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Doughboy MIA makes sure missing WWI heroes get recognition

By Scott Calvert
via the Wall Street Journal

One of the earliest American casualties of World War I will soon have his name etched in stone at an overseas U.S. military cemetery, a century after the 20-year-old sailor’s death.

Herbert Hammond Renshaw Wicomico News photo circa 1917Herbert Hammond Renshaw (Wicomico News photo circa 1917, courtesy Stephen Gehnrich, Delmarvanow.com) Seaman Herbert Renshaw fell overboard off the coast of South Carolina during a naval patrol on May 22, 1917, weeks after the U.S. entered the war. But probably due to a clerical error by Navy officials, he was never listed on a monument to the missing at Brookwood American Cemetery in England.

That is about to change after Robert Laplander, a Wisconsin songwriter-turned-historian, documented the omission with help from a biology professor in Maryland. The Federal agency responsible for U.S. cemeteries and memorials overseas says it will correct the oversight.

Doughboy MIA logo 150“We want to make sure every American is appropriately commemorated,” said Timothy Nosal, external affairs chief at the American Battle Monuments Commission. Its acting secretary last month approved engraving the seaman’s name, possibly this summer.

The Brookwood chapel’s interior walls are inscribed with the names of more than 560 U.S. soldiers, sailors and Coast Guardsmen lost at sea during World War I, many near the U.K. and France. Though Seaman Renshaw perished far from European shores, he died in “outside waters” in wartime and was technically on the battlefield.

Seaman Renshaw’s 70-year-old niece, Gail Renshaw Blackwell, was born 30 years after her uncle’s death and didn’t know there was a memorial to the missing in England. Still, she said she is grateful his name will be added. “I just really appreciate it,” she said.

For Mr. Laplander, this is the biggest success yet of the Doughboy MIA project, a citizen-led effort he launched in 2015 to investigate cases of the 4,223 service members listed as missing in World War I. About half died on the battlefield, the rest were lost at sea.

While the Defense Department has a unit dedicated to accounting for missing personnel, that effort applies only to conflicts since World War II. One goal of Doughboy MIA—doughboy was a common term for troops deployed to Europe—is to put a name to soldiers buried in graves marked unknown. In the Renshaw case, it instead found that one of the missing never received his due recognition.

Robert LaplanderRobert Laplander“It’s a different kind of discovery, but we look at it as being a major victory since the job is to remember them, and here we’ve done it,” said the 51-year-old Mr. Laplander, who lives in Waterford, Wis.

Long fascinated by the Great War, he has actively sought to solve mysteries surrounding the missing for over a decade. In 2005, while working on a book about the war, he received the dog tag of a Pvt. Eugene McGrath, who was killed in France’s Argonne Forest in 1918 and buried as an unknown in a U.S. cemetery. A Frenchman found the tag in 2001.

Through sleuthing, Mr. Laplander got close to finding the private’s final resting place but said the trail went cold because a key military file is missing. All he knows still is that Pvt. McGrath is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.

Lately Mr. Laplander, a volunteer who personally pays for some of the research, and a handful of volunteer helpers, including his wife, Trinie, have worked on the case of a killed U.S. soldier whose remains were never found. They think they may have found the trench in the Argonne where he was buried on the battlefield. “It’s a work in progress.”

DoughboyMIA page 600Doughboy MIA page on the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site.The revelation that Seaman Renshaw’s name was inadvertently left off the memorial began with Stephen Gehnrich, a biology professor at Salisbury University on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A World War I buff, Mr. Gehnrich researched local men who served in the war. He noticed the seaman’s name didn’t pop up on any U.S. monuments, though it is on a county monument and at Baltimore’s War Memorial.

After seeing a reference to Doughboy MIA, whose work is highlighted on the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission’s website, he contacted Mr. Laplander, who got to work.

He and his team found a newspaper story on Seaman Renshaw’s death, which said he fell overboard while performing signal work in rough seas. They pulled military records showing his stepmother sailed to Europe in 1931 on a trip for mothers and widows of men lost in the war. Brookwood’s chapel was completed in 1930, though Alec Bennett, a monuments commission historian, isn’t sure if the walls of the missing were done by her visit.

The team also located the telegram an officer sent Seaman Renshaw’s father, George, the day after Herbert went missing. “Bureau deeply regrets inform you Herbert H Renshaw lost overboard five fifteen on May twenty-second at sea during heav[y] weather His body has not been recovered No further information at hand You have the sincere sympathy of the Bureau in the loss of your son.”

Mr. Laplander said people often ask why he does this work, given that no one alive today knew these service members.

“Why not?” he said. “This man went and lost his life in the service of the country. We bring our dead home, and the best we can hope for is to give him a named grave. If we could do that, why wouldn’t we? I don’t think time dulls that.”

Read the article on the Wall Street Journal web site here.

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