Sisters pay homage to uncle's WWII grave

The Wagner sisters, Lynn Wagner Pittman, second from left, and Sharon Wagner, second from right, stand with the French women who adopted their uncle's World War II grave. At far left is Françoise Colson and at far right, Nathalie Colin.

Kenneth Wagner remembers being 7 years old and in first-grade at the Walmo School when one day in late 1943, he heard the loud sound of a bomber plane buzzing the schoolyard.

"That's my brother," he told his classmates.

He took a little ridiculing from disbelievers, but he knew that his brother, James L. "Jim" Wagner, a military pilot who was 19 years older than him, was leaving for a World War II mission in Europe, and that he was flying that plane.

"A bomber plane flying over a school in New Castle was unheard of," Kenneth said. "It circled the school. All of us kids ran to the window and he waved the plane wings."

Tears well up in his eyes as he remembers that day.

It was James' way –  flying over the school — of waving his final farewell to his little brother before leaving for England and France. He also dropped a package in the front yard on Mitchell Road for Kenneth's mother, Ethel.

"I was the only one in the family who went to Walmo school," Kenneth said. "All I could think was that he was saying goodbye to me."

His brother was en route to Maine, destined for England. It was to be Kenneth's last glimpse of him.

James' plane, a B-24 named "Bar Fly," was gunned down by enemy fire about six months later, on April 1, 1944, near the northern France/German border, two months shy of D-Day.

Kenneth, the youngest and the last surviving of 10 brothers and sisters, is now 82, and he and his wife Barbara (Barbie) still reside on Mitchell Road where the Wagner children grew up.

James was one of two decorated brothers who went to war.

Another brother, Donald W. Wagner Sr., was four years younger than James. Donald enlisted in the Army in December 1942 and was discharged in October 1945. He was with Battery A 461st Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion and began his European Tour just 10 days after D-Day. He landed at a beach in France on June 16, 1944.

"There was still shelling going on, but not the same caliber as there was Day 1," Kenneth said. "He just missed D-Day, fortunately."

Qualified as an expert with the submachine gun and M-1 rifle, Donald's numerous medals included the Good Conduct Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal with five Bronze Stars. 

Donald served in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe. He was honorably discharged as a corporal on Oct. 15, 1945, and returned home to New Castle, where he worked, lived on Mitchell Road, and raised a family and lived to be 90 years old. He died on Dec. 2, 2012, and his family still lives in the New Castle area.

Their younger brother wasn't so lucky.

James, a first lieutenant in the Army Air Forces, 409th Bomber Squadron, 934rd Bomber Group, entered foreign service in October 1943.

On April 17, 1944, the Wagner brothers' mother, Ethel Wagner, received a heart-wrenching telegram from Western Union, telling her that her 25-year-old son was missing in action.

She later received official notification that James' military plane, of which he was a co-pilot, had been shot down near the French-German border and that he was one of nine men in that plane who died. A lone survivor was Staff Sgt. Frank G. Zywiczynski of Ohio, whose parachute opened. Both of his legs were broken, and he was taken to a hospital in France and later became a prisoner of war.

On  Sept. 30, 1944, Ethel received a letter from the U.S. War Department adjutant, Major General J.A. Ulio, informing her that James was posthumously being awarded with an air medal and Oak Leaf Clusters for meritorious achievement. He had flown 23 missions over France and Germany. His first was Dec. 24, 1943. His last, April 1, 1944, had a destination of Stuttgart, Germany.

He also was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart.

Wagner and four others in his crew are buried together in Epinal Cemetery, a U.S. military burial grounds in Dinozé, France.

The French citizens also have erected a monument to the American soldiers in the field near Bourgogne, where the plane was shot down, with the soldier's pictures and the story of their mission.

Kenneth's daughter, Sharon Wagner, and her sister, Lynn Wagner Pittman, 51, of Indianapolis, traveled to France over Memorial Day weekend to visit those sites and pay homage to their lost uncle.

PLANNING A TRIP

Sharon, 59, of Union Township, holds dear a small plastic vial of sand that she collected last month from Utah Beach in France, one of the few D-Day beaches they could visit on the tour. Others were closed for the D-Day anniversary preparations.  She collected the sand as a memory for her father.

Sharon and her sister attended a Memorial Day ceremony in the cemetery where their uncle James is buried. They also  paid their respects at the monument to his flight near Bourgogne, that marks where he and the nine other men were killed when their plane was shot out of the sky.

Sharon, a genealogy and history buff, had been tracing her family's heritage. In tracking some background about her uncles and their military history, she became connected with two women in Dinozé, France in 2014, who were part of an "adoption" program in Epinal Cemetery and they notified her that they had "adopted" her uncle's grave.

She learned that the American Battle Monuments Commission manages nine American military cemeteries in France, and Epinal, the burial site of 5,255 U.S. war dead, is one of them. Included in that number are unknowns, and 424 soldiers still missing, whose names are inscribed on a wall there. Epinal Cemetery lies in northern France, bordering Germany.

Kenneth said that his brother after the fatal crash had been buried three times. His first grave was at the crash site. Then he was moved to a temporary grave in an American cemetery and ultimately, he was buried at Epinal.

His parents had the option of sending his body home for burial, but chose to leave him at that final site, where he lies alongside his four crew mates, Kenneth said. His mother was presented with James' flag.

According to the American Battle Monuments Commission website, "adopting" a gravesite is a sign of remembrance and respect, done by taking flowers to the graves and researching the lives and service of the individuals to ensure their stories are never forgotten.

A grave "adoption" program was started in France by Jocelyn Papelard, who encouraged other French citizens to do the same —  to take care of the graves of the American soldiers and place fresh flowers on them. Papelard has adopted 20 graves, and as of 2012, more than 700 of the graves had been "adopted" by the French citizens because of her movement, Sharon said.

James L. Wagner's gravesite was adopted by a French mother and daughter, Françoise Colson and Nathalie Colin. Sharon said they were assured by a letter from the organization, U.S.Memory Grand Est France, that their uncle's grave "will always have a rose."

"They have such a gratitude toward the American soldiers for their sacrifice," Sharon explained. "They wouldn't be speaking French today if it wasn't for our soldiers."

The Wagner sisters were invited to attend the special ceremony at Epinal, the day before Memorial Day, in advance of the 75th anniversary of D-Day and those who died fighting in World War II. 

"We were honored guests," Sharon said.

She and her sister were the first of anyone in their family to see where her father's brother was laid to rest. 

A choir of 40 school children sang in English, and dignitaries attended. The French and United States national anthems were part of the observance, Sharon said, and an American flag flown at half-staff raised to the top of the flagpole at the end of the ceremony.

"Epinal is where the emotions hit us the most," she said.

The sisters had met up with an American couple in the United States whose loved one, Jack R. McCallen, a technical sergeant from Pitcairn, Pennsylvania, is buried next to James.

McCallen, who was a radio operator, also was on the plane that was shot down, and three others from that mission are buried near them. The other four who died on that plane were taken back to America by their families, Sharon said.

She has a photograph of the entire crew, along with a picture of her uncle in uniform, and she presented prints of them as gifts to the mother and daughter who "adopted" her uncle's grave.

The Wagner sisters went on to visit the memorial in Bourgogne, France, where his plane had been shot down. Another plane had been shot down at the same time, and the names of the soldiers on both planes, their pictures and the stories of their mission are on that statue. 

THE MISSION

"Their target was Strasbourg," Sharon said. "Their mission was to destroy the German air force." 

Her uncle James was on his 23rd mission and was 2 1/2 missions away from coming home when German gunners decimated their plane over the French airfield.

Most of the crew had been together with him since their training, Sharon learned. Descriptions at the time of the attack were that people could see the men falling out of the plane and that only one parachute opened. One child who watched it made his father guard the plane overnight in the field, she related.

"My most emotional experience was visiting that field where the plane went down," she said. "The picture of him looked just like my dad. My sister and I both broke down."

After the ceremony, other visits the Wagner sisters completed were to Utah Beach to see where their uncle, Donald, had landed, and to Omaha Beach, which still has the remains of German bunkers. On the shore is a stainless-steel sculpture, Les Braves, is in memory of American soldiers. Nearby is the Musée Mémorial d'Omaha Beach, also documenting the invasion of Normandy.

Sharon noted that many of the beaches where the soldiers landed during the invasion in that war were closed during their visit, because they were undergoing preparations for the big D-Day observance on June 6.

The sisters returned home after a nine-day trip, eager to share their experience with their father and other family members and to show them the honor that France has paid to the fallen soldiers in maintaining their graves in their cemeteries.

"None of this would have happened, had it not been for Sharon getting into the genealogy," Kenneth said.

He wistfully shared memories of his brother from childhood days at home. James had graduated from high school in 1937 — the same year Sharon was born. He had a pet raccoon that sat on his shoulder, and he smoked a pipe. That is the mental picture he gets now when he thinks of his brother.

"I remember that as a last memory of seeing him in person, other than his flying over the school," Kenneth said, adding, "I'll take that one with me to my grave."

dwachter@ncnewsonline.com 

Reporter

Debbie's been a journalist at the New Castle News since 1978, and covers county government, police and fire, New Castle schools, environment and various other realms. She also writes features, takes photos and video and copy edits.

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