A FRENCH CONNECTION
EDITOR’S NOTE: Republic native George F. Ritola was one of 10 military members from that small town who died serving this country during World War II. His family’s search for the whole story of his death during battle only recently came to a conclusion. In the second of a two-part series, the family finds some answers, from sources near and far. Part one appeared in Sunday’s Mining Journal.
REPUBLIC – Loraine and Jim Koski were speaking to a group of Republic residents in March, showing slides of a visit they made to France in the summer of 2012.
The Koskis have made numerous trips to Europe, doing research into the final days of Upper Peninsula World War II veterans killed during the war.
“Most of the people present were relatives of a Republic soldier killed in action during WWII, PFC Elden Gjers, but the brother (Wilho) and the nephew (George) of another Republic man killed in action named (Technician Five) George Ritola were also there,” Loraine Koski said.
The nephew George sent Koski home with a binder filled with information about his uncle George, information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request the younger man had made of the U.S. Army in 1998.
“Skimming through it, I caught the names of a couple of very specific places to do with where T/5 Ritola was killed in Alsace, France, on 1/23/1945, Labaroche and Le Chene and the name of the French farm family that had taken the wounded American soldier into their home, last name Michel,” Koski said.
However, there had been such heavy shelling, the family had to evacuate and leave the wounded Ritola behind. When they returned in February, several weeks later, they found his body in the rubble of their home, Koski said.
The Koskis had visited Orbey, a town near Labaroche, in 2011, snapping some photos from a mountaintop overlooking Orbey, which was the closest location the Army file provided the Ritolas to where George had died.
“It was frustrating to find out we had been so close,” she said. “Yet so far away from the true mark.”
Koski had an inspiration, though, and emailed pertinent information about Ritola’s case to friends she and her husband had made in France, a couple named Oliver and Mary-Rose Pernot who lived in Alsace.
“Before April was over Oliver and Marie-Rose had not only found a surviving relative of the Michel family, but had visited and photographed the site of the farm, rubble of which still remains,” she said. “They had chatted up the neighbors and had been loaned ‘after the battle’ photos of the neighborhood by those neighbors.”
But that wasn’t all Oliver Pernot did.
“From the info and a couple of photos I provided to Oliver pertaining to T/5 Ritola, he created a document to present to the Labaroche city government, and number of others in that area,” Koski said. “He has left a lot people talking about this American soldier who fought and died for their liberty.”
Back in Republic, the Ritolas were stunned by these developments.
“Oliver found people who remembered George,” nephew George said. “He found the actual farmhouse where he was killed. That was stuff I thought we’d never learn. The people who remember those days are getting so old now. It was amazing.”
T/5 Ritola’s younger sister, Mary Ann Voegtline, was amazed as well.
“To see the actual place where it happened? My yes, that was strange,” she said.
George’s younger brother, Wilho – himself a U.S. Army veteran – was struck by something when he saw on a map where his oldest brother had perished.
“At one point, I was probably just 150 miles from where it happened,” Wilho said. “They started calling the area where George had died ‘Purple Heart Valley’ because so many soldiers were killed in that area.”
The younger George Ritola had some big clues from the Army file, but it took Oliver Pernot’s efforts to complete the search.
“Le Chene is a small town. It wasn’t on the maps I had,” nephew George said. “Oliver had better access to better maps. He was able to ask questions of the people there and got leads. He found the spot. He found the exact spot.”
Koski, too, is thrilled by how this all turned out.
“Anything I am able to discover or that Jim and I are able to see, photograph and share with family and friends of our local World War II casualties is an honor and a privilege, but it all absolutely pales next to the sacrifice made by each man and woman we are researching,” she said.
“We are also incredibly awed by the devotion of the many individuals we have met on our continuing European trips toward their fallen liberators, now almost 70 years after the fact; in T/5 George Ritola’s case, by Oliver and Marie-Rose Pernot of Alsace.”
A search 68 years in the making, started by a family when 21-year-old George, the oldest Ritola sibling, died while serving his country during World War II – and expanded when his namesake nephew reached out to the Army in 1998 – was much more complete. And there was one more thing that happened which really touched the family.
“Oliver sent a photo,” Wilho said. “He put a rose on a tree in the yard of the house built near the farmhouse where George was killed for George’s 90th birthday, which was April 13, 2013. That was something to see.”
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org