Averyell A. Kessler
As Memorial Day approaches, I am thinking of a man I never met. His name is Charles Willis Kessler; his was a young, second Lieutenant from the small town of Eunice, Louisiana. Two of his brothers went to war also, one older, one younger. Both came home. Willis did not. He lost his life a few days after the Normandy Invasion when a Nazi sniper saw the bright flash of silver officer’s bars on his uniform and killed him with a single shot. His family received word that he had been buried in a small church yard in Mer St.Eglise, France. Nothing more. His mother never recovered.
Over forty years later, my family decided to find Willis. No one else in the family had ever visited his grave. We’d been touring France for over a week when we rented a car and drove to the village of Mer St. Eglise, a few miles from the coastline and close to the site of the Invasion. As we wandered through the churchyard, a priest came bustling out of the church and greeted us. He did not speak English, our French was spotty, but he spoke magic words “Cimetiere Americian Normandy.” We were off again barreling towards the Cemetery and Omaha Beach. What happened next made me proud to be an American.
The cemetery is extraordinarily beautiful and a stunning tribute to all persons lost in the terror of WWII, even those whose bodies were never found. We were welcomed warmly by the officer on duty. He ushered us into his office, found the location of Willis’ grave, and asked us to sign the visitors’ book, recording the names of all relatives of the hero soldiers buried there. He produced a beautiful bouquet and a bucket of sand and led us through a sea of gleaming white crosses and stars of David. They were beyond number, a silent gathering of heroes, Suddenly, there it was, Willis’ grave, his name carved in stark stone letters. His name, Kessler, was ours also. After a small ceremony, we placed the bouquet on Willis’ stone and sprinkled sand over his grave. Then photographs. I still have them as a reminder of that sweet, sad day. As we walked away from his grave, it was difficult to speak. Even our young teenage sons were quiet. On that day, we learned the meaning of incredible sacrifice from one of our own.
So, why did Willis go to war? What caused this young man fresh out of LSU to leave home and volunteer to fight for his country. A few facts are clear. Pearl Harbor. Hitler’s ruthless invasion of Europe. The sinking of American ships as well as those of our allies. Uboats invading the North Atlantic with plans to blockade all ships. The creeping realization that angry tyrants sought to conquer the world. But I think his motivations were more than that. I believe they were deeply personal. It was a matter of survival, and the preservation of his way of life. Hot bowls of oatmeal his mother served her large family on cold winter mornings, as well as tasting her homemade donuts. Watching his father walk to his job managing a sawmill, a job he chose, not one forced upon him. It was Willis’ small-town sensibilities, dedicated teachers, and Sunday meetings at Eunice’s Baptist Church, as well as a broadening of experience when he entered college. Again, his choice, his future, his chance to shine.
He did not fight to affirm someone’s wish to control the free expression of ideas, parse speech, or advance the views of the easily offended who only offer their own brand of tyranny. That would have been unthinkable in his day when the principals of America’s foundation were honored . He did not give his life to encourages mob violence, censorship, or cut-throat politics. Again, unthinkable, even though memories of the Kingfish and scars Louisiana’s checkered past still echoed. He fought for the ideals he had been raised with and for the fear that his small-town way of life would be taken away forever. Although his early life may not have been more than a 5-mile radius around home, it was his and was worth fighting for.
As we returned to our car, another humbling event occurred. Several large, heavily loaded tour buses passed through the cemetery gates and stopped on the parking plaza. Surely, these were Americans coming to visit Normandy as we did. But no. This was different. Out of curiosity, we watched as hundreds of people streamed away from the buses and walked into the cemetery. Many women carried flowers. Men spoke in loud voices, pointing and waving their arms as they described what had occurred on this sacred spot. All were French. They had come to remember the invasion and pay tribute to the Americans who died for their freedom. Viva Les Etats Unis! General John J. Pershing said, “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.” I hope it never does.
I write in honor and remembrance of Charles Willis Kessler of Eunice Louisiana, Second Lieutenant, 357 Infantry Regiment, 90th Infantry Division, who died on June 14, 1944. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart.
6 thoughts on “A Silent Gathering©”
This is a noble essay. Heartfelt and true. God bless you Ms. Kessler for rendering thoughts that make us remember what costs have been born for our Nation.
OMG Averyell. This brought me to tears. We have also visited the massive cemeteries with blowing winds, but total silence. Swept away emotionally. We have witnessed the beautiful and grateful emotions French and German citizens have for country for our sacrifices.
Averyell, I too got teary eyed as I read your tribute Willis Kessler, your family member, especially this Memorial Day weekend. I wore an Army uniform as did a lot of our Murrah classmates, some who gave all for our country and freedom. Thank you for all the fond rememberances of our growing up in Jackson.
Miss Averyell, thank you for the tribute to your uncle. I also lost an uncle. 1st Lt. Vernon C. Spencer died January 4, 1945. He was with the 3rd Armored Div. Recon Unit and was killed during the end days of the Battle of the Bulge.
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Thank you, Averyell, for refreshing my mind to the knowledge that my own father experienced but found it hard to talk about. He was only 17 when he stepped foot on that shore, having lied about his age in order for the opportunity to serve. His Commanding Officer literally had to take he and two others under his wing, in order to have the “wet-behind the ears” trio survive.
I appreciate your gifted words for reminding me of the depth of sacrifices that were expended by the brave and obedient solders and their families. My father carried the emotional scars, mostly silently, until his dying breath. May God, finally, rest his and the others souls. Amen.
Very well done, Averyell. Your words, obviously, came from your heart through your God-given gift of written language.
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I have chill bumps! Thank you for putting my exact thoughts into words. My daddy’s brother, Hoyt Neal, was killed in France as well. My grandmother would not rest until his body was brought back to Randolph County Alabama. She had 4 sons serving during WWII and 4 came home. Only Hoyt gave it all.