- Associated Press - Sunday, August 28, 2016

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) - Ernie Whitesel never had a chance to know his father. He was 6 years old when his dad parachuted into France as part of the D-Day invasion.

Pfc. Lester Ernest Whitesel Sr. died on June 6, 1944. He is buried in an American military cemetery in Normandy, and there is not even a photograph to remember him by.

Now a Prairie High School student has created a salute to the life and times of the soldier, with the help of her former middle school history teacher, reported The Columbian (https://bit.ly/2by8uJq).

Ally Orr, who will be a junior at Prairie, and Pleasant Valley teacher Irene Soohoo were among 15 student-teacher teams from around the nation chosen for a Normandy Scholar grant.

The Sacrifice for Freedom assignment called for the 15 students to learn all they could about a soldier from their home state, then honor him with a eulogy at his grave in France.

Orr selected Pfc. Whitesel, a native of the Grays Harbor area. Whitesel was a member of Company G, 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.

Orr chose Whitesel because he was the only southwest Washington soldier among the candidates, which also made it much easier to visit his hometown of Hoquiam.

But researching a “silent hero” - a fallen soldier with an untold story - can, by its very nature, be challenging.

Local museum volunteers in Hoquiam provided some background on Lester and his father, Louis Whitesel (WHITE-sul). Other sources included the 1930 census.

“He was 16 and living with an uncle,” Orr said, but that created another question. “Why wasn’t he living with his father?”

When a genealogy website provided some family links, Orr and Soohoo mailed letters to the addresses. The responses included a telephone call from Ernie Whitesel, who now lives in Arizona.

Orr learned that young Lester’s father remarried twice. After living with two different stepmothers, the boy moved in with an uncle. He went to work at the uncle’s meat-cutting business, and never went to high school.

Orr and Soohoo also researched Whitesel’s role in the Normandy invasion. Company G was dropped behind enemy lines; the mission was to capture and hold a bridge near the village of Sainte Mère Église.

Army records don’t indicate how or where Whitesel was killed, but they do note that Sainte Mère Église was the first town in France to be liberated during World War II.

When the 15 teams of teachers and students visited France in June, they were able to see where the events of D-Day took place and meet some local residents with firsthand accounts.

They attended lectures, studied original documents and took field trips guided by historians. They visited a church that had been an improvised medical station, where wounded soldiers were treated.

“You can still see bloodstains on the pews,” Soohoo said.

And they visited the Normandy American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach. At Pfc. Whitesel’s grave, Orr delivered the eulogy she had written. She noted that when he enlisted, Whitesel was 28 years old, married, and the father of a child. “You left your family to fight in a raging war that affected everyone, but had to leave your only child, Ernie Whitesel, who was 4 years old.

“Exactly how and when you died is unknown .

“You were not just a number, one of 10,000 casualties. You were a person remembered and loved after so many years by your only child.”

That child - Ernie is now 79 - was amazed that a high school student in another part of the country would put so much work into telling his father’s story. Orr even knew something that he didn’t know.

“I thought my dad was 26 when he died, and he was 30,” Ernie Whitesel said by phone.

He visited Normandy in the 1950s, he said, back when Ernie was in the Army himself.

“When I was stationed in Germany - I was 18 at the time - I visited his gravesite,” the Phoenix resident said.

But some doubts remain. The D-Day defenses included traps designed to kill American paratroopers.

“The Germans filled bogs over 6 feet deep, and these men were wearing 80-pound packs. They’d just disappear.”

As he recalled standing at his father’s grave, “I don’t even know if his remains are there,” Ernie Whitesel said. “Nobody can tell me anything.”

Orr’s findings and the Normandy Scholars group’s travels in Normandy have been documented in a hardcover book, filled with color photographs of the area where Whitesel fought and died.

Orr’s research also will be the basis for a website she and Soohoo have been working on.

The experience has given the 16-year-old student another perspective on the era she has been studying. Many of the soldiers who were part of the D-Day invasion were younger than some of her fellow Prairie High students.

“People in my grade are looking forward to college.” For those in the war, she said, they knew it could be “the end for them.”


Information from: The Columbian, https://www.columbian.com

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