Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 15, 2016
A bend in the Moselle
Our destination was near a short westerly jog in the Moselle River four miles southeast of the village of Epinal, France. The rolling land in the area is ill-suited for farming, so most is covered in trees.
After turning south into the drive off the rural road along the Moselle, we could not help but notice the perfectly manicured landscape of carefully cut grass surrounding precisely placed and pruned shrubs and trees.
The drive connects to the western side of a small parking lot. Another lot lies farther to the east, the two being connected by a small oval filled with well-groomed grass. On the southern edge of the oval is a white stone visitor's center. Four hundred feet to the north on the opposite side of the oval and toward the river is a much larger monument mostly surrounded by four stone walls. Across its top are etched the words "Citizens of every calling bred in the principles of the American democracy."
Beyond those walls lie 5,225 graves divided into two large fan-shaped plots, each marked with either a Latin cross or a Star of David. These are the final resting places for some of the Americans who helped liberate France during World War II. The walls are inscribed with the names of 424 men whose bodies could not be found.
The Epinal American Cemetery is by no means the largest European cemetery for America's WWII dead. The Lorraine American Cemetery at St. Avold, France is more than twice as large, even surpassing in burials the well-known site in Normandy. The latter is visited by bus loads of visitors daily. Only three cars stopped at the Epinal cemetery during our visit and those visitors appeared to be French.
We had come to visit three particular graves: those of Army Captain Alfred Eugene Makins, Army Private First Class Earl Edwin Oliver Jr. and airman Captain Gerald Sigurd Wagstad. All had Manhattan, Kansas connections, having been students at what was then Kansas State Agricultural College.
The three men shared little else in common. Makins was born on Nov. 25, 1915 to Charles and Katherine Makins, a farm family living just outside of Abilene, Kansas. The second youngest of four brothers, he graduated from Abilene High School and then from KSAC in 1940, where he was a standout student in Industrial Journalism. He was the editor of the yearbook and president of his senior class. He also received an infantry commission as a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. After graduation, he took a job with the Pratt Tribune. In February 1942, he married Mary Jean Grentner in Junction City, Kansas. Daughter Mary Kay was born in November.
By the late summer of 1944, Germans near Epinal were surrendering in large numbers. Still, the conditions favored the defenders. On Sept. 29, Captain Makins, was commanding a company from the 141st Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division about 10 miles east of Epinal when he was killed near a bridge on the Le Barba creek near the tiny village of Laveline-du-Houx.
In contrast, Wagstad was not even a native Kansan. He was born Aug. 27, 1916 to Martha and John Wagstad. The family lived in Osseo, Wisconsin. Wagstad had two younger sisters. His father, a native of Norway, ran a flour and feed mill. Wagstad probably attended K-State because of its strong milling science program.
He entered the service in January 1942, about a month after the war began. He became a pilot and his first assignment involved patrolling America's East Coast looking for enemy submarines.
Transferred to England in the late fall of 1943, Wagstad continued to fly antisubmarine missions until the Navy took over those operations. Wagstad and the other men so involved were reassigned, flying missions to supply the French resistance and to stockpile supplies in Europe for the coming D-Day landings. B-24 bombers were modified, removing most of the armaments and bombing equipment. Missions began after dark, with low-altitude flights to avoid detection by German radar. Full-moon nights were preferred as navigation was largely visual. Each plane flew on its own with no coordination from other sources.
The March 3, 1944 mission was to Felines, France, about 50 miles southwest of Lyon. After the drop, the crew headed back to Alconbury, England. Around 2 a.m. with half the distance covered, they were hit by anti-aircraft fire. Being too low to parachute, all aboard died.
Oliver's story is also very different from the other two. He was a freshman in engineering from near Madison, Kansas, a village 20 miles south of Emporia. He was born Mar. 18, 1926, the son of farmers Earl and Beatrice Oliver. At home, there were two sisters and his father's mother.
Soldiers like Oliver who entered late in the war were generally replacements for others previously killed or wounded. He arrived by ship in Marseilles, France on Dec. 15 and then traveled by French rail box car to an area about 10 miles north of Strasbourg. The Germans were trying a new offensive in the south after the failure of the Battle of the Bulge. Oliver was a foot soldier in Company L, 275th Infantry Regiment, 70th Infantry Division. He died of wounds on Jan. 6, 1945, three weeks after his arrival in Europe and two months short of his 19th birthday.
These three men's graves and all the others buried at Epinal are precisely two meters from the one next to it and three meters from those in the adjacent rows. Precise records made locating each headstone easy.
Back home, the Fourth of July had just passed. There would have been excitement with fireworks, cookouts and bands. But here in a bend of the Moselle River, there was just quiet - and a sense of sadness that these 5,225 men who together number more than the current individual population of 36 Kansas counties, never made it home to celebrate with their loved ones on the Fourth of July of 1945 or any that followed.
NOTE: Husband Art, daughters Mariya and Katie, Mariya's friend Miriam and I visted the cemetery near Epinal on July 7. Art has been doing research on the men from Riley County, Kansas who died in the service during World War II and so I asked him to write this as a guest column. The photos of the men are from the K-State Royal Purple yearbook.
Top: monument in the Epinal American Cemetery as seen from the visitor's center; middle row (l-r): Wagstad, Oliver and Makins; bottom: a portion of the "A" burial plot graves.