On Memorial Day 75 years ago, 1st Lt. Cleon Wells of Angola found himself in the center of the action.
The Nazis had been defeated three weeks earlier, and the European phase of World War II had reached an end.
Wells and his U.S. Army unit had been assigned to prepare the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium for perhaps the most meaningful Memorial Day service in history. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the victorious Allies, would attend.
Wells and his men planted grass, painted crosses and put a flag on each grave in the cemetery they had built less than a year earlier to receive the bodies of thousands of American soldiers.
For the previous year, Wells and his 603rd Quartermaster Co. had been following behind the soldiers at the front, dealing with the war’s awful toll.
Wells’ daughter, retired teacher Jean Wells of Auburn, recently began digging into her late father’s military record, reading a slim book about his unit.
An older soldier, at older than 30 when he entered the service, Wells had graduated from Tri-State College at Angola, which helped him gain an officer’s rank. He married his wife, Nona, on leave from the Army in 1943.
Wells sailed from Boston to England in February 1944, with the 9th Infantry. His unit swung into action when they landed at Normandy on the coast of France on June 11, 1944, to find the aftermath of the D-Day battle five days earlier.
When they jumped off their landing craft, the water was “chest-high on everybody but Lt. Wells and Sgt. Krupp. It was up to their necks,” the company’s historian wrote. “They found out that all their gear was on a truck, and when they drove the truck into the water, it went clear down.”
The book carries an account of Wells learning that his bedroll was under water.
“My wife paid $50 for that, and I’ve only slept in it once. Where’s my duffle bag?” the account reads. The reply came, “That’s gone, too.”
“He just lost everything when he got off the boat. He didn’t even have a pair of dry socks,” his daughter said.
The company set about recovering bodies, both American and German, and began building cemeteries. They used prisoners of war to dig the graves, but French citizens helped, too, Jean Wells said.
“I always said I didn’t know how he could do that. He said, ‘Well, your uncle had it worse, because he was an ambulance driver, and he saw men when they were suffering. By the time I got to see them, they were at peace,’” Jean Wells recalled.
Eisenhower came to the funeral when Wells’ unit buried Teddy Roosevelt Jr., a brigadier general, war hero and son of a president.
The book relates how Wells’ company was working in a cemetery when a German fighter plane swooped down and began strafing them with machine-gun fire. The men jumped into open graves for cover.
One soldier landed in a grave “with a permanent occupant, but he did not mind,” the unit’s historian wrote.
“I always thought that since he came in after the battles, he wasn’t threatened. But that’s not true at all,” Jean Wells said. “It says they were burying the dead under mortar fire. … I never knew he was in so much danger.”
Lt. Wells avoided harm from enemy shells, earned a Bronze Star medal and returned home to serve 33 years as the bookstore manager for Tri-State. He died in 1984 at the age of 72.
Henri-Chapelle Cemetery lives on as a place of rest for nearly 8,000 American heroes, many of whom died in the decisive Battle of the Bulge. As the cemetery’s website describes, “Their headstones are arranged in gentle arcs sweeping across a broad, green lawn that slopes gently downhill.”
Earlier this month, the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe passed, barely noticed amidst our focus on our current struggle with a disease.
This Memorial Day should remind us that today’s troubles seem trivial in comparison with the sacrifices Americans made — with few complaints — just a few generations ago.