GRAND HAVEN, Mich. — A grand research journey for Chris Petras began inside one of the most recognizable buildings along the Grand River channel in Coast Guard City, USA.
"I was conducting research on the first 100 years of the American Legion Post #28 in Grand Haven, and I came across information on the namesake Charles A. Conklin, and I learned that he died of wounds received in action when he served in World War One," Petras said.
That discovery led to Conklin being awarded the Purple Heart, which 13 On Your Side covered in February 2021. Since then, Petras has uncovered even more military history.
"I'm a life member of the VFW Post 2326 Auxiliary in Grand Haven and wanted to know more about their namesake, Alvin F. Jonker. Went through the same process. Found materials, and he was determined eligible for the Purple Heart," Petras said.
Then Petras came across some information about the entire company that Jonker served in.
"The soldiers that I looked at all enlisted here in Grand Haven, Michigan in National Guard Company F between April of 1917 and the end of August of 1917," he said.
"There was a list of soldiers who were reported as having either been wounded in action, died of wounds received in action or were killed in action. And that's when it began."
The process of researching those soldiers took a year and some help from Congressman Bill Huizenga, whose office had helped Petras with the Conklin discovery.
"I kept digging and digging and digging, and the end result is that of the soldiers that I researched, all 17 will receive their Purple Hearts posthumously," Petras said.
Congressman Huizenga was in town to present those Purple Hearts at a ceremony inside the Tri-Cities Historical Museum at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21. The event was free and open to the public. Around 80 people were in attendance.
"We are tremendously honored and humbled by our role in this. It's a natural fit that we want to honor our military veterans. This area was steeped in military patriotism, and just a dedication to service to this country. That's part of this area's story, and one that we want to tell," said Erica Layton who serves as the museum's executive director.
"When you look at the names on this list, a lot of them still have family descendants in the era. There are roads and businesses named after these men. The history is very much still present, and it's a good reminder that even though they may be gone, their story is still very much here with us."
The recipients include:
- Private 1st Class Edward Hiler
- Sergeant Henry Nietering
- Corporal Daniel Van Woerkom
- Private 1st Class Martin J. Van Horssen
- Private Frank L. Fortino
- Private 1st Class John A. Vyn, Jr.
- Private Arthur Wuennecke
- Private 1st Class William T. Baker, Jr.
- Sergeant Paul Fett
- Corporal Ernest VandenBosch
- Sergeant William H. Van Horssen Jr.
- Corporal Edward Mastenbrook
- Corporal Leland Marr
- Private 1st Class Arnold Smith
- Corporal Walter Meeuwsen
- Sergeant Joseph Swartz
- 1st Lieutenant Edward Grant Garnsey, Jr.
Petras says the group from Grand Haven was part of a fighting force that changed attitudes about the American military on a global level.
"They surprised the British and French troops, who didn't feel that they would be prepared to come over there - that America wasn't really prepared to go over to war," Petras said.
"They earned the nickname Les Terribles from the French. They were surprised at how ferocious, I guess you would say, they were in fighting. And after that they had earned the respect and honor of their their colleagues over in the war."
But as ferocious as they were, Les Terribles, also had a soft side.
"They grew up together. They went to the same elementary schools together. They played on the sand hills together at recess. They went over and watched each other struggle through the war. But in the worst times, there are records that they were singing and whistling and they were just going forward," Petras said.
From Conklin to Jonker, and now 17 more men, Petras says it's an honor to help Grand Haven's war heroes receive the recognition that they have earned.
"I feel it's the least that I could do for the service that they gave for the country, and for their families - to the honor of the names of the families," he said.
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