Humble hero's cross stands a century later

Tuesday, November 6, 2018
Photos by Seth Boyes

This story was updated to include additional material recieved regarding the memory of Walter "Wave" Miguel.

The nation will pause Sunday to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Great War's end at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Unfortunately, the peace which followed wasn't quite soon enough for one Arnolds Park family. Walter "Wave" Miguel was killed while serving in the U.S. Army just a day before the armistice was signed.

The eldest son, Miguel was called for a military examination in late January of 1918 at the age of 30. Miguel's younger brothers, Floyd and Earl would also find themselves in the Army. Their brother Harold was drafted, but was attending Coe College in Cedar Rapids when the hostilities ended. Their oldest brother and 161 other men left by train for Camp Pike in Little Rock, Arkansas, six months after being examined, according to archives of the Spirit Lake Beacon. Another 26 men from Dickinson County were called for within a week. Unbeknownst to him, the birthday Miguel would celebrate that August would be his last.

"After only a few weeks there, he was sent to France and into the front several weeks before the fighting ceased," the Dec. 12, 1918, edition of the Beacon read.

Miguel had learned carpentry from his father and was reportedly a mechanic as well. A 1990 Beacon interview with Miguel's sister-in-law, Leone, said the family helped construct the first waterslide in Arnolds Park Amusement Park as well as the original roller skating pavilion and the buildings housing the Fun House and souvenir shops. With his sons serving abroad, the boys' father Henry found his own way to aid the war effort.

"Henry Miguel was not only willing to give his boys to fight for our country, but he has gone to Seattle to work in the shipyards," the Lake Park News reported on May 30, 1918. "Mr. Miguel is an excellent carpenter and, while too old to enlist in the army, can do his bit in a way that is just as helpful."

The Beacon later reported the Miguel patriarch returned to Arnolds Park from the West Coast shipyard in October of that year.

Letters from his three sons arrived toward the end of the month. Sentiments from each of the Miguel brothers were published in the Spirit Lake Beacon evidently taking close to a month to arrive from "somewhere in France" as the U.S. forces executed an offensive on country's east side.

Earl described his sleeping arrangement a hole in the side of the trench he shared with two other soldiers in a letter to his mother. Earl said his unit had spent five days "over the top" engaging the enemy. Both he and Floyd wrote about the food and the family left at home, but Floyd also mentioned he had learned his oldest brother was about 8 miles away from his position. Walter on the other hand asked his mother for his brothers' addresses so he might write to them. Floyd said the soldiers were receiving the best attention and medical care, and told his mother there was no need to worry. In fact, Wave's letter indicated he had recently been released from a hospital after an illness kept him back from his unit for a time.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History

"There are lots of things I would like to tell you, but they will keep until I get back home again," Miguel wrote his mother. "And won't that be a great time when we all get there?"

But that time never came.

The American Expeditionary Forces had coordinated with French troops and launched a renewed operation in late September, meant to route the German forces from eastern France before winter set in, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History. The plan called for the allied forces to form a large-scale pincer formation and squeeze the German troops out and to the east, hopefully capturing a pair of major railroad junctions in the process. The American forces formed the southern pincer. The maneuver's first phase went quickly, taking approximately a week to seize at least two major outposts. The second week was not so easy.

"In the face of a stubborn defense, American gains were limited and casualties were severe, especially as a result of the newly devised enemy tactic of attacking frontline troops with airplanes," material from the Army Center of Military History said.

The plan's final phase began in early November. Archived reports of the operation said both the terrain and tactical situation were in the advancing army's favor. The documents said bombing squadrons were called in during the Nov. 1 attack to protect the advancing infantry.

"This resulted in direct material and moral assistance to the infantry during the critical stages of the attack," the report read.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History

Refreshed and replaced American units advanced quickly and captured the rail stations. The enemy was said to be in full retreat by Nov. 4, as they crossed the Meuse River. The operation reports said the forces paused at the river for a time, and instructions were given Nov. 9 for a general attack, which the American troops undertook the next day Miguel's last.

"On our left, the enemy continued his usual harassing artillery and machine-gun fire, and our advances on the extreme right encountered greater resistance than on previous days," the operation's report said.

The 1990 Beacon interview with Miguel's would-be sister-in-law, claimed it was in the early morning hours that day when a shell exploded on the front-line near Louppy-sur-Loison, killing Miguel and five other American servicemen.

The troops were able to take several crossings and advanced the front before word of the signed armistice reached them early Nov. 11. The Army Center of Military History estimated 1.2 million Americans were involved in the offensive over 47 days. The troops bested 47 German divisions, but lost 117,000 men.

"We laid out all night Nov. 10 in the mud, rain and cold, all ready to go over the morning of the 11th, and it was the greatest news in the world when the drive was called off and things were started for a great peace," Floyd Miguel wrote his mother.

But the greatest news would forever be coupled to the worst for the Miguels. Archives of the Beacon said the family received a telegram Dec. 9 that year, counting their first-born among the dead.

"His mother's first words in her sorrow were, 'How can I give him up? He was always so good to me.'" the Beacon said at the time. "Can greater tribute be paid to any man?"

The 1990 Beacon interview said Floyd and Earl Miguel searched through records and combed the French countryside for their brother's grave in the months following his death.

"On Nov. 16, Walter and the five other servicemen had been buried a few feet from where they had fallen," the article said. "Six months later, the bodies were moved and placed with 20,000 others in an American cemetery in Argmagne, Muese, France."

The family received word Oct. 19, 1921, their fallen son's remains had been shipped from New York and were headed to Arnolds Park. He was laid to rest two days later at Okoboji Cemetery. He would have been 34 years old at the time. Both the Milford and Spirit Lake American Legions were present, along with members from Terril and Lake Park, according to archives of the Milford Mail. In the decades to come, his father, mother, siblings and in-laws would be buried on his left.

A war memorial stands in the corner of Arnolds Park's Okoboji Cemetery, sheltered from the often-busy highway. The words of Henry David Thoureau are written upon its curved wall.

"Heroes are often the most ordinary of men," the wall reads.

But the white cross marking a gravestone perhaps 50 yards from the memorial and the metal helmet atop it remind visitors 100 years later that extraordinary heroes may come from the humblest of places.

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