Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 5, 2017

Connected by a thread

There is much evidence from across the world that suggests that spiders may be one of the least-liked creatures that we encounter frequently. So both husband Art and I were a bit surprised when our host Lori Goetsch said the evening reminded her of the Sherman Alexie poem, “Summer of Black Widows.”

On April 12, we and about 100 others had gathered in the Hemisphere Room in Hale Library on the Kansas State University campus. We were there to learn about what had been billed as “The French Freedom Papers.” Goetsch, the dean of K-State Libraries, later explained her reference to the poem:

... it is a poem about stories pouring over each other, intersecting, accumulating ... In the poem, stories are born from the bellies of spiders and fill people’s lives with those stories. It ends with “Up in the corners of our old houses we still find those small, white bundles ..."

A great parallel, I think, to libraries and archives!

Goetsch’s observation was particularly appropriate for that evening because the materials presented came from the library’s Morse Department of Special Collections, which I am inclined to call archives. I always imagine an archive filled with bundles of white paper that long resided in some person’s personal effects.

While a spider’s web is frequently invoked as a metaphor when an unsuspecting person becomes entangled and trapped, it can also suggest that two widely-separated places or events can be connected together by a thin filament. Our evening was to be one of these latter occasions - two stories with little in common except a few slender threads that connected them.

Both began about the same time. One was centered on Kansan Richard Seitz, who was born in 1918 in Leavenworth. The other was about Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli (vo-jo-lee), who was born in 1922 in the French village of Romorantin. World War II would prove to be the pivotal event in both their lives. One would go on to be a much-respected lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, while the other would become a spy whose life became the basis of a well-known book and movie.

Tony Crawford, retired curator at K-State, explained how the library became involved. It began in 2012 when he and colleague David Allen visited Lt. Gen. Richard Seitz in his home in nearby Junction City. At that time, they obtained the general’s official orders, assignments, promotion papers, awards, citations and other materials. When Seitz died the next year, Crawford returned to the home to meet the general’s family and to look at a collection of his other papers and photographs.

There, with [Seitz’s daughter] Pat’s guidance, I went through and boxed the material - but what I remember as much as anything about that day is [Pat’s husband] Alan Greer seated in a nearby chair and every time something had to be clarified about General Seitz’s career, World War II, a name or event, or a photo identified, it seemed like Alan knew the answer. He is a living Wikipedia only more accurate, on military history and General Seitz’s career.

Pat Seitz, a K-State alumna and U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of Florida, and other family members were at the Hale Library event. Her comments and a little research provided a glimpse of her father’s story.

After graduating from high school, Seitz attended Kansas State Agricultural College (now K-State). In 1939, he began dating fellow-student Bettie Jean Merrill, a native of Ellis, Kansas.

But the war would separate them. Seitz accepted a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Going into the war, the Army command was not supportive of parachute troops. As a result, the first jump by an American soldier was not until 1940. But Seitz thought it looked interesting and wanted to be a paratrooper. He asked to be transferred, but his request was denied.

Another denial followed his next request, but he had an unexpected break. A friend who knew of Seitz’s desire had been promoted above the person who had denied the second request. By March 1942, at the age of 25, Seitz was given command of the 2nd Battalion of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regimental Combat Team. Later, promoted to Lt. Colonel, he became the Army’s youngest battalion commander. During the war, he led his men in combat in the assault on Anzio, Italy; in southern France; and in the Battle of the Bulge.

Like many Americans, Merrill also wanted to contribute to the war effort. So after graduating with a journalism degree from K-State in 1942, she joined the Red Cross. She was first sent to England in late 1943 to support the bomber groups of the 8th Air Force. Then in the fall of 1944, she was moved to Holland to run an Army rest and rehabilitation center.

In January 1945, she read in the military newspaper “Stars and Stripes” that Seitz and his men were near St. Vith. By herself, she drove from her hospital in Holland to the headquarters of the 517th in Belgium. But she was barred from going to the front.

The couple agreed they would wait to marry until the war was over. Neither wanted Merrill to be a war widow and both knew the likelihood was real. On one occasion, Seitz’ 600-man force was reduced to 200 in just two days of combat.

When it was clear things had settled down, Merrill contacted Seitz and told him she would be arriving with a bridesmaid and expected him to arrange the rest.

And he did! In June 1945, they married in Joigny, France. The bridal party included one Red Cross bridesmaid and 1,800 paratroopers.

Pat described her parents’ romance as “one of the greatest love stories of World War II.”

So how did de Vosjoli connect to Seitz’ story? I'll share his story and the filament that connects them in next week’s column.

Left-top: Seitz in his 1939 K-State yearbook photo; left-middle: Merrill in her 1942 K-State yearbook photo; black and white photo to right of K-State photos: Seitz in uniform as lieutenant colonel; color photo: Seitz as lieutenant general; left-bottom: Merrill and bridesmaid Alice Gould arrive for the wedding; top-right: Seitz' troops line the walkway to the church on the wedding day; bottom-right: Seitz, Merrill and Seitz' commander. (Except for yearbook photos, images are from http://www.usmilitariaforum.com/forums/index.php?/topic/287150-ltg-richard-j-seitz/.)

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