Jim Watkins: Fallen soldier posthumously receives Purple Heart


Each Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Turner Classic Movies runs a marathon of combat films to commemorate and honor those that served. Often times the roster of films includes the 1955 classic “To Hell and Back.”

This film is based on Audie Murphy’s book of the same title. Murphy by 1955 was an established actor in Hollywood and was still young enough that he was able to play himself in the movie.

Murphy was the most decorated servicemember of World War II. In fact, he is the most decorated soldier in United States history.

Among his awards were the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts and the Medal of Honor.

There were actually more awards including six from a grateful French nation.

When pictured in full dress uniform one cannot help but notice Audie’s unit shoulder patch on his left sleeve. This emblem is on prominent display in the film pictured on helmets as well as the shoulders of those men that made up the Third Infantry Division.

Leroy Challenor Pearson of Brown County, being part of the Third Infantry Division with the 15th Infantry Regiment, likewise wore the insignia. Pearson usually went by his middle name, Challenor.

Challenor had lived in Brown County at Elkinsville prior to entering the service for about four years.

(Little of Elkinsville remains today as it was evacuated during the construction of nearby Lake Monroe Reservoir by eminent domain in 1964. What little of it that does remain is now part of the Lake Monroe region and the Hoosier National Forest.)

The majority of the Pearson family resided in Houston, just across the county line to the south. The Pearson parents, Roy and Mabel proudly displayed their service banner in the front window with its four blue stars for their serving sons, Marvin, J.C., Eugene and Challenor.

Challenor was very much involved in the war effort prior to his entering military service. He had been a foreman employed by Noblitt-Sparks Inc. of Columbus for the previous five years. Noblitt-Sparks manufactured an array of products for the government over the course of WWII including fuel cans, ammo boxes, bomb casings, radio equipment, anti-tank mines and a large assortment of parts for jeeps, trucks, tanks and other military vehicles.

Noblitt-Sparks would change its name to Arvin, Industries after the war in 1950. They were now manufacturing a wide range of household products with brand names such as Kenmore and Silvertone.

With the war heating up for the Americans by late 1942 many married draft age men were being reclassified. Such was the case with Challenor. He was 28, married to the former Lottie Crider for the past six years, and soon to be a father.

It would be another year before Challenor received his “Greetings from Uncle Sam” letter and had him leaving Brown County for his basic training at Camp Shelby Mississippi in October of 1943. Advanced infantry training would take place at Ft. Meade, Md. Audie Murphy had also received similar training there.

Then it was time for a short furlough home where Challenor and the Pearson family no doubt listened to the news of the D-Day Normandy landings on June 6. By June 15 he was aboard a troop ship headed overseas, first to Italy and then to France as one of the thousands of replacements for the many casualties incurred since D-Day.

Crossing France in late summer and early fall saw fierce fighting amidst difficult terrain and extremes in weather while fighting a stubborn German army trying to block the Allies from entering their homeland.

The fighting during October was comparable to jungle fighting, where maintenance of direction was most difficult because of the dense forests. The roads were not improved but rather logging trails through the woods where the enemy could pop up at any time.

Collin Wills of the BBC described the conditions for his listeners.

“They climb into the hills and cold squalls of rain sweep down on them and drench them and then the rain suddenly gives place to snow — blanketing, blinding snow or cruel driving sleet freezes in solid sheets on the windscreens of the trucks.”

Oct. 24-26, 1944, fellow combatant Sgt. Charles Beardslee describes the action in his Dogface Soldiers Memoirs.

“It was the beginning of a nice autumn day as we crossed the line of departure at daybreak. The cool fall breeze felt invigorating, but as we crossed the line of departure all hell was erupting on both sides. I was told the 15th Regiment (Challenor and Audie’s) was fighting on either side and we were passing through a 1,000 yard gap in the German line.”

Not everyone made it through.

On the 26th both Challenor and Audie went down. Challenor fatally.

Murphy had captured two Germans before being shot in the hip by a sniper. He returned fire and shot the sniper between the eyes. Eventually he was relayed to the hospital but not before gangrene had set in. The removal of the gangrene caused partial loss of his hip muscle and kept him out of combat until January. Murphy received his first Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Purple Heart for this injury.

Lottie received Challenor’s Purple Heart posthumously.

The Third Infantry Division had 38 Medals of Honor, the most of any division. This heroism came at a high cost; the division lost 4,922 killed in action and 636 who died of wounds. These were the highest losses of any division. The 15th Regiment suffered 1,633 killed in action and 419 missing in action.

Lottie was a teacher at Grammer Elementary School in Bartholomew County. Challenor and Lottie’s son Gary was one year old at the time of his father’s passing.

Leroy Challenor Pearson was temporarily buried in Europe before being returned home and buried in Houston May 26, 1948.

Survivors in addition to Lottie, Gary, and Challenor’s parents were five brothers, William, Marvin of Seymour, of New Albany, Eugene, and Lewis of Freetown. One sister, Mrs. Ervin Pruitt of Freetown and his grandmother, Mrs. Mitchell of Houston.

Jim Watkins is a Brown County Historical Society member who wrote “The Fallen,” a memorial document about young men from Brown County who never returned home from World War II. Watkins was a public school teacher for 42 years and has always been interested in learning about WWII. He can be reached at [email protected].

The Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum in Columbus, Ind. has a display of Noblitt-Sparks products of the WWII era.

Jim Watkins is a Brown County Historical Society member who wrote “The Fallen,” a memorial document about young men from Brown County who never returned home from World War II. Watkins was a public school teacher for 42 years and has always been interested in learning about WWII. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Abigail is a Brown County native dedicated to the community in which she has been raised. She joined the Brown County Democrat newsroom in 2019 while studying English at IUPUC, where she graduated in May 2020. After working as the news advertising coordinator for nearly two years, she became reporter in September of 2021. She took over as editor in the fall of 2022.

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