Monday, December 24, 2018

A cemetery Christmas

Dutch History teacher Wiel Goertzen at the grave of Ed Forrest.

   At my office Christmas party, I mentioned to my colleague Bob Montgomery, an avid historian in the city of Bristol, Connecticut, that I’d like to give a talk at the Bristol Public Library. He asked me if I wanted to talk about my books. I said, “No, I’d like to talk about cemeteries.”

   I proceeded to tell him three stories about graves, and I was telling him a fourth when our publisher, Michael Schroeder, happened by and said, “Leave it to Aaron to talk about cemeteries at a Christmas party.”

   “Actually,” I said, “these stories are kind of uplifting.” I pointed out that the grave in the fourth story, that of an unknown German pilot, an “unbekannte flieger,” as it were, was marked by a propeller blade from the Messerschmitt 109 in which he crashed, and that a lady in the village cemetery at Heimboldshausen kept it decorated with dried flower arrangements even though she didn’t know his name. “Isn’t that kind of uplifting?” I asked. He wasn’t impressed.
The grave of the "unbekannte flieger" who, after my visit to Heimboldshausen, with the help of German historian Walter Hassenpflug, was identified as Erwin Bunk.
   But I’m getting ahead of myself. Bob said he always found cemetery stories interesting, as any historian would, so I told him that one of the stories I’d like to talk about was about Johnny Daum.
   In 1994, with the 50th anniversary of D-Day approaching, the newspaper I worked for at the time asked me to find some local D-Day veterans. So I wrote to Stephen Ambrose at the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans and asked for recommendations. He sent me a list of about a dozen.
   One of them was Ed Boccafogli, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division. Ed told of an incident that occurred before he boarded the plane to fly across the English Channel. There was a young paratrooper named Johnny Daum, and being that Ed was a little older and more rugged, he took Johnny under his wing. Johnny was about 19 years old, a good looking kid, tow-headed. Ed noticed Johnny staring off into space, and asked him if everything was okay.

   Johnny said matter of factly, “I’m gonna die tomorrow.”

I can still hear Ed quoting himself, ” ‘Ey, Johnny,'” he said, “‘some of us will, some of us won’t, you ain’t gonna be one of ’em.'”

   “Sure enough,” Ed said, “he was one of the first ones killed.”

   When I launched my web site in 1997, I posted my full interview with Ed. Eventually the transcript of the interview was re-posted on the web site of the 508th Parachute Infantry Division, Ed’s unit, and the anecdote about Johnny Daum’s premonition was picked up in a book titled “The Americans at Normandy,” by John McManus.

   Meanwhile, in Eagle Lake, Wisconsin, a fellow named Tom Stumpner grew up knowing he had an Uncle Bud who was killed during the war. That was all he knew, as his mother would never talk about her brother.
    “Band of Brothers” was released in 2001. I don’t know when Tom saw it, probably not too long thereafter, and he suddenly remembered that his Uncle Bud was a paratrooper. His mother wouldn’t talk about it, but Tom’s interest in D-Day was piqued.

   Then his mother took ill. When she was near death, she gave Tom a box, I don’t know if it was a cigar box or a cardboard box, but in it were letters, snapshots, and other memorabilia from Uncle Bud. It was then he learned Bud wasn’t really his uncle’s name. His uncle’s name was John Daum.

   He didn’t know much beyond what was in the letters. But then he bought “The Americans at Normandy” and discovered the anecdote about Johnny Daum’s premonition. And then, I don’t know if he googled John Daum or Ed Boccafogli, but he discovered my interview on the paratroopers’ web site. He emailed the site and said he wanted to fill out his uncle’s story, and he sent them copies of the letters and snapshots his mother left him.

The American cemetery in Normandy. Photo by Mary Kay Bosshart.

   Fast forward to 2011. Mary Kay Bosshart, who writes a blog called “Out and About With Mary Kay,” took a tour of the American cemetery in Normandy. The tour guide stopped at one grave and told a story.

   In 2007, the guide said, another tour guide found a letter propped up against the cross marking the grave at which they were stopped. The grave was that of John Daum.

   The tour guide in 2011 gave Mary Kay a copy of the letter, which she posted on her blog.

Le 1 november 2007
Dear John,
    We don’t know each other, we know nothing of each other’s lives and even so, I feel I owe you so much. I know nothing of you or so little.
    I don’t know what were your tastes, your hobbies, your favorite music or if you had a girlfriend back home. I don’t know what you loved in life, your too short life.
    John, you’ve been buried here for over 60 years, in this land of France that saw your last days. These last days where you fought for the liberation of a country, a whole continent and a civilization. When I found your picture, I started thinking a lot about you, your face, your pink cheeks, almost the face of a child. Your smile tells me you must have been mischievous, cheerful and full of life.
    Then I felt a deep sorrow because I know that on that day of June 6 th, 1944, when you jumped into the cold black night on the Normandy beach, you must have been terrified. Terrified before the unknown, terrified at the thought of never seeing your family again, of loosing your army companions, of being alone, of death itself. Nevertheless, you survived that historic night and fought for two long days, before you fell on June 8 th.
    I wonder how were the last moments of your life, with who you were. From the bottom of my heart, I hope that you were not alone. Because I know that your comrade-in-arms must have done everything to protect you, reassure you and comfort you.
I read the letters that were addressed to your parents when you passed away and realized that you were very much appreciated by your army companions.
    Before I leave John, I would like to tell you how much I am aware that your ultimate sacrifice and the one of thousand of men like you has allowed me and all of us, to live in a land of freedom and peace.
    For all of this, I am sincerely grateful. So, I promise you that every time I will travel to Normandy, I will come visit you to honor your memory. I will lay my hand on your white cross, so that you are not alone in the dark anymore. I will keep your memory alive in my heart and I will never forget what you have done for me, for our liberty, for all of us.

    See you soon and may god bless you.
Yvan ----

   Fascinated by the letter and wanting to know more about Johnny Daum, Mary Kay asked at the cemetery office if they could put her in touch with Yvan, and she asked the web master of the 508th PIR site if she could contact Tom.

   Today, Mary Kay, Tom and Yvan are great friends. Tom has been over to Normandy several times with members of his family, and has even learned a great deal more about his uncle’s experiences and the circumstances surrounding his death.

   The second story is about a Gold Star mother. It was told to me in 1999 by Erlyn Jensen, who was 12 years old when her brother Bill, who was 19, went into the service. Bill became a major in the 445th Bomb Group and was killed on Sept. 27, 1944.
   Erlyn's mother took Bill's loss very hard. Her two daughters encouraged her to join the Gold Star Mothers, which she did, and that seemed to help considerably. Then one day a family friend who Erlyn said wished to remain anonymous gave her mother an all expenses paid trip to France so she could visit her son's grave in the Lorraine American Cemetery at St. Avold.
    When she told the support group about the upcoming trip, one of the other Gold Star Mothers said, “Mrs. Mohr, I’ll never be able to go to St. Avold. If I give you ten dollars, would you buy some flowers and place them on my son’s grave?”

   “Oh, I’d be delighted to,” Erlyn’s mother said, or words to that effect.

   Now, this was a pretty emotional moment in the story and as often happens, I was getting choked up. Erlyn said, “If you’re gonna cry now, just you wait.”

   Erlyn’s mother went to France and visited the cemetery at St. Avold. She checked in at the office and a guide took her to her son’s grave. He gave her a whistle and said to blow it when she was ready to leave, and he would come and get her.

The Lorraine American Cemetery at St. Avold, France.
    She spent as much time as she needed, and then blew the whistle. When the guide returned, she showed him a piece of paper with the number of the other Gold Star Mother’s son’s grave.

The guide looked at the paper and said, “Mrs. Mohr, he’s buried right across the walkway from your son!” So she was able to come home and tell the other Gold Star Mother that your son and my son are neighbors.

   Over the years I’ve posted a lot of stories and transcripts from my interviews. On June 3, 2010, I received the following email:

Dear sir,
    My name is William Goertzen and I’m a teacher at a college for 12 till 17 year olds. I teach History and each year we spent about 10 weeks on World War Two. One of our fieldtrips is to Margraten, an American Burial site for soldiers killed in action; our school adopted the grave of one of these soldiers. With our classes we visit the grave once or twice a year, we pray for this man and we put some flowers at his grave in order to honor him and all those who died for the freedom of Europe and the Netherlands.
    Since October 2007 i have seen searching for information on Edward L. Forrest, 1Lt of the 712 th Tank Batallion. All I know is that he was killed in action on 3rd April 1945 and his ASN = O1017955. Now our idea is to make a wall inside the school with information and photos of Ed Forrest, so the War becomes ‘touchable’ for our pupils; it becomes more ‘real’ if they can look at and read about this lieutenant. We also hope to honor this particular soldier by creating this wall in our school, at
a place where pupils pass every hour/lesson.
    My problem is that I cannot seem to get any further on the internet. All trails lead to dead ends. I’ve sent forms with requests to the Department of the Army Administration section in Virginia, I’ve filled in a form of the NARA in Missouri, but no news yet. A mister Paul Wilson of North Carolina helped me on my way; Aparently Ed Forrest lived in Stockbridge, Berkshire County, MA., but all my internet searches lead to dead ends.
   In all of your interviews with veterans of 712th TB, I only once came across the name of 1LT Ed Forrest, mentioned by one of the veterans.
    Perhaps You could help me on my way, so I could learn more about his death but especially about the man behind the name; he also has or had family; I’d like to obtain information and pictures in order to make my remembrance wall and to use it in order to point out to 12 till 17 year olds that WW2 must never be forgotten.
    I hope to hear from you very soon and I would like to thank you already for reading my mail.
Yours sincerely
William Goertzen, teacher at Carbooncollege in the Netherlands.

   I didn’t know how to say “mother lode” in Dutch, but that is what Wiel had struck. Although my father’s time in combat was barely long enough to get a cup of coffee and two Purple Hearts, he managed to bond with a fellow lieutenant, Ed Forrest, who was killed near the very end of the war. As I recorded and preserved the stories of the veterans of my father’s battalion, I always asked veterans of my father's company about Ed Forrest. As Ed was an original member of the battalion while my father was a replacement, I heard many more stories about Ed than about my dad.

   And then in 1995, I decided to see if I could find Ed’s family. Within a couple of phone calls, I was on the line with Ed’s brother, Elmer Forrest. I went up to Lee, Massachusetts, and interviewed Elmer. I subsequently interviewed Dorothy Cooney, who had a secret romance with Ed and never married. I learned Ed had a falling out with his father and moved in with an Episcopalian minister when he was 14, and that the minister left a diary which I was able to read at the Stockbridge Library.

   Elmer Forrest had passed away, but I was able to put Wiel in touch with David Forrest, Elmer’s son, and David sent him a family photograph, which, along with some material I sent, was placed in a display case in the school.

The Ed Forrest display at Carbooncollege in the Netherlands.

   There you have it: three stories about cemeteries, each uplifting in its own special way, and each of which I had a role, however small, in preserving. If you’d like to know more about Johnny Daum, please visit the web site of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

   If you’d like to read or hear more, please explore the pages of my new web site,, and check out the great prices in my eBay store.