Sisters Remember WWI Through Grandfather's Found Diary

Oct 22, 2017
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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

It's been a hundred years since the United States' entry into World War I. But some memories from that war have already been lost to history, even though 2 million Americans fought in Europe. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley brings us this postcard about one family's deeply personal quest to make sure that history is remembered.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: From the time they were little girls, Sarah Leonard and Betsy Gerdes, heard stories of their grandfather's service as a U.S. Marine with the American Expeditionary Force in France.

SARAH LEONARD: My grandfather - our grandparents - had seven children, but our father was the only son. And so we acquired some of the World War I memorabilia that he had. And that piqued our interest, I guess.

BEARDSLEY: That's Sarah Leonard. She says her grandfather, Alpheus Appenheimer's memorabilia included a pistol, a mess kit and a gas mask. But Betsy Gerdes says the most important thing was his diary. That's enabled the sisters to retrace his footsteps a century later.

BETSY GERDES: It's just very exciting to actually be here and think of our grandfather as a 26-year-old gutsy young man.

BEARDSLEY: The sisters are in the village Marigny-en-Orxois, about 60 miles east of Paris, right where their grandfather served on the Western Front.

GILLES LAGIN: And we'll go following the diary.

BEARDSLEY: They have a local guide. Gilles Lagin grew up here. The 53-year-old mechanic says he's been uncovering the story of the American troops who fought here since he was 9 years old. His research has earned him the title of Honorary Marine from the Marine Corps.

LAGIN: I wanted to know what this young American man coming from so far away did in France.

BEARDSLEY: Lagin tells the sisters what their grandfather would have seen on this main road to Paris in June of 1918.

LAGIN: It was a very bad sight. You see old people with carts, horses, old women, young women, children. And they took all of their precious things.

BEARDSLEY: Lagin says people were fleeing ahead of the German army's last effort to reach the French capital.

LAGIN: People in Paris were afraid. They got news every day that the Germans were closing and closing and closing. And nobody was about to stop them.

BEARDSLEY: But the Americans played a key part in stopping that last German offensive. Appenheimer was part of the Second Division Marine brigade that fought the Germans in the battle of Belleau Wood. Alpheus Appenheimer won both American and French medals for bravery by ferrying ammunition to the frontlines under harrowing conditions.

LAGIN: His wife on the dogtag...

BEARDSLEY: The group is standing on the wooded spot where Appenheimer's ammunition dump was located.

LAGIN: All this road was under shelling day after day. Shell holes everywhere because these Marines, when they were just coming back out from Belleau Wood, they were standing there. So the German artillery was very, very active.

BEARDSLEY: Many Americans who served in World War I were recent immigrants returning to a continent their families had left not long before. Sarah Leonard says their grandfather was descended from German immigrants.

LEONARD: So you can think of the conflicts in his mind. But, you know, he was born in America. To him, he was an American. But it was a very German name to be dragging around during World War I.

BEARDSLEY: Betsy Gerdes says she keeps thinking of the famous song from that time.

GERDES: How do you keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris? And I - because I do - I think of this, and I think...

BEARDSLEY: Appenheimer survived the war, raised a family and became the biggest sorghum producer in Illinois. The sisters say their visit has given them a deeper understanding of what their grandfather and millions of other Americans experienced in France a century ago. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Marigny-en-Orxois, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.