At age 18, Bertram James Clark had his whole life ahead of him.
The Philadelphia man had a beautiful wife, loving parents and a great job at a local shipyard.
“But he still felt this calling to service,” said Emma Gilliam, a senior at Carlisle High School. “Most of the men back then didn’t know if they were going to make it back alive.”
A second lieutenant at age 20, Clark was wounded in Germany on Dec. 8, 1944. He died the next day and was buried in an American military cemetery in the Netherlands.
Gilliam had visited the gravesite once while her father, a career Army officer, was stationed in Germany. She was too young to fully grasp the meaning behind the sacrifice of her great-great-uncle on her dad’s side.
“Now that I’ve been doing research on him ... getting to know his life and story ... it has really changed my perspective,” Gilliam said. “I feel it very deeply in my soul. The importance of this project is to highlight how every single soldier was important. They were all instrumental.”
Since fall 2011, students enrolled in Advanced Placement U.S. History have participated in the Silent Heroes Project developed by Kevin Wagner, the social studies department chair for Carlisle Area School District.
Each student tracks down leads and gathers research on the life and military service of a veteran who died in World War II. They then compile this information for a website that provides as much detail as possible on the background of each veteran.
As of late May, there were 109 entries on the program website with 22 more expected by the end of the first full week of June, Wagner said. He noted how the postings follow a set format with sections on the veteran’s family, hometown happenings, service history of their unit and the location of their gravesite.
Some students are fortunate enough to come across a “gold mine” of specifics that could include photographs, letters, war diaries or stories from living relatives. Others have to make do with sketchy information.
The process begins in September with the selection of a veteran to profile. Typically, students are asked to pick three names and send requests for information from the National Archives near St. Louis where military service records are kept, Wagner said. Three names are necessary because some of the records were lost in a fire in 1973.
Those same three names are submitted to Fort Knox, Tennessee, where the personnel files on deceased service members are kept, Wagner said. Known as IDPFs, this paperwork details everything about the veteran from the time of their death until burial. It includes an inventory of their possessions when the remains were recovered.
Began with D-Day
So far, the majority of veterans profiled by the Silent Heroes Project are Army soldiers buried in the American cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach in Normandy. The origin of the project dates from summer 2011 when Wagner and student Sam Spare were selected to participate in the Sacrifice for Freedom program organized through National History Day.
The program required selected students to research a veteran buried in the cemetery and then prepare a graveside eulogy. Spare picked William T. McCabe, a Carlisle High School graduate. “That was the whole impetus ... where the idea started,” Wagner recalled. He set to work to develop a program where Carlisle students can bring to life ordinary citizens of Pennsylvania who were called to serve during extraordinary times.
Two years ago, high school junior Samantha Martin researched the life and service of Vincent Cochran, a private first class with the 4th Infantry Division who died just shy of his 22nd birthday on June 12, 1944.
“Being so young, there were not a ton of records available on him,” Martin recalled. “I searched ancestry.com but could not find much.” She was able to find a distant relative who knew very little about Cochran.
A past participant in National History Day, Martin is used to the challenge of piecing together a story from scant information. She knows there are cases where the only facts available to researchers are just the name and date of death of the veteran.
“That really reflects the idea of Silent Heroes,” Martin said. “They have been so silenced by history ... by their own deaths ... that there is nothing left for them. It’s really kind of sad. These people died for their country. They went through suffering. They went through joy. They had lives. They are not just bodies on the battlefield. We have to remember that.”
Gilliam knew going in that she wanted to focus her research on her great-great-uncle. “I didn’t matter what I got back,” she said. “I wanted to tell his story. It was very important to me to memorialize him – not just for the purpose of the project but also for the purpose of his daughter.”
Her great-aunt Linda was in utero at the time when Bertram J. Clark died of wounds. Linda never knew her father and had only photographs to share with her great-niece. The project gave Gilliam a greater sense of gratitude. “I truly believe that every soldier that died before, during and after World War II impacts every American today. We are all indebted to them.”
Classmate MacKenzie Ellis selected Clair E. Altland because she liked the sound of his name. The Dover area man enlisted in the Army when he was 24 and died when he was 26.
When military records came back sketchy, Ellis focused her research on building a family tree for her soldier in the hope of locating a living descendant. She found only one relative who was too distant to know anything useful.
Ellis learned that when Altland was 7, his mother remarried, but there was no information on what happened to his birth father. The second man had children from a prior relationship including a son named Clair A.
“When I got started, I couldn’t really stop,” Ellis said. “It made me more dedicated. I wanted to learn as much as I could.”
For her, the project put life into perspective.
“A lot of times when people talk about war and the people who died, they just talk about the numbers,” Ellis said. “But when you start looking into their lives, it becomes a lot more personal. It makes it a lot more real.”
Many of the soldiers profiled by the Carlisle students were the same age or slightly older at the time when they were killed or wounded in action.
Noel Ollestad, a junior, researched infantryman Donald Basney who died around 23 years old and is buried in the United State. It impressed him that there were young people willing to leave their homes, parents and family to go to a faraway place where they may get killed.
“We always think they were specially trained soldiers,” Ollestad said. “They were normal people that defended our freedoms. The people who gave their lives to the country deserve to have their stories told.”