One of the Fallen

Every so often I return to genealogy research. I have to be careful – I can get sucked down the genealogy whirlpool for hours and hours or even days if I’m not careful. Ancestry.com recently partnered with Fold3.com which allows one to search military records and somewhere in a couple of hours of random searching, I discovered that my great grandmother’s nephew had fought and died in WWI.

I don’t know much about him. I’ve got queries out to Heffner genealogists but I’ve made a complete hash of my ancestry.com chart (I was tired one night and merged information for him, his father, and another John Wesley Heffner so now I need to go sort through all the documents and sort it out, a task I’m not looking forward to doing), but here’s what I know.

Wesley Heffner was born on April 30, 1898 in Chanceford Township, PA. He was the son of Amos Heffner and his wife Lottie Ardella (“Della”) Heffner nee Welsh.

He served in Hoboken and was fighting in France from June 14, 1917 to June 5, 1918 — according to his mother’s application for a military pension (apparently if a young man was unmarried, their mothers could apply for a pension at that time, or at least so it seems) and went overseas with Pershing’s first contingent. He was a private first class in Company B, 26th Infantry. He did not come home again.

I have so many questions, so many things that I would like to know about him. Is he buried in France where he died or is he buried here in the states and if so, where? Are there any extant photos? What made him enlist?

When Pershing’s forces first went over it was standard operating procedure to bury the soldiers in the land where they fell. This didn’t sit well with the folks back home and pressure was put on the military to bring their sons back. In an article that made me cry, about WWI, burying our dead, and bringing them home again we’re given a vivid picture of General Pershing facing the atrocious body count of that ‘great’ war:

“THE GENERAL WEPT when he heard the news. About 3 a.m. on November 3, 1917, German troops overran an isolated Allied outpost near Verdun, killing three men from the 16th Infantry who had slipped into the trenches for their combat debut only hours before. These were the first of Jack Pershing’s men to die in the Great War. One was shot between the eyes; another had his skull smashed. The third was found face down, his throat cut. All three were buried near where they had died, amid the beautiful rolling hills of northeastern France. This was as it should be, General Pershing believed. There was no time to bring fallen soldiers back to the States, he said, nor any space on ships crossing the Atlantic. And he couldn’t bear to think of mothers opening caskets to see their boys ravaged by the fearsome new weapons of the industrial era. Within days, however, the War Department discovered that the families and friends of the dead thought differently. Letters and telegrams arrived in Washington asking when the soldiers’ remains would be shipped home. Grand funerals were planned. No matter that the men had died an ocean away or that the war was still going on. Bring them home. This was a refrain Pershing and the military establishment would hear for the rest of the war, indeed, for years afterward. History had given the American people definite ideas about what to do with the war dead. And they weren’t to be denied.”

Read the full article here

Bring them home. I would like to know if my great great uncle was ever brought home.

There is so much I don’t know but at least I have a name. At least I know he exists and I know he fought and I know that he died somewhere on a bloody field in France. It’s a start. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

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Edit: before I posted this, I actually found a picture of his grave. My great great uncle is buried in Chanceford Township, PA, in St. Luke’s Lutheran Cemetery. I will have a chance to visit his grave, and that of his parents when next I go down to MD. I’ll make a detour to PA. This doesn’t necessarily mean that his body is there – it could have been just a grave with the body actually buried in a field in France, but all things considered, and given what I know of my family, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s his actual in situ grave. I wonder now whether he was shipped back immediately or only after the war…and what it must have been like for his family, first to receive notification of his death (sent to his father Amos) and then his body. How was he remembered by his brothers and sisters (he had 14 siblings) and what stories might they have told?

 

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Posted on September 4, 2016, in Ancestor Work, Ancestors, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. So happy that your research was fruitful.
    Hail to you Wesley Heffner! May you never be forgotten.

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  2. thetinfoilhatsociety

    It was no Protestant ethic that prompted families and men to want a “Good Death” surrounded by friends and family. No, that stretches much farther back in time….

    I teared up too. My grandfather came home, my father came home, my adoptive father came home. We were lucky.

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    • i know. I thought all the emphasis about Protestant ideas of a good death was a bit overdone. I think it’s natural for everyone to want a ‘good death’ for themselves and those they love!

      blessings on your grandfather, father, and adoptive father. The enormity of those we lost is staggering, even today. I don’t think any of the extant news reels or photos quite captures the horror.

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  3. My husband’s uncle was a tail gunner during WWII and had died in battle. His whole crew went down on the next sortie. He was not brought home until after the war. His father was in the Phillipines. On the day my husband was born in February, 1949, his family were burying his uncle in Cedar Grove Cemetery here in New London.

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