MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — On an overcast October day, parks workers raise the stars and stripes over above Victory Memorial Drive.
It’s where a massive granite monument pays solemn tribute to the sacrifices of Minnesota soldiers who fought in World War I.
Leonard Wieland was among the lucky American doughboys who returned home. He quietly slipped back into society to start a family and open a Ford auto dealership in Le Sueur.
His granddaughter, Barbara Olsen, said the thing he never did though was dwell on his time spent serving in France.
“You know, he never talked about it,” Olsen said. “In the closet hung the uniform and the hats. There was also a gas mask.”
The olive drab uniform was the lone link to his wartime service. That was up until about two years ago, when Leonard’s personal diary appeared through another family member.
“My brother had it and it surprised me,” said Leonard’s daughter, 95-year-old Marion Peck. “I told him to bring it with him on his next visit.”
Soon, she was devouring her father’s handwritten words like some buried treasure. His penciled entries detailed his initial deployment, training, long marches and even a terrible troop train accident which killed 46 fellow soldiers.
But it was Wieland’s description of the day the war ended that gave the family pause to reflect.
“November 11th, 1918 at Josslein, France when the armistice was signed,” read grandson Jeff Peck.
There it was in his own handwritten recollection, the Great War’s sudden end, as journaled by a Minnesota farm boy.
“And when I read that, I just thought I need to be there. I need to see what he saw. I want to ring those bells,” Jeff Peck said.
Wieland also wrote of the great celebration he witnessed, the fireworks and bell ringing by soldiers overjoyed by the war’s end.
Now, an entire century later, Leonard’s family plans on returning to those same French villages where their father and grandfather spent his wartime service.
“It has opened up for us such a personal connection to him — who he was,” Olsen said.
But the trip will be more than simple retracing steps. The French people have asked the family to place a wreath and commemorate the lives lost.
Nine-million soldiers died fighting in World War I. It’s a sobering reminder of overwhelming human sacrifice in what was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.”
“And I think I’ll have that same feeling when I lay this wreath. It’s a great honor, I look forward to it,” Marion said.
The family intends to donate Leonard’s army uniform to a French military museum. While in the town of Josselin, they hope to ring the very same church bells as their father and grandfather did when the armistice was declared nearly 100 years ago.