Summer is often a moment of jubilation as students depart school and families plan much-anticipated vacations. Yet, it is also a fitting time for reflection as our nation commemorates somber holidays and anniversaries that reflect our national struggles. The memorial landscape of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg offers a prime venue for such contemplation.
One story emblematic of sacrifice revolves around a young man, Ralph L. Stehley, born in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1922. Coming of age during the Great Depression, his life was nonetheless more difficult than most as his father passed away in 1936. As a single child, he and his mother, Florence, worked tirelessly to provide for themselves amid the economic woes of the era. If anything, Stehley’s personal struggles only motivated him to excel. A resident of 1219 Thirteenth Avenue, a devoted member of the First Lutheran Church, and a star student at Altoona High, his exemplary record both in and out of the classroom earned him a seat at Gettysburg College following his 1938 high school graduation at age 16.
This clip from Gettysburg College’s 1943 yearbook, The Spectrum, highlights Ralph Stehley’s long list of accomplishments.Courtesy Gettysburg College.
While enrolled at Gettysburg, Stehley earned nearly every academic accolade imaginable. He was a member of the drama club, the debate team, the rifle team, treasurer of student government, member of the Student Christian Association, the Phi Kappa Rho fraternity, and many more. Stehley also developed a talent in journalism, propelling him to become editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. By this time, the nation’s entry into WWII forced American universities to revamp and hasten their curriculum. Stehley was a member of the campus army reserve corps and was bound for military service following his January 1943 commencement (the first mid-year commencement in the history of that school due to wartime needs.)
Stehley graduated from officer candidate school at Fort Benning on September 18, 1943, and subsequently trained at various bases throughout the South into 1944, from where he departed for Europe that April. As a lieutenant in the 119th Regiment of the 30th “Old Hickory” Infantry Division, Stehley led GIs into the hedgerows of France as the Allies desperately tried to maintain the momentum of the Normandy invasion. Yet, home never seemed too distant. Captain Leo E. Ziegler, also from Altoona, was Stehley’s commanding officer. Additionally, Ralph kept in constant communication with his mother via letter writing. On August 25, 1944, she received a bouquet of birthday flowers special ordered by her far away son. Surely, this was a definitive sign that he was alive and well.
Less than two weeks prior to his death, Lt. Stehley’s 30th Division participated in the Battle of Mortain. This August 1944 battle resulted from the German’s desire to launch a counteroffensive and push the Allies back to the sea. The 30th Division gained acclaim for their desperate victory there. The up-close nature of this combat is dramatically captured in artist Keith Rocco’s “The Battle of Mortain” courtesy of the National Guard.
Sadly, her sense of alleviation was unfounded. Ralph’s August 18 letter was his last. He was killed in action on August 21—four days prior to his mother obtaining the flowers. She received the news through the dreaded Western Union telegram on the evening of September 11. Now alone, she spent the next five years waiting for the return of her only son’s remains. In the interim, her son’s body rested in a foreign cemetery nearly 4,000 miles away. For as distant as the war was, its dark consequences loomed above her life in the most dramatic of ways.
This September 1944 clipping from the Altoona Mirror speaks of Lt. Stehley’s death
The bureaucratic process of war dead repatriation was often an agonizingly long and drawn-out affair. Next of kin were essentially granted three options: leave a killed son buried overseas, return their remains to their hometown, or lay them to rest in a domestic national cemetery. Mrs. Stehley elected the third option. Yet, the day of her son’s return could not arrive soon enough. After the war, according to Michael Sledge, “families had to wait two, three, four, or five years and longer before being able to bury their loved ones. This delay had many perfectly logical reasons, but logic plays little part in the normal range of human emotions, let alone at the extreme edge of grief that accompanies death.” Families were left in an emotionally painful limbo as they awaited an essential component of grieving: burial.
Between 1947 and 1949 over 400 war dead were interred in the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Over 1,600 WWII veterans, many of whom subsequently passed decades later of natural causes, rest in America’s most visited battlefield. On April 21, 1949, Stehley became one of them—buried within cannon shot of his alma mater. Florence spent the next twenty-seven years of her life pondering the life her son could have enjoyed.
I first learned of Stehley’s moving story while I was employed as a seasonal ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. Our common hometown, our shared interest in history, and our similar age connected me to his tale in a profound way. That bond was strengthened last year when I quite inadvertently came across the officer’s Purple Heart Medal on display in the Altoona Area Public Library’s Alumni Room—a space dedicated to Altoona High history and former students. Through the cooperation of the library staff, I was temporarily entrusted with Stehley’s medal. I watchfully transported it to his grave-site in Gettysburg where fellow WWII reenactors and I held a brief but meaningful moment of remembrance.
Jared Frederick with Lt. Stehley’s original Purple Heart medal at his grave on June 6, 2015.
As one of my former professors constantly proclaimed, history surrounds us. It does us well to remember that citizens from all walks of life played small but transformative roles in some of the most momentous episodes of the past. Many of them, including 22 year-old Ralph Stehley, never returned.
Stehley’s tragic tale is merely one of hundreds to be discovered on these hallowed grounds. An ideal time to reflect upon these stories of sacrifice is during the Eisenhower WWII Weekend. The signature event of the battlefield’s sister park, Eisenhower National Historic Site, takes place September 17-18 this year. Licensed Battlefield Guide Ralph Siegel will present free guided walks about the World War II dead buried in the cemetery. These hour-long, free guided tours are offered Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Visitors should park in the National Cemetery parking lot on Taneytown Road. The tour begins inside the Taneytown Road cemetery gate.
From that same hillside in 1863, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the value of preserving democracy in the name “of the people.” Eighty years later, a subsequent generation of Americans pledged themselves to that same commitment on a global stage. The serene grounds of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery offer the ideal locale for such a meaningful recognition.
– Jared Frederick
Penn State – Altoona