Decades later, a fallen soldier's family still remembers

By Liz Quirin

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Communications Sgt. Carl Stadelbacher died April 16, 1945, 12 days after being liberated from a POW camp in Germany. Credit: Liz Quirin of The Messenger

The yellowed newsprint was unfolded carefully. Its creases spoke of being handled many times over the years since it had been printed in the 1940s after the allies had claimed victory in the “war to end all wars.”

Sgt. Carl Stadelbacher wouldn’t be home that spring or summer or any other time until his body was returned to his home in Cobden, Ill. where he would be buried at St. Joseph Church.

Like so many other soldiers, he was just a boy, really, had not quite begun to live before he was asked to defend and then die for his country in a foreign land.

Carl’s family loved him as the second of eight children of Leo and Geraldine Stadelbacher, a farm family in rural southern Illinois.

Carl’s older brother, Bob, was deferred because of the need to work on the family farm, but Carl decided he could best do his duty in the United States Army. From all accounts, he was a good friend to many of the young men in his company — Company “K” of the 112th Infantry, 28th Division — and one friend he made visited the family in Cobden when he returned to the States.

Before Carl sailed into action in Europe, he went home on a furlough, his younger sister, Marjorie Stadelbacher said.

As the youngest girl, Marjorie kept all of the correspondence between family members and Carl. When he came home on that last furlough in the 1940s, she was only six years old, but she remembers going to Hicks Woods for a picnic with Carl and the family.

After he left, her older brother and parents wrote to Carl, but letters dated January 1945 were returned, never opened. First he was designated MIA — Missing in Action — but later reclassified as a POW. He was captured Dec. 20, 1944 in Clervaux in northern Luxembourg along with other American soldiers.

In retrospect, the war was almost over, less than a year to go, and yet it kept taking the lives of young Americans.

Carl was placed in one POW camp in Germany and then moved to another. He was liberated by American soldiers April 3, 1945 and taken to an evacuation hospital where he died 12 days later of malnutrition and pneumonia a little over a month before his 23rd birthday.

His family and friends were devastated. They believed, after these months in prison, their son would finally be home soon. He wrote to them from the hospital, saying he would regain his strength and be home in about six weeks. Then the telegram came.

As for so many other families, the mailbox played a pivotal role in their lives. At first, the return of the letters worried and discouraged them. Then word of his POW status gave them hope.

Their mother was “so happy,” Marjorie said, when they received word he had been liberated. In May, the tragic news of his death was brought by the pastor and the mayor who brought the telegram to the house. He was buried temporarily in Germany but would eventually be brought home.

Two years later, his mother wrote about the life and death of her son that was published in a local newspaper.

It reads in part: “Today, they have come the medals of honor my dear boy won on the battlefields over there. As I hold them in my trembling hands, a picture passes through my tears, of a boy entering manhood with the eager look of youth upon his face.”

Later in the piece, she writes: “No letters from home to cheer him, no Red Cross aid, just hope to sustain him. Finally, starvation, with its grim hand of death, silence earth’s horror and war’s wild scream.”

In ending, she said: “Give light to them that sit in darkness, and guide their feet in the way of peace. And as background for this prayer, come the silent voices of our sons beneath their crosses, row on row: Remember.”

Years later, the area where Carl had fought and was captured was still dangerous. Land mines and unexploded ordinance being removed sometimes killed the people whose job it was to clear the area of mines.

Their mother really never recovered from Carl’s death, Marjorie said.

His parents donated a stained glass window to St. Joseph’s in Carl’s memory. “The window symbolized the sacrifice of God giving his son (to the world), and mom and dad gave their son,” Marjorie said. “She always said she understood the pain the Blessed Mother had and knew her sorrow.”

Carl’s mother died at the age of 101 in 2001.

“I still think about Carl,” Marjorie said. A small insurance policy he left to his mother “helped me get through college.” She taught kindergarten in East Alton, Ill., until returning to Cobden to live.

She planted roses at the family graves in Cobden a variety, she said “would bloom all summer.”

Marjorie described Carl as a sensitive young man, always willing to help others. She remembers one day going out to the mailbox at the farm without her shoes. The gravel driveway was hard on her feet.  “Carl came out and carried me back to the house,” she said and smiled at the memory.

His kindness was described through correspondence sent to the family after he died.

“God works in different ways,” Marjorie said. “If Carl had lived, the tragedy he experienced in war may have haunted him for the rest of his life.”

She said she thinks about the young men who are serving in the military today, especially those in war torn countries.

With young men suffering through so much pain and loss, she hopes and prays they will receive the care they need to recover from their injuries — both physical and emotional.

“I’m praying that a lot of young men with shattered nerves and injuries who do not receive solace from the world will turn to God and change this world through their spiritual battles.”

Posted with permission from The Messenger, official newspaper for the Diocese of Belleville, Ill.

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