Sweeney during World War Two. Photo provided.