More than 70 years after Chester Lane left Bartholomew County for the final time, the Ogilville native was reunited with his hometown last summer — at least symbolically.
A small piece of Indiana limestone from the church Lane attended with his family as a boy was laid above him: Plot J, Row 22, Grave 16 in the Lorraine American Cemetery in Saint-Avold, France.
On a rainy July day, Alan Birkemeier began delivering the eulogy he had prepared especially for the fallen World War II hero, who would be 91 if still alive today.
“This limestone — the bedrock of Indiana — represents the foundation where Chester got his ideas and his values which guided him through life,” said Birkemeier, a Central Middle School history teacher, while standing over the grave.
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An online video shows a confident Birkemeier continuing his tribute with a strong voice.
But after he bent down to leave a token from Lane’s kid brother, the teacher’s voice began to crack.
“This is a flag that Albert asked me to deliver to you,” Birkemeier said softly and reverently.
“He says he misses you, and he’ll always love you.”
Even five months later in his classroom, as he sees the emotion he felt last summer in the National Council for Social Studies project, Birkemeier still had to look away.
“I can’t watch all of the eulogy because it’s too sad,” the educator said while interviewed in his classroom. “You feel like you know these guys.”
Birkemeier was one of 18 teachers from 128 applicants chosen for the project, which was conducted in conjunction with the federally funded American Battle Monuments Commission.
A major objective was to gather enough personal information on fallen soldiers so ABMC cemeteries around the world can become educational like those in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Birkemeier said.
After attending an October 2014 workshop in Arlington, Virginia, Birkemeier began hitting the books.
His initial research regarding Chester Lane consisted of combing through historical archives and pouring over newspaper microfilm at the Bartholomew County Public Library.
But after a story about Birkemeier’s involvement in the project appeared in a Dec. 29, 2014, article in The Republic, a number of the surviving Lane family members came forward.
That allowed the educator to delve deep into who Chester Lane really was — and discover an all-too-short life spent in service to others.
Man of sacrifice
This is a summary of what Alan Birkemeier has pieced together on the life of Chester Lane.The eldest of six children of Marion and Carrie Lane was born in 1924. He grew up during the Great Depression on a rented farm, where the family grew tomatoes, potatoes and corn, primarily for their own use.After Marion Lane got a job with a Columbus manufacturer in the late 1930s, the family’s finances were just beginning to improve when he fell down an elevator shaft, suffering permanent, disabling injuries.
Carrie Lane then entered the workforce and took a job with the same manufacturer in 1939. That prompted her son, Chester Lane, to drop out of Columbus High School during his freshman year to oversee the homestead.
He did not attend high school long enough to get his picture in the yearbook, Birkemeier said.
But his siblings recalled that their big brother took to his role as a surrogate father naturally and compassionately.
For example, he put 8-year-old Albert in his lap and taught him how to drive around the farm.
When he took a date to the movies at the Columbus Drive-In, Chester Lane always wanted to bring little sister Dorothy along. While his girlfriends weren’t too thrilled with the idea, Chester Lane didn’t think twice about it.
“He knew it was the only possible way she would ever be able to see these movies,” Birkemeier said.
By 1942, some of his siblings had become old enough to assume additional responsibilities, allowing Chester Lane to begin working at the Noblitt-Sparks manufacturing plant to help support the family.
But his number came up at the draft board, and Lane was ordered to report to duty as a U.S. Army private on March 18, 1943.
While stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Lane broke his arm playing football, interrupting his training for several months.
After recuperating, he was assigned to four different stateside camps before becoming attached to an infantry unit at Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi. Every payday, Lane would send money home to help care for his parents and siblings.
When his family visited him at Camp Van Dorn in early 1944, he pulled his little brother, Charles, aside and strongly advised him to join the Navy instead of the Army because it would be safer.“Again, he’s looking out for his family and doing everything he possibly could to keep them safe,” Birkemeier said.Charles Lane heeded his brother’s advice, served as a quartermaster in the Pacific Theater and survived the war.
But in June 1944, during his final visit back home in Ogilville, Chester Lane had a prophetic conversation with his father that his brother, Albert, will never forget.
During the frank father-son talk, Chester Lane told his dad he doubted that he would return from the war alive. He didn’t believe his military training was sufficient to keep him alive.
Two months later, in August 1944, Chester Lane was deployed as an infantry replacement in General George Patton’s 3rd Army.
Three months after arriving in Europe, Chester Lane’s company took mortar fire on Armistice Day — known today as Veteran’s Day — near the French city of Lenoncourt.
His life of sacrifice to others ended three days later, when Lane, 20, succumbed to his wounds Nov. 14, 1944, in a field hospital.
“He gave up many opportunities, and ultimately gave up his life,” Birkemeier said during the eulogy over Lane’s grave in northeast France. “Chester’s family is very proud of his service. And though he is missed, he lives on in their loving memories.”
There’s a sad reason why efforts are underway to turn military cemeteries into educational centers. Besides fewer Word War II survivors, there are also fewer Americans traveling abroad to honor those laid to rest far from home every year, Berkemeier said.But as Birkemeier traveled throughout northern Europe last summer to visit overseas cemeteries containing American servicemen, he learned their ultimate sacrifice has not been forgotten there.“We met people who had grandparents or great-grandparents with a connection to one of these fallen heroes, so they come four to five times a year to leave flowers and maintain the graves,” Birkemeier said.
In France, Belgium and the Netherlands, today’s generations have not forgotten how the U.S. and its allies freed their countries from their Nazi occupiers — and have instilled their appreciation from generation to generation, he said.
“These aren’t just American heroes,” Birkemeier said as he pointed out how both a French and U.S. flag were placed at Lane’s grave. “These are world heroes.”
Teachers learn lessons
As the 18 selected teachers learned more about individual soldiers, they also broadened their understanding of the campaigns and battles in which those fought.Using their experience, Birkemeier and the other teachers designed a lesson plan specific to their teaching discipline with the common theme of “Understanding Sacrifice.”Each has designed lesson plans for middle school and high school classrooms that are multi-disciplinary and can be applied in history, as well as art, math, science and English classrooms.
The plans are based on solid scholarship, integrated with Common Core and makes use of interpretive materials provided by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
In his lesson plan, Birkemeier asks students to put themselves into the shoes of Chester Lane’s family when they had to choose whether to leave his remains in Europe or brought back home for burial.
The website, called “Understanding Sacrifice,” was opened last month by the National Council for Social Studies, Birkemeier said.
Paid for by the government, anyone can download the information for free, he said.
Education and work experience: Graduated from Kobbe School #5, a small schoolhouse in Bartholomew County’s Wayne Township, and then attended Columbus High School for a short time. Performed farm work for a year and then worked for Noblitt-Sparks Industries, which became Arvin Industries.
Military service: Trained with tank destroyer battalion at Camp Bowie and Camp Hood in Texas and Fort Benning in Georgia. Later trained on maneuvers at Camp Forrest in Tennessee and later stationed with the outfit at Camp Rucker in Alabama. He then transferred to the infantry at Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi and went overseas where he then regrouped with the tank destroyers and served in Patton’s Third Army.
Death: Injured in battle Nov. 11, 1944, and died at age 20 from his injuries three days later on Nov. 14.
Buried: Lorraine American Cemetery, France.
The July 20 eulogy delivered by Alan Birkemeier at the grave of Chester Lane in France is one of several features available on the “Understanding Sacrifice” website. To view it, visit abmceducation.org