CNHI News Service

NEW ALBANY, Ind. -- We all have a pretty good idea of what a coincidence is. It's an accident, something that happens by chance. A bit of luck or just a fluke, a twist of fate, a quirk or something that just happens for no planned reason.

But what do you call an entire series of coincidences that occur -- over a period of years -- which are all tied to the same event? Accident and luck seem too mild a term. Is it fate; the proverbial story that has to be told? Maybe.

The story of Lt. Col. Delbert Cornwell is full of accident, or luck, or maybe fate; if one believes in that sort of thing.

Writing the Cornwell story actually started about four years ago this month. On Christmas Eve 2002, about 9 p.m., I had a knock at my back door. My first thought was, here is an old boy that has had too much Christmas cheer, and now needs help pulling his vehicle out of a ditch.

Before I had a chance to say, "I don't have a tractor," the visitor asked if I was the lieutenant colonel who commanded the 1st Battalion 152nd Infantry, Indiana National Guard.

When I said yes, he said, "well, I'm Raymond Cotner," walked in, sat down at my kitchen table and began telling me about the 152nd Infantry and its combat exploits of World War II.

Cotner stands ram-rod straight, is lean and fit, speaks with a strong voice and looks you straight in the eye. When you look at him, it's still easy to see the young Army officer who fought his country's enemies in WW II, and won the Distinguished Service Cross doing so.

That night began a friendship of four years where Ray and I often re-fight WW II, Vietnam and Afghanistan. We always win.

This October, I received an e-mail from Shea Van Hoy of The News and Tribune. He had received an e-mail from James McMillan, a Navy commander, asking for help in locating information about a WW II soldier or relatives.

The commander had medals and an ID for a Lt. Col. Cornwell. He believed that Cornwell must be from our area, because a Google search had brought up a letter written in 1945, in which Cornwell talked about the deaths of two of his men, the Basham brothers.

Shea wanted me to see if there was any chance of finding the family of this WW II soldier in order to return the memorabilia, as well as see if there was a possible story to tell.

A few ribbons and a letter from 1945 isn't a lot to go on, but the coincidence continued.

In the course of our re-fighting WW II, Cotner had once mentioned the deaths of two brothers on the same day named Basham, as well as a commander named Cornwell who had lived originally around Salem. Using that information, I began searching for Cornwell's history and family around Salem.

Promising leads resulted in dead ends, so I did what any good journalist would do -- I decided to goof off for awhile.

I went to Campbellsburg to visit a high school friend, Dorothy Brown. While talking with her in her shop, I mentioned the article I was trying to research -- and that I was having no success. Where upon, she said, "you need to talk to the guy sitting next to you."

By pure luck, I had sat down next to John Hughes, who just happened to be in the shop. John is a bit of a local historian and knew of a Lt. Col. Cornwell.

In addition, he knew Cornwell's sister, Kathleen Booker and graciously called her and asked if we could come by and do an interview. That interview led to finding Lt. Col. Cornwell's only child, Don Cornwell of Richmond, Va., who also happens to be in the newspaper business.

He worked for The Courier-Journal as a pressman from 1952 till 1961. Don eventually settled in Richmond, about 120 miles from Dam Neck, the place McMillan had found Lt. Col. Cornwell's awards decades later.

While researching the Cornwell story, another coincidence arose. Cornwell, as a young officer, had served in and eventually commanded C Company of Salem. I, too, had served in C Company of Salem, and eventually commanded there.

Cornwell became a lieutenant colonel and commanded the 1st Battalion 152nd Infantry. I became a lieutenant colonel and also commanded the same 1st Battalion 152nd Infantry, although the 152nd is made up of different companies now.

In a story built around personal remembrance, interviews are essential. I knew I needed more first-hand accounts of Lt. Col. Cornwell, but many of the men who had served with him in combat in the Philippines and knew him personally had passed on.

Cotner, my 2002 holiday visitor, had enlisted in the army for WW II with a good friend named Adrian Jacobs. He told me Jacobs knew Cornwell and he would be a good source of information.

We found a phone number for Jacobs, but he had recently moved and the number was no good. Thus began a two week search for Adrian Jacobs that included walking in to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post searching for information, and walking out a full-fledged member, still without a solid address or phone number on Jacobs. Nearly resigned to not being able to find Jacobs -- and having to turn in the story without him as a source -- another fluke occurred.

While delivering a letter to the editor of The Corydon Democrat, I overheard a gentleman talking to a staff member about his WW II service. He mentioned fighting the Japanese and being wounded, both of which happened to Jacobs.

The chance that I would be in that office at the same as time Jacobs -- after weeks of looking and not finding him -- seemed improbable. Improbable or not, it was Jacobs, and over breakfast he gave a full account of Cornwell's courage and service.

Were all these incidents coincidence, chance or luck? Or was it fate; the proverbial story that had to be told?

Maybe ... but only if one believes in that sort of thing.

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