Purple Heart story centerpiece of Memorial Day event

Purple Heart story centerpiece of Memorial Day event

    By Pam Wilson pwilson@dailyunion.com | Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2018 7:41 am             

What does stay with her are the countless personal relationships she has formed, the stories she has heard, and the families and communities she has been able to touch as an advocate for Jefferson County veterans.

Speaking at Jefferson’s Memorial Day observance Monday, Duesterhoeft shared one story that started with a forgotten Purple Heart and ended up forging bonds between two communities in two different countries.

The Purple Heart lay forgotten in the bottom of a bin of miscellaneous items at a flea market when a nameless benefactor found it and started its journey back to the soldier who earned it.

A graduate of Fort Atkinson High School, Victor O. Draeger died at age 19 of injuries sustained in the battle for the liberation of Mirecourt, France, during World War II. Draeger is buried in the Epinal American Cemetery in Mirecourt, France, where local citizens have adopted and cared for his grave ever since his death in 1944.

And now Draeger’s Purple Heart medal is on display at the town hall in Mirecourt, where Draeger lies buried in the American Battle Monuments Commission’s Epinal American Cemetery.

The Purple Heart, a symbol of sacrifice, is awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy. It also can be awarded posthumously to the next-of-kin in the name of those killed in action or who die of wounds received in action.

It was thanks to that unidentified benefactor that this connection has come to light at all, fostering a bond between the two communities half a world apart.

After purchasing the bin of miscellany at the flea market and realizing the significance of the Purple Heart, the new owner did some research on the name handwritten on the medal and determined to return the medal to that soldier’s family.

From there, the buyer gave the medal to Jeff Johnson, a retired Marine from Lake Mills, who served as patient transition advocate for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans at the William S. Middleton Veterans Administration Hospital in Madison.

Johnson then turned the medal over to Duesterhoeft, who hoped to find Draeger’s next-of-kin.

However, once she started digging, Duesterhoeft found that Draeger’s mother, Augusta Ruth Alvine Bogenschneider, had died in a Jefferson nursing home in 1995, while his father, Otto Julius Draeger, had committed suicide some years before.

Draeger left no wife and no descendants.

Draeger’s obituary ran in the Watertown newspaper, as his mother was living there at the time of his death.

Duesterhoeft enlisted her own mother to research Draeger on Ancestry.com. Watertown historian William Jannke sought additional information on the soldier, and the research librarian at the Watertown Public Library found other Draegers in the area, but no close relatives remained.

When they finally turned up Draeger’s photo in an old Fort Atkinson High School yearbook, Duesterhoeft said it was exciting to put a face to the name.

Draeger was born Nov. 19, 1924, and graduated from Fort Atkinson High School with the Class of 1942. He entered the service that year.

He trained at Camp Butner in North Carolina and in Tennessee. Before his induction, he worked for Moe Brothers Manufacturing Co., a Fort Atkinson lighting company.

Since there were no close relatives to present the Purple Heart to, Duesterhoeft endeavored to return the medal to Draeger where he is buried.

It just so happened that Duesterhoeft was headed to France in only a couple of weeks, a trip she personally had financed to attend the 100th anniversary conference of American Field Service.

She vowed to return the medal to Draeger at his place of burial and to pay her respects to him in person.

Duesterhoeft made plans to visit Mirecourt as she traveled from Strasbourg to Paris Nov. 1, but interruptions to the train schedule due to All Saints Day delayed the visit. Instead, when she arrived in Paris, she made connections with American Legion Post No. 1, centered in Paris.

Soon, she received an email from Beth Herwood, an American who had been living in Paris for the last four decades and who had been serving as president of that illustrious American Legion Post for the past 30 years.

Herwood put Duesterhoeft in touch with Carl W. Hale, commander of Paris Post 1 of the American Legion.

Hale wasn’t in Paris at that time. He was in Brussels, but again, coincidentally, that happened to be where the Jefferson native next was headed.

Duesterhoeft said she met Hale in front of the European Parliament building, where he works at NATO headquarters, and he, in turn, got in touch with officials from Mirecourt. Duesterhoeft also reached out to the superintendent of the American cemetery in Paris, who connected them to his associate at the cemetery where Draeger is buried.

During World War II, she said, there were so many casualties that the American government gave each family a choice whether their loved one’s body would be brought home or whether they would be buried where they died. For those who chose the latter option, the government offered family members the opportunity to come to France to see their loved one’s grave.

Duesterhoeft said that 60 percent of families chose to have their loved ones buried where they were killed.

The Jefferson woman was amazed and touched to find that local citizens have adopted and cared for Draeger’s grave over all of this time, visiting on ritual occasions two or three times a year.

Hale later shared his reflections on the experience in an article he wrote for the American Legion online newsletter.

“What does it matter?” he asked. “Why would someone bother to return an old war medal found in the bottom of a flea market box? Who else would care, especially if no remaining family were alive.

“As members of the American Legion, we pledge to serve other veterans and their family members,” Hale’s article continued. “The preamble to our Constitution includes ‘To preserve the memories and incidents of our associations in the Great Wars.’ We are bonded by mutual respect from the experiences of our own military service. We know why it does matter that this found Purple Heart — this symbol of sacrifice given to a grieving mother so long ago — be reunited with family.”

Hale was present at the Epinal cemetery to return Draeger’s medal to a place of honor, as was Hale’s son, the Epinal superintendent, and representatives of French veterans’ associations, along with the U.S. Memory Grand Est France Association, and the Mirecourt mayor, Yves Sejourne.

Hale wrote that he was surprised and touched to see 50 participants gathered at the cemetery on that chilly Monday afternoon in December.

At the ceremony, Hale shared the story of how the medal had come to France and discussed the importance of returning it. He then presented the medal to Sejourne, who informed all present that the town of Mirecourt has adopted Draeger’s grave and pledged to honor his memory.

“He is the symbol of an historic act for the town of Mirecourt — its liberation, just a day after his death,” Hale said.

Without any close family members left, Draeger’s medal returns to him at his gravesite, “with his family of brothers of war who rest together in peace,” Hale said. “By honoring one, we honor all. We have not forgotten and we never will.”

The story doesn’t end there. When she returned to Jefferson County, Duesterhoeft shared the story with officials from Fort Atkinson, following which that city’s common council passed a resolution recognizing their shared bond with the citizens of Mirecourt and Fort Atkinson’s deep gratitude for the care the French community has shown in adopting the grave of one of our own native sons, and in showing him such respect over the years.

In conclusion, Duesterhoeft said that although her job has its monotonous aspects, the personal connections she makes with veterans and their families and the lives she touches make it all worthwhile.

She noted that while Memorial Day is set aside to recall those lost in the service of their country, there are many who survive but return wounded either in body or in spirit.

“If you know someone (a veteran) who is struggling, send them to me,” Duesterhoeft said.

Her story of the lost and returned Purple Heart served as the centerpiece of the Jefferson Memorial Day observation, put on by the City of Jefferson through the cooperation of the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts.

The event, which filled Rotary Waterfront Park, also included patriotic music by the Jefferson High School Marching Band and its Vocal Jazz Ensemble, the Pledge of Allegiance led by the Boy Scouts of Troop 147, welcomes from representatives of the veterans service groups and Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann, the Marine Service led by the Legion and VFW auxiliaries, the reading of the muster roll of Jefferson area veterans who have died in the last year, the traditional rifle volley and playing of “Taps,” and the presentation and retiring of colors by the combined VFW and American Legion honor guard.