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The Prime Contender
What Molly said about the soldier
Having accepted there was a Diary - even if it comprised only part of the published book - then looking for it made sense. It was not unreasonable therefore to start with Molly’s account of its disappearance and see where the search took us.
There are uncertainties. Was Molly’s story an accurate reflection of what happened in 1944, or her own interpretation of events some years afterwards? Can we even be sure that the soldier she believed to have borrowed the Diary was the same one who actually borrowed it?
However, Molly gave us quite a lot of information about the soldier she thought borrowed the original Diary manuscript and, in the process, about the time it disappeared.
She said he was a United States soldier, and we know they didn’t arrive in Sarsden until 1944 and were gone by shortly after D-Day. The date in the egg-sales book tallies with this. The soldier she refers to visited often so it was likely he was living locally, if not in the immediate vicinity. He may have been one of the soldiers to whom Jeanne sold eggs. He was interested in Jeanne’s farming stories and he was an airman, called Lee, from Alabama. His friend was called Jerry. But how much of this was correct? We’ve already seen how the accounts of the Diary’s origins became confused in the telling.
The soldier identified as Hoyt Oliver
Well, at last we have a strong contender for the soldier described by Molly. Not everything matches but we feel we now know who he was.
We’ve settled on the taller of the two United States soldiers whose photos in the Preston family album show them without the arm patches of the 6th Armored Division. We now know them to have been in the 38th Engineer Regiment or, as it became in England and Europe, the 38th Engineer General Service Regiment.
We found that the shorter of the two was called Elbert D Mann of Cullman, Alabama. Sadly, he died in 1973, but we learned from his family that they had no knowledge of an 18thC diary ever having been in his possession. We discovered that Elbert himself, in a letter home, written in Sarsden, had met a fellow cook who lived only twenty miles from his home town in Alabama. We then set out to discover if the Tec4 in the photo with him was this man. The only Tec4 in Company B whose enlistment record showed him coming from Alabama was Hoyt Oliver and we next made contact with Hoyt’s brother’s grandson who told us, after being in contact with Hoyt’s nephew, that this was indeed Hoyt. But we learned much more and now feel able to say that Hoyt Oliver was the United States soldier who Molly connected with the disappearance of the original manuscript journal.
Why we think Hoyt was the soldier Molly described
These, then, are the reasons why we think the old diary would have gone to Hoyt rather than any of the other soldiers that the Prestons knew.
Molly’s account turns out to be slightly muddled, but it does match with Hoyt better than with anyone else.
Molly thought the US soldier was an airman – Hoyt’s regiment built airstrips and airbases.
She thought he was from Alabama – Hoyt was from Alabama.
The soldier liked to visit Jeanne and they talked about farming. - We think Hoyt grew up on a farm. Hoyt’s father was a farmer, and we’ve since been told that Hoyt himself became a farmer too. And Jeanne’s husband was a farm manager in Sarsden.
The old diary also had cooking recipes in it. - And we’ve learned, from a grandson of Hoyt's brother, Orbie, that not only was Hoyt a Tec4 grade cook in the army, he was still considered in later life to be a “great cook”. - An interest in the Diary recipes would have been only natural.
Molly specifically tells us that Jeanne sold her home-produced eggs to the Americans. - As a cook, Hoyt may also have been interested in buying eggs from Jeanne to supplement the dried egg that was very likely the only such ingredient normally available to US Army cooks.
The Prestons didn’t know the soldier’s surname but thought his first name was Lee and that his friend was called Jerry. Another later 6th Armored Division soldier in the photo album was called Jerry, but his driver was called Jack, so I think Molly confused the friends’ names. Hoyt’s friend was called Elbert D Mann from Cullman, AL, and my guess is that what Molly remembered as "Lee" was actually "Ollie", the obvious contraction of the surname Oliver. - Again we’ve been told that Ollie was indeed Hoyt’s army nickname.
Molly said that the soldier liked to visit often and have tea with Jeanne and her family and listen to her farming stories. They became good friends and took group photos such as those that Hoyt was in. - Hoyt also gave them photos of himself taken earlier in the war. This suggests a more than casual friendship.
We’ve tracked down all the other US soldiers in the Preston family’s photo album or their families. - No-one (including Jack, who we've spoken to) knows anything about an old journal/diary.
Unfortunately we also found that the Oliver family member who would most likely have been able to help had died only a few months earlier. So far we’ve not heard from anyone else in the Oliver family and must assume that no-one in the family who has been asked, knows anything of an old Diary.
We know that Hoyt died in Addison, AL, in 1993 and that his wife Flora, nee Smith, died there in 1997. Since Flora outlived Hoyt and also their only daughter who died in Hayleyville, AL, in 1971, could this mean that the Diary was passed down to someone on Flora’s side of the family? We were fortunate to make contact with Flora’s brother’s granddaughter. She very kindly made enquiries but these, too, have failed to yield results so far. (Link to Hoyt's photo gallery page)
This then is the latest situation. So far we’ve drawn a blank in our search in Alabama for the old manuscript diary. But at least the two families concerned have been made aware of our search and of the WW2 friendship in England between their relative, Hoyt Oliver, and Jeanne Preston and her family.
The original manuscript still eludes us
Our failure to locate the diary might result from any number of scenarios in the passage of the Diary through the war, or through the years following it. None are risk-free. Hoyt was back in a combat situation in Normandy by D-Day+3. And in post-war Alabama, for example, tornadoes are but one hazard to life and property. Or our failure, as mentioned at the outset, might be because Molly was confused as to which soldier her mother actually passed the Diary to, and maybe she described the wrong man. Or there may have been an attempt to return it in 1944, or later, and it may have been destroyed or lost in the post. Given the lack of any firm evidence, there is still an outside chance it may yet turn up in an attic or trunk, or even in an Archive somewhere. And, although we’ve failed to discover what really did happen to Anne Hughes’ old diary, there still remains the possibility of discovering where it came from. - But that’s another story.