Honoring the War Dead, Bringing History to Life

In the fall of 2013, Mary Louise Roberts, Lucy Aubrac Professor of History, received an email from a man in France requesting information about Robert Kellett, an American G.I. buried in Épinal military cemetery. The man explained that he was a member of an association that tended to the American graves.

Roberts decided that the request might make a good extra credit project for one of the students in her lecture class on The Second World War. When she announced the opportunity to the class, every hand in the room went up. Roberts wrote back to the man in France requesting more names of U.S. soldiers resting in the cemetery. Two weeks later, an email arrived containing a list of soldiers from Wisconsin.

In this way, the Épinal project was born. Over the course of the semester, Roberts’ students conducted research on the biographies of 25 Wisconsin soldiers who lost their lives in Europe. The students worked closely with the U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Washington to uncover the Individual Deceased Personnel File for each soldier. The students then conducted follow-up research in U.S. census records, local Wisconsin newspapers, and veteran records. With the help of the History Department Annual Fund, Roberts compiled the students’ research findings into a 55-page report, “Our Wisconsin Boys in Épinal Military Cemetery, France.”

Roberts traveled to Épinal for the first time in January 2014 to deliver the report. She was met by a delegation that included local people who cared for the American graves. As the French escorted Roberts through the cemetery, they laid a long-stemmed white rose on the grave of each soldier that the students researched. After a moment of silence, they moved on to the next site.

Roberts took photographs of the decorated grave markers and sent them to each of the students whose research corresponded to the individual grave. For the students in History 357, it was a very fitting conclusion to a class they won’t soon forget.