A Student’s Graveside Eulogy For A WWII Soldier In France

Largo High School student Konner Ross reads her eulogy for Private Leo Chalcraft at his graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery in late June.

Largo High School student Konner Ross reads her eulogy for Private Leo Chalcraft at his graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery in late June.

Largo High School senior Konner Ross was one of 15 students selected for “The Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute silent hero project”. Fifteen teams of high school students and their teachers from around the country team up to research a soldier, sailor or airman from their home state, who is buried in Normandy.

The Normandy Institute program also includes an all-expenses paid trip to Normandy to visit important sites from WWII. It culminates with the teens writing a eulogy for their selected, “silent hero” and reading it aloud at their graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery.

Here is the eulogy Ross wrote for one of St. Petersburg’s fallen soldiers from World War II:

BY KONNER ROSS

Born into the Great Depression, Leo Kenneth Chalcraft lived in a family where his father had to work jobs like selling ice just to get by. Leo quit school after the fifth grade to go work as a gas station attendant.

He did not have an easy childhood. He lived in a town where the war was full throttle. St. Petersburg, Florida was a place where many soldiers trained to go overseas.

Private Chalcraft, a black panther in the 66th Infantry Division, was only 19 years old when he died in the sinking of the Leopoldville – a story almost too horrible and tragic to believe.

The Leopoldville was a Belgium transport ship headed toward Cherbourg, France on Dec. 24, 1944. The soldiers destined for the Battle of the Bulge. (The ship was hit by a German torpedo.)

Five miles from the shore the Belgium crew was reported to have taken a soldier’s knife, cut a lifeboat and sailed away, laughing and joking in Flemish.

The crew left the soldiers on the ship. Leaving them to do the only thing they could do, wait for rescue or jump into the frigid water.

Leo and his fellow 66th members stood on a sinking ship, stuck in a situation that certainly called for panic, but they were absolutely calm coming together to sing the national anthem to honor their country one last time.

During a time of war, everyone expects to make sense of death. They understand that people die in war. They understand that many people they know probably will not come home. But they expect that those deaths will be fighting for the cause of freedom.

Leo never had his chance to fight for freedom. For the two-and-a-half hours the Leopoldville was just sitting on the water that Christmas Eve, most of the men could have been rescued. But they were not. Of the 2,235 infantry men on that boat over 700 men could do nothing but walk into the water, including Leo.

Leo once wrote in a letter to his mother, “I think that when this war is over, and I get back home, I will take a trip and come over to see what it looks like after it is fixed up and the lights are lit up.”

I am right now in a place where he wanted to go. He would have loved to see this spot right here. I’m able to see the things that he wanted to see. I’m able to see the lights lit up.

Somehow Leo, I hope you know that everyone remembers you.

You’ve not been forgotten. For the rest of her life, your mother never again celebrated Christmas. Your niece, Albert’s daughter, was close to your mother and knew all about you. Albert’s wife Charlotte still to this day preserves your possessions.

And now I know you and I’ll never forget you.

My brother passed away at the age of 19, the same age as Leo. I have never in my life felt anything so painful. The loss of someone so young, someone who will never experience or see so many things that you can, changes you forever. Everything reminds you of them.

And I know now that this is how Leo’s family felt. I know that they had never felt anything more painful and for that, I am forever heartbroken.

He wasn’t a fighter pilot, a paratrooper, any of those people that are glorified in the movies. He was what most soldiers in WWII were, normal men who were called to serve their country, men who were too young to know yet what they were going to do with their lives. They still traveled thousands of miles away from home to fight for this country. That’s what most of the men were.

And without those men, just like you Leo, we would never have won the war.

WWII Silent Heroes Brought To Life By Younger Generation

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page - American Battle Monuments Commission)

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page – American Battle Monuments Commission)

Army Private Leo Kenneth Chalcraft was a green-eyed, brown-haired teen from St. Petersburg, FL when he was killed in action in World War II.

It happened just six days after his 19th birthday.

Today, his grave is among the 9,387 military dead buried in France at the Normandy American Cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach. There, 72 years ago this June 6, U.S. troops stormed the beaches on D-Day, marking the beginning of the end of World War II.

“He was so young and I feel like he didn’t get to experience a lot of his life,” said Konner Ross, a 17-year-old who lives in Largo, near St. Petersburg. Continue reading

WWII Women Pilots Can Now Rest In Peace At Arlington

Women Airforce Service pilots Frances Green, Margaret "Peg" Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn, leave their B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, "Pistol Packin' Mama," during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Airfield, Ohio, 1944. Air Force photo

Women Airforce Service pilots Frances Green, Margaret “Peg” Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn, leave their B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Airfield, Ohio, 1944. Air Force photo

More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Congress finally passed a measure that President Barack Obama signed on Friday allowing Women Airforce Service Pilots the honor of having their ashes buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The law overturns an Army decision that exclude the female pilots. According to the Military Times nearly 1,100 women served from 1942 to 1944, ferrying airplanes, training combat pilots and towing airborne targets. Thirty-eight died during training and support missions.

Their recognition and cause became one of the few bipartisan congressional efforts so far this year. You can read the full article here.

Florida Teen Selected To Write Eulogy For WWII Silent Hero

leo k chalcraft

U.S. Army Private Leo K. Chalcraft drowned off the coast of Normandy Christmas Eve 1944, just weeks after turning 19.

The toughest writing assignment 16-year-old Konner Ross will have this year is to write a eulogy for a young man she’s never met. But there’s a part of him the Largo High School junior never forget – his green eyes.

“They have his wallet from when they found it on the beach and on his identification card, it says (he has) green eyes and brown hair,” Ross said. “I didn’t know he had green eyes until then. So, that seems like something small, but it was really cool to learn for some reason.”

Ross is describing U.S. Army Private Leo K. Chalcraft, a St. Petersburg native drafted to serve in World War II. He drowned off the coast of France in 1944 on Christmas Eve, just weeks after turning 19. Continue reading

World War I Memorial Dedication Saturday In Tampa, FL

Artistic concepts of the World War I Memorial being dedicated at Hillsborough County's Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday.

Artistic concepts of the World War I Memorial being dedicated at Hillsborough County’s Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday.

It was supposed to be “The War To End All Wars.” But World War I lasted more than four years, July 1914 to November 1918. More than 20 million soldiers died, either killed in action or by disease, and another 21 million were wounded.

The red poppy which bloomed on the battlefields in Belgium, France and Gallipoli became the symbol of remembrance for those killed.

But the WWI soldiers from Hillsborough County can rest assured that they will not be forgotten.

On Saturday, May 7, 2016, a World War I Memorial will be dedicated in their honor at the Hillsborough Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301 N., Tampa.

Red poppies will be handed out, a military historian will deliver comments and the colors will be presented at the ceremony scheduled for 11 a.m. The event is open to the public.

Sacred Stories And Experiences Shared Among Veterans

WWII veteran and former POW Tracy Taylor was invited to join veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a gator hunt.

WWII veteran and former POW Tracy Taylor was invited to join veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a gator hunt.

A 95-year-old World War II POW joined wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans recently for a gator hunt in rural Polk County. But it wasn’t the hunt that made this experience so extraordinary – it was the sharing of stories between the generations that made it special.

There are some things that veterans just don’t feel comfortable talking about, except possibly with another veteran.

That sacred bond, between veterans, can transcend time and different wars – especially among those wounded, disabled or experienced in combat.

Providing a setting that gives veterans a chance to establish those special bonds has become the joint mission of several organizations including the non-profit, community based Wounded Warrior Sportsmen Fund and Operation Outdoor Freedom, a program with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

WWII veteran Tracy Taylor, in the foreground, talked for about an hour with the younger veterans before going on the hunt.

WWII veteran Tracy Taylor, in the foreground, talked for about an hour with the younger veterans before going on the hunt.

In the past year, they’ve sponsored more than 70 hunting, fishing and canoeing trips in Florida for more than 400 wounded veterans.

In December, that included a gator hunt at Lake Hancock. It’s a large lake southeast of Lakeland that’s filled with alligators and surrounded by moss-draped cypress, maple and willow trees.

What made the three-day event extra special was a visit from World War II veteran Jasper G. Taylor, who prefers to be called Tracy.

The 95-year-old veteran survived 3 years, 5 months and 28 days as a prisoner of war in Japan.

“I guess I am, but I’m not, a wounded warrior,” Taylor said as he addressed about a dozen veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “I didn’t have any combat injuries. I don’t have a Purple Heart.”

But he told the younger wounded warriors that maybe he qualified as part of their band because of the abuse he suffered while a POW. Taylor was an Army Air Corps radio operator who was captured after the surrender of Corregidor in the Philippines in May, 1942.

Veterans and volunteers look on as one of the gators is captured and killed on Lake Hancock.

Veterans and volunteers look on as one of the gators is captured and killed on Lake Hancock.

“They couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak Japanese and 90 percent of the time we didn’t understand what they were saying or doing,” Taylor said to the group gathered around a smoldering campfire. “They would enforce their commands with bayonets or anything else.”

Taylor said the POWs were forced to “clean up” Corregidor and then shipped out to an indoctrination camp in Taiwan for weeks and later to Japan where he was forced to work at the Mitsubishi shipyard and later in a copper mine.

“Anybody know anything about the Japanese culture?”  Taylor asked his audience of fresh veteran faces. “Well, every morning they get up and they face the sun, they face east, pledge their allegiance to Emperor of Japan. Well, when we got there we had do the same thing.  The only thing was, all the way down line, the only thing you heard was ‘Go to hell, you son of a b—h. And that kind of made it worthwhile.”

The group laughed at Taylor’s resilient response and at many of his stories that went on for close to an hour.

The three gators from the veterans' hunt.

The three gators from the veterans’ hunt.

Throughout the chat, he routinely sprinkled in a humorous twist or silver lining when describing his life as a POW. For example, Taylor told of convincing the prison camp interrogator that he was a barber instead of a North Carolina farm boy.

“Only hair I ever cut was the mane or the tail on mule or horse,” Taylor said. But he embellished out of necessity to become the prison camp’s barber because he could no longer walk due to malnutrition.

“I wound up with beriberi and was numb from waist down for six months,” Taylor said. “That worked in my favor. I didn’t have to go to the shipyard because I couldn’t walk.”

His weight dropped from 120 to 87 pounds while a POW.

Yet when asked about the abuse he suffered and witnessed, Taylor was sparse with his descriptions. He later shared, privately, that he promised himself a long time ago that he would talk about what happened to him as a POW, but would not talk about the torture because nothing would be gained by it.

It wasn’t all talk. The young veterans and volunteers loaded into ATVs and took Taylor out to “bag” a gator. There were three gators caught and killed.

The veterans ended the morning helping Taylor kneel down to take a photo to remember their successful hunt. The gators were then taken to be processed for their meat and skins which are shared with the veterans afterward.

Veterans from all generations pose for a photo after the successful hunt in December 2015.

Veterans from all generations pose for a photo after the successful hunt in December 2015.

Veterans And Family Invited To ‘Debt Of Honor’ Preview

wusf_debt_of_honor_invitationFor veterans living in the Tampa Bay region, WUSF Public Radio invites you to participate in a panel discussion and preview of the new Ric Burns film “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History.”

The WUSF Florida Matters Town Hall taping is Thursday, Nov. 5 at the University of South Florida Tampa campus, in the College of Public Health’s Samuel Bell Auditorium (13201 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa, FL 33612).

Please join us at 5:30 p.m. for an opening reception, and the taping that starts at 6 p.m. Seating is limited and registration is required. Please RSVP at this link, or call 813-905-6901.

A preview of the film will be followed by a panel discussion with:

  • Filmmaker Ric Burns
  • Actor and national veterans’ spokesman JR Martinez
  • Taylor Urruela, a disabled veteran who lives in Tampa

It will be moderated by Carson Cooper, the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show.

 

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