Company L - 137th Infantry Regiment
When I was a child my mother used to take me to my paternal grandparentsâ€™ house in the town of Cahokia, Illinois occasionally to spend the weekend. On more than one occasion I was able to spend Memorial Day with my grandparents. When that happened I would attend the annual Memorial Day service held in front of Cahokia City Hall where my grandmother was honored as a Gold Star Mother.
After the ceremony I would ride in silence with my grandparents across the Mississippi River via the Old Jefferson Barracks Bridge to the National Cemetery to visit the grave of their oldest son, Ralph. My uncle. They would lay a wreath on his grave; often, my mother would have bought one for me to place there as well. After a quiet moment at the gravesite we would go out to eat. I remember the tears in my grandparentsâ€™ eyes as they would eat in silence, remembering the little boy they raised to be sent to a foreign land to die before he even had a chance to live.
I didnâ€™t know much about my Uncle Ralph; I still donâ€™t. Not many in my generation of the family do. My aunts and uncles rarely spoke of him; the grief over the loss was too great. I did know he was killed in France and that the family received the telegram at Thanksgiving. The holiday was never the same for the family after that.
I remembering lying in the big featherbed in my grandparentâ€™s guest bedroom looking at the picture of my uncle in his Army uniform, among those of my father and his other brother in their Navy uniforms and of my aunts and wondering what kind of person he was. I noted my grandfatherâ€™s kind eyes and a slight smile.
For years my grandmother felt bitterness toward the German people, whom she held responsible for the death of her son. This is ironic considering that at one time our area of the country was called â€śLittle Germany.â€ť But grief sometimes knows no logic and the grief of a mother for a lost son knows no bounds.
Then, a few years after my grandfather passed a retired US Army Master Sergeant and his wife moved in next door to my grandmother. The wife, Mrs. Kelly was from Bavaria. At first my grandmother (who the family called â€śMomâ€ť) was cool to her new neighbor. After all, she was a German and she was old enough to have been alive during the War. But Mrs. Kelly refused to allow Momâ€™s barriers to stop her. Maybe she knew why her new neighbor was so unfriendly, but she bombarded my grandmother, the widow next door with constant acts of kindness and generosity.
One night when I was visiting my grandmother she was telling me how Mrs. Kelly had baked her a Black Forest cake when she heard I was visiting. I had just retuned from Germany myself. We talked a moment about what a good neighbor Mrs. Kelly was and then, almost to herself, I heard my grandmother say, â€śMaybe all Germans arenâ€™t bad â€“ their boys were probably like oursâ€¦â€ť
Iâ€™ve always been thankful Mrs. Kelly could come into my grandmotherâ€™s life so she could forgive the German people.
Over the years Iâ€™ve gathered bits and pieces of information here and there. From his tombstone at Jefferson Barracks Cemetery Iâ€™ve gleaned his unit and date of death.
I donâ€™t know exactly when he joined the 137th Infantry but I learned that on his way to war he may have passed through Camp Rucker, Alabama. I now live less than five miles away from Fort Rucker. Small world. My grandmother once told me he didnâ€™t like England. Maybe he was just homesick for his hometown of Dupo, Illinois.
Reading the Division history I know his outfit saw heavy fighting from July through November 1944 when he was killed. My mother once told me sheâ€™d heard he was killed by an artillery round.
I have his picture and Purple Heart medal and certificate and what was left of his belongings. When my grandmother died the family thought I should have it as I was the only other Army veteran from my father's side of the family (after Ralph the men all went Navy and Air Force).
I remember the sadness in my fatherâ€™s eyes as he gave me his big brotherâ€™s things. His wallet, a marksmanship badge, my grandmotherâ€™s Blue Star pin, a few coins, which he kept; in a small plastic bag â€“ all thatâ€™s left to show for his nineteen years on this earth. They are my proudest possessions.
But I found more pieces to the puzzle in the documents: I found he had been killed or died in France on November 4, 1944 and had been originally interred in the Cemetery at Limy.
A few years back I was talking with Dad on the phone when the subject of Ralph came up. He had run into a fellow from Dupo at a store; he hadnâ€™t seen the man since he, Ralph, and a bunch of other kids from Dupo had been inducted into the Army together. From what I gather many of them ended up in the same regiment, if not the same company.
They exchanged small talk and then, â€śHowâ€™s Ralph doing?â€ť
Even over the phone my dadâ€™s voice choked a bit, â€śHe was killed during the war.â€ť
I donâ€™t know exactly how the conversation went after that but I learned from talking to Dad that night Ralph and a bunch of his buddies were in the back of a truck when an artillery barrage hit the position. Ralph was killed when a round hit his truck.
Dad told me the guy said he remembered when it happened and had heard a kid from Dupo had been hit, but he didnâ€™t know it was Ralph. Sixty years later and the wounds can still hurt.
I never met Ralph, obviously, he was killed twelve years before I was born, but somehow I feel close to him; and there are times when I am reminded of him such as June 7, 1974; right after I graduated from high school in Frankfurt Germany. We wanted to go to Normandy (our second trip) to take my younger brothers to visit the place. We got a late start and ended up getting there a day after all the big celebrations of the 30th Anniversary were over. There was still quite a crowd, though. I remember my stepdad, a career Army sergeant, tooling our big Chevy Station wagon through the narrow streets of Arromanches as we made our way toward the D-Day visitor's center. When we got to the town square, which if I remember correctly, opened up on Gold Beach, we found it thronged with hundreds and hundreds of French schoolchildren there on field trips.
As we were making our way through the crowd, which was parting like water, I remember a little French schoolgirl turning to look at us as she got out of the way. Her eyes got wide as she saw our American car, then looked down at our US Armed Forces license plate. With excitement she grabbed the arm of the girl next to her and said, "Americain! Americain!"
Before we knew it there were hundreds of French school children shouting "Vive' Le Americain!" (Pardon my French here). It still brings tears to my eyes when I remember that. It makes me proud of all those kids (men) who stormed the beaches, fell from the skies, and flew overhead and who made the ultimate sacrifice.
I thought of my Uncle Ralph â€“ nineteen when he died. He was younger than my youngest boy. He never had a chance to see his children. He grew up during the Depression and my dad's folks were poor. My grandfather was a railroad lineman. I think of all those World War II guys, growing up with childhoods of deprivation, then at reaching adulthood, being thrust into a war. My Uncle Ralph died before he really had a chance to live.
I had another uncle on my mother's side who fought in the Pacific, my Uncle Earl. He ran off at sixteen and used his dead brother's birth certificate to join the Navy. He ended up in the UDT (Underwater Demolition Teams), frogmen, now they call them SEALS. By the time the war was over he'd been in combat three years and still wasn't legally old enough to drink a toast to the victory. He lived with the war his entire life. Never could settle down.
The Egyptians used to believe if you uttered the names of the dead it kept them alive in the afterlife. They would place the names of the dead over the entrances to their crypts so folks could read those names and keep the folks alive. In a way they were right. As long as we remember the dead we keep them alive in our hearts.
I have always believed we owe it to all the Ralphs who made the supreme sacrifice to remember them and keep them alive. I write this in memory of all the Ralphs and Earls from across the globe who sacrificed their youths to make this a better world. When we forget them they will be truly dead â€“ let us keep them alive. Let us pray we never run out of them when we need them.