In France, they remember Baltimore's Private Kreiner


September 09, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

SOMEWHERE today they're remembering Private Kreiner. It's a distant somewhere, a speck of a place in a valley in France. You could speak the name Kreiner there and an old man named Henri Ducret would break into the long story of the Germans and the war, the years of occupation and the day of liberation, and he'll describe the body of Private Kreiner being carried to the churchyard.

In the little town of Sauvagney, they remember Private Kreiner.

Here in Baltimore, however, we come to the story late, 54 years to the day late. For some reason - maybe it was the mass of information coming out of Europe and Asia at the time, the mounting casualties - his hometown newspaper never reported the death of Pvt. John H. Kreiner Jr. We never reported much on his life, for that matter. All we have is the photograph of the meekly smiling private in the overseas cap, a black-and-white glossy retrieved from the Sun archives after its one use 54 years ago. And there's one story about him - actually, just one paragraph in a roundup of war news:

"Private John H. Kreiner Jr. was sent overseas to take part in the battle for Anzio beachhead, and continued to serve with the Fifth Army until he was stricken with malaria fever. In his last letter to his wife, Mrs. Margaret Burke Kreiner of 912 Homestead Street, he wrote that he now is fully recovered and has rejoined his outfit for combat service."

That notice appeared in The Evening Sun, next to a supermarket advertisement, on Aug. 21, 1944.

Just 18 days later, Kreiner advanced with Company E, 141st Infantry Regiment, toward Sauvagney in eastern France, between the city of Dijon and the Swiss border. Kreiner's regiment, part of the 36th Division, had been involved in the invasion of Salerno, Italy, a year earlier. It also had taken part in Operation Anvil, invading southern France in August 1944 and moving north rapidly through lands that had been occupied by German troops for four years.

On Sept. 9, 1944, east of Dijon, on the road to Belfort, Kreiner's company engaged German occupiers around little Sauvagney, a farming village with a population today (and probably then) of fewer than 200.

German soldiers entrenched in woods fired their machine guns across a meadow at the advancing Americans. Those who remember the day tell of screams across the meadow and medics running to assist the wounded with morphine and bandages. When the fighting ended, two privates of Company E were dead, one of them John Kreiner.

Liberated that day by the Americans, the people of Sauvagney staged a formal burial for Kreiner and the other dead soldier, Pfc. Edwin J. Morgan of Huntington, W.Va.

Henri Ducret, who was 16 at the time and still lives in Sauvagney, remembers the brief battle and the burial. His father, mayor of the village, ordered coffins for the two soldiers. They were buried near the church, with a priest officiating and everyone in the town present.

Kreiner's unit moved on, of course. Just two days later, American units moving from the south connected at Sombernon, near Dijon, with the Allied force that had invaded from the north, on the beaches of Normandy, three months earlier.

"By Christmas of '44," says Harry Burch of Baltimore, a veteran of the 36th Division who was wounded by German artillery fire in France, "we were in Strasbourg." By March 1945, the 36th crossed into Germany, by May into Austria. It captured more than 175,000 German troops and some of the Nazi elite, including Field Marshal Hermann Goering. Elements of the division were involved in the liberation of the concentration camps at Dachau and Landsberg. The 36th sustained the third-highest number of casualties for an Army division in the war - more than 19,000 wounded, nearly 6,000 dead.

Fifty years later, long after the bodies of the two privates had been removed to other cemeteries - Kreiner is believed to be buried in a military cemetery in France, Morgan in West Virginia - Henri Ducret pushed in Sauvagney for a monument to the town's liberators. He succeeded.

Now there's a stone memorial to Kreiner and Morgan near the place where they were buried in 1944.

"This is so important to the people of Sauvagney," says Roland Prieur, superintendent of the American military cemetery at Epinal, 130 kilometers to the north. "As a matter of fact, the monument to the American privates, Kreiner and Morgan, is erected at the front of the church, at a place where everyone can see it when they go to Mass. This is still the major topic of Sauvagney. Everyone knows the names of Kreiner and Morgan; they know the story. They learn it from their parents and grandparents. This event occurred only a half-century ago, you know, and for this country that is not a long time ago at all."

Several members of the 36th Division Infantry Association visited Sauvagney in April. "We drove into a town of about 175 people, and 150 of them were there, waiting for us, dressed up in suits and Sunday clothes," says Ray Wells, former president of the association.

It was a very emotional day that ended with wine and a big feast for the returning veterans in a Sauvagney restaurant.

And so now you know some of the story, 54 years later. That's about all I have on it.

And yet there's something unfinished here.

While Morgan's family in West Virginia has been contacted, relatives of John Kreiner, the private from Homestead Street in Baltimore, do not know of the memorial built by the grateful people of Sauvagney four years ago. Ray Wells says he hasn't been able to locate them. Neither has Prieur, the cemetery superintendent in Epinal.

Maybe now they know.

And that's a good thing. Remembering. And knowing. And better late than never.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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