As an undergraduate history major at The Ohio State University during the late ’60s and early ’70s, my interest in European history was only slightly stimulated. I do recall one of my professors being extremely knowledgeable on various aspects of World War I. His lectures did spark my interest, and also made me recall that I had been given a collection of items from World War I that had belonged to my great uncle Cort C. Miller, of Ottawa. Cort was my grandmother’s brother and my mother’s uncle.
Pvt. Miller survived several major World War I campaigns while serving in France and eventually returned to his farm in Putnam County. Cort died in 1959. He was buried with military honors at Sugar Ridge Cemetery east of Leipsic. In the mid 1960s, his window gave me Cort’s collection of World War I military items. This very special collection included his campaign medals, dog tags, photographs, helmet, canteen, gas mask, a wool uniform and many additional items.
One of the most fascinating items in the collection was a small pocket journal in which he described some of the actual trench warfare he had endured. He also recorded the serial number of his Springfield rifle as well as the names and addresses of fellow soldiers.
The Great War ended in 1918, and in 2018 I suddenly realized that the collection of items that I had been entrusted with were now 100 years old. I began revising my documentation of the collection with the intention of eventually passing it on to my son and grandsons.
As I continued to do my research and updates, it dawned on me that an aunt on my father’s side of the family had given me a couple of faded newspaper obituary clippings that addressed the tragic death of Pvt. Willis J. Nusbaum of Allen County. At the time of his death, his family resided one mile northwest of Bluffton.
I recalled that over 15 years ago I had the aged clippings laminated for safe keeping. Miraculously, I soon located the clippings and after a little genealogical research discovered that Willis was my grandfather’s nephew. Willis had been born in the United States and his family, like many other early Swiss settlers, had left Switzerland for a variety of reasons. One of those being to escape what was becoming an ever-growing warlike culture in many parts of Europe. So here we have a young man born to a peace-loving Swiss family who was eventually drafted and sent to Europe where he died protecting the freedom of others.
Last day of fighting
If you have any interest in 20th century world history, you will recall that the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I was signed on Nov. 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. — hence, the 11th month, the 11th day and the 11th hour.
Tragically, Nusbaum was killed in action on Sunday, Nov. 10, 1918. His death occurred during the third and final phase of the Meuse-Argon Offensive in northeastern France. At the time, Willis was serving with the American Expeditionary Forces, 118th Infantry, 32nd Division. Initially, Nusbaum served with Company A, 128th Infantry.
Willis, along with many other United States soldiers, was buried in a temporary French cemetery. After World War I, the primary next of kin for each identifiable service member were notified and given three options in regard to a final resting place for their loved one.
The first option was to have the deceased buried in a permanent American military cemetery in France free of charge. The second option was to have the deceased repatriated back to the United States for burial at any national cemetery free of charge. The third option was to have the deceased repatriated to the United Sates for burial in a local cemetery of the family’s choosing. The government would pay the cost for this option up to the amount it would cost for burial at a national cemetery.
Because this process took a considerable amount of time — the identification of remains, contacting the families, waiting for the final decision and response — it wasn’t until 1920-‘21 that mass repatriation of service members back to the United States took place. During this time period, Arlington National Cemetery received nearly 5,000 individuals for interment.
Nusbaum was one of these individuals. The interment date for Willis Nusbaum was Sept. 29, 1921 — almost three years after he was killed in France.
A spelling error
When my research indicated that Willis had been interred at Arlington, I decided to check the cemetery’s website. My website search is a great example of when I actually appreciate technology. I was thrilled to learn that you can actually do a gravesite search. Via the Arlington website, I soon learned that Nusbaum was buried in Grave No. 3532 in Section No. 18.
A Google Earth view on the website provided me with perspective on just where the gravesite was located within the cemetery. Then, the availability of an actual photo of the headstone truly amazed me. However, when looking at the photo, I made the surprising discovery that the surname Nusbaum had been misspelled by the stone’s engraver — Nunbaum.
To the best of my knowledge, no family member had ever visited the gravesite. Perhaps back in 1921 when Willis’s interment took place, a train trip to Arlington, Virginia, may have been much too costly. As time passed, perhaps the Great Depression which started in 1929 became a factor.
Willis’s mother had died many years prior to Willis being drafted into the Army. I’m assuming that if any surviving family member had visited Willis’s gravesite that a request would have been made to have the surname corrected.
An example of honor
At this point, at least in my opinion, is where it really gets interesting.
The Arlington National Cemetery’s website had an option of leaving feedback, so on April 16, 2018, I decided to do so. I explained that I had discovered the spelling error of the surname. As there are presently over 400,000 burials there, I assumed that the chances of getting the headstone corrected were most likely slim to none. Even if I ever heard back from a cemetery official, I was quite sure they would say they were unable to make a correction of an error that was made 97 years ago.
The next day, I was totally amazed to receive an email response from the Arlington National Cemetery Quality Assurance Team. This was their response:
“Hello Mr. Nusbaum,
Thank you for contacting Arlington National Cemetery regarding the headstone of Pvt. Willis Nusbaum. We have identified and confirmed the discrepancy and the marker is going to be reordered with the correct spelling of the surname. Please let us know if you have any questions.
Quality Assurance Team
Arlington National Cemetery”
I must admit that after reading their response I was in tears. I regretted that I could not share the amazing news with my father, who had died in January 2010. I was, however, able to share my story with a few of my Nusbaum cousins, and they were also equally amazed. This is a true testimony to how our national cemeteries continue to honor our nation’s fallen.
You may be wondering if the new headstone is in place. Back in April 2018, I most certainly didn’t feel it very appropriate for me to request a replacement timeline for the headstone. On Aug. 8, 2019, I received another email.
I am happy to report the headstone for Willis Nusbuam has arrived and is present at the gravesite. A photo of his new headstone is available on our website. Please feel free to contact me should you have any questions.
Director, Accountability & Quality Assurance
Arlington National Cemetery”
Making a visit
My wife and I had the honor of visiting Arlington National Cemetery and the gravesite of Pvt. Willis Nusbaum on Sept. 29, 2019. Later, on Oct. 30, 2019. while on an eighth grade field trip, our oldest granddaughter was afforded the privilege of visiting the gravesite. I believe we may be the only Nusbaum family members who ever had the opportunity to visit Willis’s gravesite.