Robert Douglas McCullough
34-year-old WWII Army Veteran
F.C. Dickinson Company Employee
Last Seen February 23, 1947
Des Moines, Iowa
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Recovery Scene and Date
1/4 Mile E. of Iowa River
August 14, 1947
By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2011
By 1947, 34-year-old Robert McCullough had seen and experienced a great deal of life.
After graduating from Wapello High School in 1931, he attended the University of Arizona at Tucson. In 1932, he transferred to the State University of Iowa, where his grades were good and he graduated in 1935 with a B.A. degree in Commerce. In 1940, he was living in Washington, D.C. and working as a clerk in the United States Department of Agriculture.
He joined the U.S. Army in 1941, served in New Guinea and the Philippines during WWII — where fighting was fierce — and was discharged in 1946 at the rank of Staff Sergent.
McCullough’s service in the Pacific Theater proved costly, however. He contracted malaria there and came home to the United States in a weakened condition.
He stayed with his parents in Wapello to become stronger and helped take care of his elderly, beloved grandmother. For a time, he worked on the ranch of his brother-in-law Allen F. Wortman, the publisher of the Malvern Leader.
At the beginning of January 1947, McCullough moved to Des Moines to live with his sister Ruth McCullough and work at F.C. Dickinson Company.
He received periodical treatments for his malaria at the Veterans Hospital in Des Moines,
On February 23 — two days after a hospital checkup — he phoned his sister Ruth at her office. When told she was at lunch, he left a message that he was taking the next bus to Wapello to visit their parents. That was the last contact McCullough had with family members.
☛ Son and Brother Disappears ☚
The McCullough family was very concerned about Robert’s whereabouts, but hoped for the best and believed he would come home.
However, when the health of his adored grandmother Cornelia Carpenter Springer deteriorated in March 1947, the McCullough family made every effort to find Robert, even requesting WHO Radio in Des Moines to broadcast messages for him.
When Robert’s grandmother passed away, the McCulloughs still had no word of him.
☛ Floods of 1947 Bring Grim Discovery ☚
In the months that followed the last sighting of Robert McCullough, heavy rains poured down on Iowa, setting records that remained unbroken until 1993. Nearly every river in eastern Iowa overflowed its banks and flooded nearby areas.
On Thursday, August 14, 1947, tenant farmers Leland Smith and Kenneth “Pete” Cooper were inspecting fences on adjoining properties owned by Albert Droll and I.G. “Barney” DeFrance in Johnson County.
Near Hills, Iowa, and about a quarter mile east of the Iowa River, they discovered something in the sand and river debris left from the earlier floods.
Smith described what happened to the Iowa City Press-Citizen:
“We had walked by the place once and it looked like an old blanket or rags piled under stuff against the fence.
We must have walked within three feet of it going one direction, and then when we came back, Pete said, ‘What the devil is that, Smith?”
I walked over and looked and what I saw made my knees a little shaky. ‘My God, Pete,’ I said, ‘It’s a man!’”
Cooper thought Smith was joking until he saw “legs sticking out.”
☛ Law Enforcement Investigates ☚Smith and Cooper drove directly to Iowa City to inform Johnson County Sheriff Albert J. Murphy, who sent an ambulance to transport the body to Hohenschuh Mortuary in Iowa City.
Local law enforcement and Johnson County Attorney Jack C. White examined the body and requested the assistance of the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which assigned the case to Agent Dwight O. Bender.
☛ Papers Establish Identity ☚
The man wore almost-new shoes and was heavily clothed for winter in a leather coat with the zipper pulled up and a gray overcoat on top. His wristwatch was intact and there was a clip-on pencil in his coat.
His wallet contained $17, a driver’s license, a Social Security card, and a photocopy of his Army discharge. In a coat pocket was a receipt for a life insurance policy, paid up through January of 1947.
All the identification showed the man was Robert McCullough. McCullough’s brother John arrived from Mount Vernon to verify the identity.
During the autopsy, Johnson County Coroner Frank L. Love found a flattened-out .32 caliber bullet on the left side of McCullough’s skull that had entered just above the right ear.
Agent Bender took the bullet to the Des Moines Bureau of Criminal Investigation Lab for further investigation, but it could not be determined if the bullet was fired at close range.
Love said McCullough was dead at least three months and perhaps as long as six, considering his cold-weather clothes.
Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) Director R.W. “Doc” Nebergall told the media McCullough’s body was “nothing but a skeleton in a bunch of clothing.”
The BCI could not state with certainty whether McCullough was murdered, committed suicide, or met with an accident, although they felt the position of the wound and the path of the bullet suggested homicide.
McCullough’s family agreed with the BCI, saying they believed Robert was murdered about the time he disappeared on February 23 and then thrown into the Iowa River.
☛ How Did the Body Get There? ☚
The location of the body — a quarter-of-a-mile east of the Iowa River — was four miles southeast of Hills if accessed by roads. As the crow flies, it was a straight shot a mile-and-a-half south.
Sheriff Murphy and Deputy Marold Glaspey returned to the spot and sifted through debris left from the June flooding and traced a path from the fence row to the Iowa River. The officers concluded the massive June floods carried McCullough’s body to the fence.
It’s likely McCullough got off the bus at Iowa City, where he would have had to transfer to travel on southeast to Wapello.
Likely and for unknown reasons, someone shot him in the head in Iowa City and threw his body into the river there.
☛ Robert McCullough’s Life ☚
Robert Douglas McCullough was born June 13, 1913 in Wapello, Iowa, to Edith C. Springer and Roy Davison McCullough. He had five siblings: Mary E. McCullough, John Springer McCullough, Jean McCullough Wortman, Frances McCullough, and Ruth McCullough.
Funeral services were held in the Dudgeon Funeral home in Wapello on August 16, 1947 with Dr. R. Clifton Keagy officiating. Robert McCullough was buried in the Wapello Cemetery with full military rites provided by the local American Legion.
Louisa County Sheriff Robert R. Lewis, who accompanied McCullough’s body from Iowa City home to Wapello, told the Iowa City Press-Citizen that McCullough had a “pleasant disposition,” no enemies, and no reason for suicide.
☛ From New Guinea: A Reminder of Robert McCullough ☚
In early April of 2012, I received an email from Gary Traynor, who lives in New South Wales, Australia. Traynor is a former New South Wales police officer and reserve military officer who makes twice-annual trips to New Guinea to provide tours of WWII battlefields there, where some of the fiercest fighting against the Japanese took place.Traynor also founded the organization Medals Gone Missing, a non-profit site that tries to unite unclaimed military medals and found dog tags with service personnel or their families.
A dog tag belonging to Robert D. McCullough was found by Annanius Mongagi of the Papuan Tribe in New Guinea. Through the number on it, Gary Traynor was able to trace official American military information about Robert McCullough.
With a tip from a reader of Medals Gone Missing, Gary found my article about the murder of Robert D. McCullough, who survived WWII jungle warfare and malaria, only to meet with foul play two years after the end of the war.
Through genealogy and web searching, I located a nephew of Robert McCullough, who never married. He and Gary Traynor are now working out details for returning Robert’s dog tag to the family.
Click here to visit Medals Gone Missing.
☛ Interesting Side Note ☚
Johnson County Deputy Marold Glaspey — who helped investigate the death of Robert McCullough — became an actor under the stage name “Richard Warren.” He appeared in the television programs “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” “Cimarron City,” and “Bat Masterson,” among others. He also acted in movies, including The Rawhide Trail and Gun Battle at Monterey.
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Body Found Near Hills; Officers Puzzled,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 15, 1947.
- ☛ “Bullet Wound in Head of Skeleton Found in River,” Estherville Daily News, August 15, 1947.
- ☛ “Find Body of Wapello Man in Iowa River, Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, August 15, 1947.
- ☛ “Find No Clues Where Body Discovered,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 16, 1947.
- ☛ “Identify Body of Man Found in Iowa River,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, August 14, 1947.
- ☛ Medals Gone Missing.
- ☛ “Rites At Wapello For R.D. McCullough,” Mt. Pleasant News, August 19, 1947.
- ☛ U.S. Census.