War memorial to honor a century of city's lost veterans
By NEIL JOHNSON | The Janesville (Wis.) Gazette | Published: January 2, 2014
MILTON, Wis. — As U.S. Army machine gun battalion Sgt. Carroll Benjamin West lay dying on a battlefield along the Meuse River, near the town of Verdun in northern France, a soldier in his company gently lied to him.
It was Oct. 2, 1918, in the heart of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive — the final battle of World War I and the largest battle in U.S. military history.
West, who was just 20, was in charge of one of a few American machine-gun battalion companies called out that day to help infantry troops stanch a German counterattack at the Western Front along the French-German border.
As West's machine-gunners struggled up a hill, German bullets rained down upon them. West, a Milton College graduate whose family and fellow soldiers knew him as “Cal,” was shot in his left side and mortally wounded.
As U.S. Army Pvt. Harry Chapman carried West down the hill, he saw the size of the bullet hole in West's side. He knew the sergeant's injury was grave, but he couldn't bring himself to tell West the truth.
“Sergeant West asked me if he was badly wounded, and for a few minutes, I could not answer; then I said, 'You are not badly wounded.' But I knew he was,” Chapman said in a letter later published in a local memorial booklet on West's life.
West died shortly after he was injured, and he was later buried at Meuse-Argonne Military Cemetery, near where he was killed. West has a memorial marker at Milton Junction Cemetery in Milton, Wis., though his body never returned to American soil.
West's troops, who Chapman said knew him as one of the bravest, most beloved men they'd fought beside, last saw West being carried off by medics.
“We bade him good-by, and he said, 'I will be all right in a short time.' Then the stretcher-bearers took him away. That is all I know,” Chapman said in his letter.
In July 2014, Milton's Veterans Park should have a new memorial in place that gives full honor, by name and military rank, to the 35 soldiers from the city of Milton who were killed in action during World War I, World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Carroll West and other fallen Milton-area veterans will have their names and where they died etched in three granite monuments planned at the park along East High Street. The memorial is part of a $35,000 plan to add to an existing war memorial statue built at the park in 2012 by a local Eagle Scout.
The new memorial will include a patio and walkway of brick pavers inscribed with the names of Milton residents who have served in active duty in the military. Plans include landscaping and a set of 12 benches that will encircle the original 2012 monument.
The plan is being paid for through volunteer work and a public-private fundraising effort through the city of Milton, with a core of Milton war veterans, members of the city's parks and recreation commission and members and local businesses who are working to raise donations.
It's the first memorial that names Milton-area soldiers fallen in battle.
Lynda Clark, a member of the parks and recreation commission and a mother of two sons in the U.S. Marines, said volunteers have poured forth to make the memorial happen.
“We just wanted to find a way to honor and thank these people who laid their lives down for our freedom,” Clark said. “So far, it's been overwhelming. We have had so many veteran families and military families in the area get involved with this memorial. It's great they're stepping up.”
Clark said work is poised to start on the project this spring or early summer, with a target completion date of July 5.
Wendell Sisson, a retired History teacher who taught at Milton High School and later in Germany at a U.S. Department of Defense High School in Heidelberg, first hatched the idea of adding to the existing monument at the park, an eagle statue built in 2012.
Sisson moved back from Germany to Milton in 2009, and he spent three years tracking down the names of all Milton soldiers killed in action over the last 100 years.
He dug through state and local historical society records, the Internet and federal war and military burial registries to painstakingly piece together the names and details of every Milton-area war veteran killed since World War I. He even found a few local fallen soldiers who served in the American Civil War.
“It became something of an obsession,” Sisson said.
Sisson ended up with six large binders of information, detailing when and exactly where Milton's fallen veterans served, what battles they fought in and details of where they're buried. Some never came home; they were buried in military cemeteries in Europe.
When Sisson lived in Europe, he noticed every small town there had a war memorial that listed the name of each local veteran who died in war. He wanted that for Milton.
“There (in Europe), people have not forgotten. It seems like here, we have,” Sisson said.
In 2012, Sisson first approached the city about an idea for a memorial like those he'd seen in Europe, and in fall 2013, the council approved a plan to modify the park to include the new memorial.
Since then, several local contractors have offered gravel, concrete and landscaping services, and fundraising efforts continue.
Sisson's work helped unearth names of all the dozens of fallen soldiers from Milton, but along the way, he found out personal details about Milton's fallen — some of them poignant, others showing selflessness.
A local memorial booklet Sisson found that details Carroll West's life in Milton and his death at war contains sections of poetry West wrote to family members he wanted to cheer up while he served in France. One such poem is prefaced by a simple wish West had for a relative at home who was struggling with anxiety.
“To feel that our loved ones at home will be cheery and brave — even if some of us should happen to have hard luck over here (at war) doing our bit — that is what we like,” West wrote.
Ninety-six years later, in a park in Milton, West's wish is coming true.