As a columnist, I have interviewed many American combat veterans. That includes veterans of World War II, several of them when my editors in Baltimore sent me to Normandy to cover the 40th anniversary observances of the D-Day invasion and the beginning of the liberation of France. But, of all the stories I wrote — and radio shows and TV features I produced — about the men and women in the Second World War, the one that stands out is the one I got wrong.
But the mistake was an honest one, and it made the story even more interesting. It’s worth retelling on this Memorial Day because it’s a story about a memorial.
In 1998, I received a letter from the mayor of a tiny village in France — Sauvagney, in a valley west of Dijon. Two American soldiers had been killed during Sauvagney’s liberation in the late summer of 1944. The village wanted to erect a permanent memorial to the two men, one of whom, Pfc. John Kreiner, was from Baltimore. The mayor of Sauvagney, Henri Ducret, wanted my help in locating descendants.
So I wrote a column about John Kreiner. He and a private from West Virginia had been killed by German machine gun fire as their company crossed a meadow in Sauvagney on Sept. 9, 1944. The Baltimore Sun’s extensive archive did not have a story about Kreiner’s death — there were mounting casualties in Europe at the time, so it was understandable — but we had a photograph of him. The photo ran with my column on Sept. 9, 1998 — 54 years to the day since his death.
I received a phone call early on the day of publication. It was from a woman named Margaret. She said she was shocked by my column, and that it was wrong. She had been married to John Kreiner, and his photograph was the one that ran with my column. “But my John wasn’t killed in the war,” Margaret said. “My John came home and we had babies.”
You can imagine that I was a little shocked by this. Had there been more than one John Kreiner from Baltimore in World War II?
I spent the next day looking at records, and this is what I came up with:
Nineteen men named Kreiner were among the 288,000 Marylanders who served in the armed forces during World War II.
All of the Kreiner men were from Baltimore.
Five of the Kreiners were named John.
Three of them were in the Army.
Two of them were named after their fathers. There was John H. Kreiner Jr., of Homestead Street, in Waverly, and John Kreiner Jr. (no middle initial), of East Street, near Belair Market.
Both John H. Kreiner Jr. and John Kreiner Jr. were in their early 20s.
Both had married women named Margaret before going overseas.
Both were privates in infantry divisions involved in the “other D-Day,” the August 1944 invasion of southern France.
John H. Kreiner Jr. was wounded in France and came home. He and his wife — the Margaret who had called me — had had two children and were later divorced. John H. Kreiner Jr. remarried in 1964. He died in Baltimore in 1980.
John Kreiner Jr. did not come home. He was killed on Sept. 9, 1944, in that meadow outside Sauvagney. His widow, Margaret, was pregnant when he died. “We had been married three years,” she told me that day. “When he died, I got the telegram at my mother’s house, and, well, you know how that was. . . . I went through it alone. . . . I remarried almost right away.”
I got this all sorted out by the time my next column was due. The experience brought to mind the scene from “Saving Private Ryan,” when the captain, played by Tom Hanks, breaks tragic news to the wrong soldier. It was a name’s-the-same mistake, the kind of thing that happens in the chaos of a massive war fought by millions.
Members of the family of John Kreiner Jr. contacted me and I was able to connect them with the mayor of Sauvagney and veterans of the 36th Infantry Division. The Kreiner relatives, including John’s brother and his widow, were pleased and proud to learn of the memorial in that little town where he died.