French and US volunteers give honor to WWII heroes by adopting their graves and telling their stories

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American soldiers taking a long hike on a muddy road in Chambois Sector in France in the late 1944. Epinal was liberated from the German soldiers in September 23, 1944.

France is no stranger to brutal wars in history including one where American soldiers and German soldiers clashed in fierce battle. Today, volunteers from both sides has come together to honor the thousands of men from Wisconsin who sacrificed their lives in the fierce battle during the World War II.

Around 5,000 American servicemen found their final resting place in Epinal American Military Cemetery in the northeastern town of Dinozé found at the foothills of Vosges Mountains in France. Many of these servicemen bear names that like the thousands others may have been buried in the pages of history. However, the volunteers, calling themselves “godfathers”, have brought back the stories of the soldiers to world by adopting the gravesites of the U.S. soldiers. The volunteers placed wreaths and flowers and tended the graves and the crosses to honor the men who were buried there. One godfather went beyond knowing the story of the buried soldier in the grave he adopted. He tried to contact a history professor of the University of Wisconsin in his inquiry.

Professor Mary Louise Roberts gave the task of knowing the story of Robert Kellett to her studetns. She asked her students and surprisingly, all were interested to work on the project. The students researched about Kellett and found that he was a pole vaulter and hurdler at Fond du Lac High School. He was killed in hand-to-hand combat with enemy soldiers in 1944. He was only married less than a year and he was just 22.

After finding out about Kellet, the 43 students wanted more of the same projects. So, Professor Roberts asked for more names from the godfather. The director of the Epinal American Military Cemetery grave adoption program sent a list of 30 other soldiers.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Dwight “Andy” Anderson, the Epinal American Cemetery superintendent, cleans a headstone of one of the 5,255 WWII U.S. soldiers buried in the cemetery. Photo Date: 2013, Photo Source: Kaiserslauter American
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Dwight “Andy” Anderson, the Epinal American Cemetery superintendent, cleans a headstone of one of the 5,255 WWII U.S. soldiers buried in the cemetery. Photo Date: 2013, Photo Source: Kaiserslauter American

The students discovered the stories of the soldiers in the lists. They used Army documents, census records, newspaper clippings and other resources as reference to their research. What they found out, they shared to the godfathers tending to the graves in France. They discovered another name in the person of Sgt. Leonard Marshall. He grew up in Richland County. He also loved to box. He was killed in combat. He was engaged to marry.

The U.S. 7th Army liberated Epinal from Nazi occupation in September 23, 1944. The town started burying the Americans and German soldiers who died during the encounter. After the war, around 7,752 American soldiers and 6,000 Germans were said to be buried there. Audrey Fink, 86 years old, is Kellet’s sister. She was very happy when she knew that her big brother’s story was not forgotten and even retold to the future generations. She is also happy to learn that his grave is being attended to. After learning of the godfathers, Fink became friends with the man who adopted his big brother’s grave.

She expressed her gratitude at the efforts of the godfather and those who relived his life story. Although her brother was killed 70 years ago, Fink was glad someone took the task to look after him in his grave. She said that there were only two visitors, Audrey and her husband in 1974 and her niece two years ago. Finally, all that will change.