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"Numbers, statistics are not enough"

After almost a century, Carl Willig came home 

By Noretta Willig
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site

In the American Cemetery at Thiaucourt, France, stands a Doughboy, larger than life. Dressed in a summer tunic, bloused pants, and leggings, this serious soldier notches his thumbs in his belt that holds his cased pistol and his field helmet. His still gaze looks out over the silent rows of white crosses. Strong, handsome and resolute, he seems so young.

Doughboy Thiaucourt France 300Doughboy sculpture in the American Cemetery at Thiaucourt, France.Above his head, the inscription, in French, translates: HE SLEEPS FAR FROM HIS FAMILY IN THE GENTLE LAND OF FRANCE.

On the pedestal, below, the motto continues in English: BLESSED ARE THEY THAT HAVE THE HOME LONGING FOR THEY SHALL GO HOME.

My uncle, Carl Willig, died on September 16, 1918, at the battle of St. Mihiel.

Fifty-six days before the end of the war and thirty minutes before his replacement arrived, a high impact shell struck and killed Carl. According to an eyewitness, “He suffered no pain, dear friends.”

Carls StoryIn what we now call “the fog of war,” Carl was lost. In the chaos of the shelling, his body was not immediately recovered from the battlefield, and was lost.

To his parents, his brother and all who ever knew him, he was lost forever. The next three generations continued to experience that loss, an unresolved sorrow that reappeared persistently.

But, over many years, Carl became an ancestral shadow, no longer a reality to anyone.

Then, on November 10, 2008, the eve of the 90th Armistice Day, my phone rang and a genealogist from Oregon working for the US Army identified me as Carl’s next of kin. “They have found something,” she said, explaining that she knew nothing more and that the Army would call me with the full story.

From that second, I was compelled -- I would even say driven – to write Carl’s Story.

My research took me first into old family photos. Looking at them, many for the first time, caused me to make connections with members of my family, some of whom I knew quite well and others whom I never heard of. The linkage and the irony that I discovered looking at those pictures brought meaning and understanding to relationships long cast away in memory.

Then, representatives of the Army visited my home and brought with them hundreds of pages of evidence illustrating the scholarship of JPAC – anthropologists, historians, and several forensic and materials specialists. The information they presented led to an indisputable conclusion. By the single most indestructible part of him, Carl had been found.

They also introduced me to a French organization called "Thanks, GIs", whose mission is to recover the lost remains of American soldiers. In World War I and again in World War II, Eastern France was liberated by the same 5th Division of the US Army.

Most in the organization were only children when American troops freed them from their German occupation. As a display of their continuing gratitude, on every holiday, American or French, these men, women and today’s children and grandchildren honor their liberators. When I later traveled to France to meet them, they identified their commitment as “the least we can do for them who did so much for us.”

A member of "Thanks, GIs" accidentally, but fortuitously discovered Carl in an isolated woods near an old farmhouse.

Through a long and extraordinary series of coincidences, described in the book, Carl was found and identified. Then, after almost a century, Carl came home. Home at last.

With full military honors, Carl was buried next to his father, mother and brother in the family plot. As he was laid to rest for the final time, a train whistle sounded over the hills of his hometown and the now-idle steel mill where he worked.

Doughboy Thiaucourt mottoCarl was only eighteen years old when he enlisted. He was the son of a German immigrant, and he marched away to a place called “over there.” Why did he go? To prove his loyalty to their New World? To answer President Wilson’s patriotic call? To have an adventure?

We will never know that answer. His story is not the drama of a valorous moment in a war that made him the hero of the battle. He was just a boy who marched away to serve and die for our country, in the war that is often forgotten.

With the passing of all who knew Carl, he, too, was nearly forgotten – until my phone rang.

Now Carl is remembered and perhaps, Carl’s Story will hold him in the minds and hearts of those who read the book.

It has been my honor to write Carl’s Story. In every time and place, from the Revolution to Afghanistan, we must respect and revere the lives and the memories of all those who sacrificed so that we may live free.

As we commemorate World War I, at its 100th Anniversary, we need to call to mind the millions of soldiers who marched away and the many thousands who have never returned. Numbers, statistics are not enough. Each of them has his story and all of them had the home longing.

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