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.