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John "Jack" Oderfield French:

From Craig to Normandy: The Story of a Moffat County Soldier's Sacrifice

by Libby Lukens/The Price of Freedom/George Washington University

Biography of Captain John French

Introduction

Upon witnessing Abraham Lincoln's death, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously said, "Now he belongs to the ages." Abraham Lincoln's death has since become a well-known story, and his time as president is idealized in American history. Similarly, the stories of men like Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle are immortalized in stories of the Second World War.

Oftentimes, if a person is not one of these famous names, they do not get mentioned in these histories. Stories of sacrifice get easily overlooked in favor of regarding the giants of the past, and the effects of one person's life get forgotten. Soldiers who make the valorous decision to leave their homes to defend against Axis invasions are still heroes every bit as much as Lincoln, Eisenhower, Churchill, and de Gaulle. Families who support their sons and daughters in their choice to sacrifice their lives are also heroes. Communities that send their love across an ocean as they watch a generation of young men get wiped out by the tides of war are heroes. To understand how the present was influenced by history, one must endeavor to isolate a narrative before it gets lost to memory. In other words, the saga of individual soldiers can still change a person's understanding of the time they lived, even though they now belong to the ages.

Captain John (Jack) French was a highly-decorated soldier. The recipient of both the Purple Heart and the Silver Star, he was regarded by his fellow soldiers as "the grandest man that ever lived."[1] During the war, he discovered he had a natural talent for leadership, and was promoted from Private to Captain in three years.[2] While Jack was on leave in England, he was recruited to join the 22nd Infantry, with whom he lost his life south of Carentan, far from where he had grown up in Craig, Colorado.[3] His sacrifice is marked by a gravestone at the Normandy American Cemetery in France, while his community at home hosts his name on a World War II memorial near the town's center.[4] Jack French gave his life for his home, like the men immortalized as giants in history. His story can help illustrate how a family and community created men that deserved to be members of the Greatest Generation.

Homesteading

A homesteading family in Moffat County[5]

Captain John (Jack) French was familiar with hard work. Growing up at a homestead in Craig, Colorado, his family was used to difficult manual labor to keep their farm afloat. Like many others in Craig at the time, homesteaders journeyed west for the hope of free land and plentiful opportunities. Many did not last much longer than a few years. Maybe it was due to luck, but the hard-working French family thrived long enough to become distinguished members of the Craig community.[6]

Craig is a small town located in the northwest corner of Colorado. In the 1930s, it had a population of just under 1,500 people, many whom were ranchers, homesteaders, or workers in the nearby oil refinery.[7] Just twenty years earlier, Craig had been home to famous cowboys and outlaws. The French children grew up where the idealized "Wild West" was very much a reality. In the small community, everyone knew each other, and often helped each other stay afloat.

There were eight members of the French family. The father, John, worked road construction in town.[8] His wife, Edna, was from Denver, but moved to Maybell in Moffat County, Colorado when she married John.[9] While there, she had five children. Edwin, born in 1913, Madge, born in 1914, John (whom they nicknamed Jack), in 1917, Edna, born in 1919, and Stanley, born in 1923.[10] Although new to Maybell, Edna and John Sr. helped settle the new community. It was not without its dangers. During a move from the homestead to a ranch to live for the winter, the French family encountered some trouble on the road. They made an attempt to cross a river in their horse-drawn wagon when it got caught in quicksand. The family had to yell and yank on the horses to get them to move to safety, and nearly lost their livelihood in the riverbed.[11] Luckily, they made it across the river and to the ranch in time for winter. Edna and John Sr. were devoted community members in Maybell, but decided to move in 1926 for their kids to attend school in Craig. Before they left, members of the community made them dinner to wish the family off.[12]

Craig



Downtown Craig in June 1930, photo courtesy of the Museum of Northwest Colorado

After leaving their homestead in Maybell, the family settled into the town of Craig. Like in Maybell, they became involved in the community. John Sr. got a construction job working on modernizing Craig's roads, while Edna started selling silk stockings and knit goods around town.[13] The Craig Empire, the local newspaper, recorded entries on the happenings of the Craig citizens, and wrote of how Edna often took the children picnicking to the neighboring town of Steamboat Springs.[14] After starting at a new school in Craig, the kids began to make friends. Edna, Jack's younger sister, was invited to a local birthday party. The event was recorded in the "Society" column of the local paper, evidence of how close-knit the town of Craig was.[15] The boys, Edwin, Jack, and Stanley, joined sports, and were recognized for their basketball skills.[16] The French family was happy to be settling into their adopted community. A year after their arrival in 1927, however, tragedy found them in their new home. Edna L. French, Jack's younger sister, started feeling ill while at school. After going home, she quickly succumbed to the flu, and died two days later.[17] For several months after, there are no records of the French family's involvement in the community. The family that had survived homesteading, perilous wagon journeys, and moving to a new community, but lost one of their own in just two days.

For the next several years, the French family did not grace the pages of The Craig Empire Courier. In 1929, the family welcomed a new member. Lois L. French was born in Craig, and soon after the family was gracing the Society pages of the newspaper once again.[18] Jack French, at this point twelve years old, got involved in sports and the school's musical "On the Road to Moonlight Town," where he acted as a nightmare in the Water Lilies waltz.[19] Like many kids living in the West, he learned quickly how to be useful and resourceful. In 1931 he was given an "honorable mention" for almost receiving honor roll at the high school.[20] He also joined the Boy Scouts and went camping and rabbit hunting outside of Craig, and accompanied his schoolmates in taking a trip to Steamboat Springs to swim and picnic to celebrate the end of the year. [21] [22]

To help pay his way through high school, Jack got a job at the local Safeway.[23] This was common for a majority of the Moffat County High School students, as many joined the Civilian Conservation Corps to pay for their education.[24] Craig's citizens were not excluded from the poverty the US faced during the Great Depression, and every French family member found a way to work, even while in school. Jack was also an avid athlete. He was a member of the track team and basketball team, while continuing his involvement with the school's musicals.[25] He even set the record for high jump at Moffat County High School at 5 feet 8 inches.[26] Even while doing all of these extracurriculars, Jack graduated in 1935. He is pictured below.



Picture courtesy of Museum of Northwest Colorado

After he graduated, Jack continued to work at Safeway. He got a few odd ranch jobs, working hard to help his family and younger siblings get through school.[27] After he graduated, Jack seemed to fall into a familiar, Colorado niche of spending as much time outside as possible along with his classmates and family. His odd jobs as a rancher and a grocery store clerk helped sustain him, but his true passion was spending time in the mountains and deserts of Northwest Colorado.

In 1937, he had to be rushed into a hospital in Hayden, 15 miles away, for an emergency appendectomy.[28] The move must have scared his parents, given its similarities to Edna's death ten years before, as well as the harrowing task of driving someone with a burst appendix 15 miles over icy mountain roads. Jack stayed bedridden in the hospital for two weeks but was often visited by family friends.[29] Upon recovering, Jack did not stay still for long. Soon he was back to his old hobbies, skiing, fishing, and tobogganing through the Rocky Mountains.[30] He also loved traveling with friends, driving with his brother and a few others to Los Angeles for a club convention.[31]


Although he was enjoying his early twenties in Craig, the difficulties of western life were still able to catch up to Jack and the rest of the French family. In 1939, Edwin French, Jack's older brother, was helping erect a streetlight when it slipped forward and fell on his head. The two other men that were with Edwin jumped out of the way, but the pole fractured Edwin's skull. He died three hours later, at the age of 27.[32] Jack was 22. Losing another son was surely devastating for the French parents. The family was close-knit, and had survived homesteading and Edna's death. To lose the eldest sibling as suddenly as they lost their daughter would be calamitous for their day-to-day life. The next time the news mentioned Jack, he was spending time in the mountains of Grand Lake and Hahn's Peak, a distance away from Craig.[33] Only three months after Edwin's death, Jack enlisted in the Colorado National Guard in Company A of the 157th Infantry Regiment [34]
Training


Members of Company A of the 157
th Infantry, Jack French is in top right corner[35]

Commpany A of the 157th Infantry was based in Craig and filled with Jack's schoolmates and friends.  Many of the soldiers in the company joined for the commission. Lie Jack, they had worked to pay for school and wanted a secure way to send money to their families.[36] It is unclear whether any member of the Company thought that they would actually see action after joining, but that year the Company was given orders to stop an insurrection in the nearby town of Kremmling. Violence had escalated at a worker strike near a Kremmling dam, and several men were shot. Company A were the first national guardsmen to make it to the town. The soldiers disarmed anyone headed toward the dam, a tedious task as almost everyone carried their own weapons at that time. They collected two hundred weapons from men trying to go to the dam. After 27 days of monitoring the situation, Company A went back to Craig. The men probably thought that they would not see any more action during their time in the national guard. Two days later, Germany invaded Poland.[37]

Company A was mobilized to fight for the US Army and were told to ship off for training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in September 1940. Before getting on the train, a father of one of the boys had them line up in front of the local Safeway where Jack worked to take a photo.




Photo courtesy of Museum of Northwest Colorado

For a town of 2,000, sending so many of their own off to war must have made Craig feel empty. Around five percent of their population left to train in Fort Sill. Children that they watched grow up were being sent off farther than they could imagine, to fight an unknown but cruel enemy. The high school band gave the soldiers a musical send-off, while family members waited at the train station to bid the 109 Craig soldiers of the 157th Infantry farewell.[38] Many of these families would never be reunited.

During the next few years of training at Fort Sill, Jack French changed his name to John, and proved that he was a great soldier. In his first year of training, he was promoted to Sergeant. Around this time, John's younger brother Stanley joined the army and traveled to Fort Sill to join the 157th Infantry.[39] Both he and John split the costs of a train to come back home for Christmas. Thereafter, the 157th Infantry was transferred to Camp Barkeley, Texas, and John was unfortunately sent to the hospital due to a severe sinus infection. He wrote to his mother often, and she proudly updated The Craig Empire Courier with information on his well-being. In August 1941, John's parents and younger sister Lois (who was now 11) wrote him a letter, publishing it in the newspaper.

Dearest Son Jack: I am writing to you and brother Charles S., through the Craig Empire-Courier and know you will get all the news from other letters to0 ... Our garden is fine and Dad says he expects you boys back in time to help harvest potato crop. Mother is sure proud of you, Jack, and of your work at camp. You are a brave, fine soldier. God bless you. We are all well and hope you men are all well. Lois says hello and wants another ride in the car whenever you come by. Write soon. Lots of love to you.[40]

Edna French was proud of her sons. Like many other mothers in Craig at the time, one of the most exciting parts of the day was receiving word from her sons. The Craig Empire Courier's Society section soon became decorated with letters of admiration about Craig men and women being trained and promoted through the ranks in the military. For the parents of the 157th Infantry, they did not have to worry about their sons in war yet, and could happily imagine the boys of Craig making them proud while training for Uncle Sam. War had not yet become a reality. In December 1941, John and Edna French posted in the newspaper that John Jr. was made regimental drill instructor for NCOs and lieutenants.[41] His experience in basketball and hunting in the mountains had clearly prepared him well for being a hard worker in the Infantry, and the leadership in the 157th seemed to recognize that.

Whenever John got an opportunity to journey back to Colorado, he took it. In 1942 he spent New Year's Eve with his parents and joined them in hosting several friends over for a feast.[42] John must have delighted his mother when he arrived straight from training as a sergeant, especially if he was dressed in his military uniform. Lois was probably excited to see her older brother joining the war, even if she did not fully understand it. A few days later the French family hosted a larger party in honor of John, inviting their neighbors and friends to celebrate their son being home.[43] For John, the welcome of being back in Colorado extended to his whole neighborhood in Craig, as the kind town was surely more welcoming than those he trained with at the military base.

The French family were highly regarded members of the Craig society by this time. After years of gracing the pages of the "Local News Briefs," Edna French was interviewed by The Craig Empire Courier in a "Know Your Neighbor" article.  "Mrs. French has come to know most everybody in town since she came here, and she is always ready and willing to be friendly to the newcomer to the town," the article described.[44]  The article also provided evidence as to what Edna French talked about with almost everyone she met.

Mrs. French has been mighty proud of several things in her life, but right now the two people of whom she is most proud are her two sons, who are working with Uncle Sam, and for us, with the U.S. army, in Texas.[45]

The French family seemed to be closer than others, having survived homesteading and two deaths together. Edna was proud of both of her sons serving together in Company A, but the threat of combat overshadowed any excitement she had for her sons joining the army. Whenever John came home, he was out of danger, and her relief was immediate. When her sons were gone, however, she must have physically missed their absence. Throughout 1942 and 1943 Edna was in and out of various hospitals for unidentified illnesses.[46] Despite her sickness, Edna happily wrote to The Craig Empire Courier to update them on how her sons were doing.

While in training, both French sons progressed through the military's ranks. In March 1942, Stanley transferred from the 157th Infantry to air training school in California.[47] Although he was moving away from his friends in the 157th Infantry, he would be able to begin learning how to be a pilot in the air corps.

John was also moving up in the army. In May 1942 he transferred from the 157th Infantry to Ft. Benning, Georgia, to train to become an officer.[48] After doing odd jobs and working at the grocery store, John found that he had a knack for the military. By September 1942, John was made 2nd lieutenant.[49] After his promotion, he became overburdened with his duties and too busy to write home. In December, Edna received a letter from him. It was the first time she had heard from him in two months.[50] A few days later, she received another letter from him, this time saying that he was now stationed in Africa.[51] John was also made 1st lieutenant in January 1943.[52] The army kept John busy, and his work impressed his superiors. Beyond that, John had the Rocky Mountain value of being useful whenever possible. His time growing up on the homestead taught him that he needed to help his family to survive, and joining the army gave him a new group of people to help. In Africa, far from Craig, he was able to showcase his ability to aid whoever needed it. Meanwhile, Stanley was continuing his training in Kansas for the air corps.[53] Far from each other, Stanley and John were showing how their upbringing taught them how to be effective soldiers.

While he was gone, Craig's Company A, 1st Battalion of the 157th Infantry, fought in a long and difficult campaign in World War II. The regiment joined the assault wave in the landings on Sicily, and then landed once more in Salerno, Italy. They pushed back on German lines in Salerno, until they were relieved in January after 72 days of continuous combat. Soon after, the men landed in Anzio, Italy. The regiment lost hundreds of men there, in hand-to-hand combat, artillery, and friendly fire. Later, the regiment were in the frontlines for the breakout for Rome, until they were allowed to rest from June 4 to August 15, 1944. After this short time, they invaded the south of France, where they captured over 350 Germans. They continued to push forward until November 8, 1944, when they withdrew from the front lines to rest. On November 25, they pushed to the German border, and crossed into German territory on December 16.[54] From there they held the line against the German offensive, Operation Northwind, while the Battle of the Bulge began to the north of them. In March 1945, the 157th Infantry pursued German soldiers in their retreat across the Rhine, before they reach the Danube River in April. The regiment was in battle for 470 days of their 667 days overseas.[55] Far from Craig, they played an important part in the liberation of Europe



Western Front

North Africa was a busy time for Lieutenant John French. In April 1943, his mother wrote to the newspaper saying that she had a received a letter from him. John's letter detailed how he witnessed the end of the North African campaign.[56] In November 1942, Allied forces took Germans by surprise by landing off the coasts of Algeria and Morocco. This maneuver pinched the Germans in between Allied troops, and eventually caused the Germans to surrender.[57] John was active in the fighting. On April 4 he was hit by a piece of shrapnel but was not badly injured.[58]

To keep busy with her two sons being gone, Edna began volunteering as a pianist for each church service.[59] Edna played piano at the funerals and weddings of her neighbors, willing to lend a hand when she could. While she was previously the head of a house of seven, she now only had to take care of Lois. She, John Sr., Lois, and Madge, then married, would picnic around the neighboring towns of Maybell and Steamboat, and invited friends and relatives to visit them from Utah.[60]

In June 1943, the French family received a surprise. John had been given the Purple Heart for "gallantry in action" during his time in North Africa.[61] He received the award for his shrapnel wound in April. In an article written by The Craig Empire Courier, John Sr. and Edna shared a letter that John had written them about his experiences in Northern Africa. John wrote that the first prisoners his unit captured "gave them quite a thrill."[62] He sent the award to his mother.[63] Craig celebrated one of their soldiers for his sacrifice, doing a special feature on John in the newspaper. A year after receiving the Purple Heart, John would sacrifice much more on the fields by Carentan. But until that happened, Craig was excited to see him excel.

Meanwhile, Stanley French was sent to England with the air force in July. He wrote that he admired the English for their cheerfulness, despite what the hardships of the Blitz.[64] He also was slowly getting used to the cold, foggy weather of England.[65] It was quite different than the crisp mountain air he grew up in. John also got transferred to Italy in September 1943. His father went to The Craig Empire Courier offices to tell them that he had a letter from "his son, Jack" who had "just finished reading The Empire-Courier" and wanted to tell the writers that he enjoyed it. Upon writing about John, the editor from The Craig Empire Courier wrote "I'm now holding my breath for some of our Craig boys to write that they've just finished reading The Empire-Courier, in a letter that's postmarked 'Berlin'.[66] Soon the French family got more news from John. He was promoted to Captain while in Sicily.[67] John did not write about what he was doing in Sicily, but it can be gathered that as Captain he was helping to secure the island after the Allied victory there.[68] While in Sicily, Captain French was given enough time to familiarize himself as the leader of the company. He also was lucky enough to see Al Jolson sing at an army base, which he and his men enjoyed.[69]

Soon, John had even more great news to send to his family. He was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in action.[70] While fighting in Italy, John was cited for his meritorious actions after he was appointed to Captain. Soon after this announcement, a member of John's company wrote to Edna and John Sr. about John's bravery. Private H.J. Dibala was injured in Italy, but was saved by John.

Capt. French is one of the swellest fellows I ever met in the army. I went thru a few battles myself but he is doing far more than I did. But my bad luck was to get stopped... He [John] was the one who took care of me when I got hit. He was the one that dug a trench for me when I was helpless. Yes, he is the one who saw to it that we all got food and water when we were in a tough spot. Capt. French was the one who went through machine gun fire to hunt a stretcher to carry me out. He patched me up and gave me his blanket to wrap in that night... I had an old accordion in Africa and he and Sgt. James Miller used to come to my tent and listen to me play... The grandest man that ever lived is Capt. French and I owe him a lot... I am only sorry I couldn't stay with him and help finish the job we started, but my back gives me lots of troubles.[71]

Soon after receiving the letter from Pvt. Dibala, John's parents got another letter from their son with a small request. John was hoping that his parents could write to the young Private Dibala to cheer him up, despite his injury.[72] After helping save H.J. from gun fire by digging a trench and finding a stretcher, John deferred to his parents to further care for the private while he continued fighting. Beyond being a skilled soldier, John made a point to support the soldiers in his company through saving them on the battlefield and listening to them play accordion. Without regard for his safety, he gave every effort to help a soldier who was gravely injured, even if that meant that he would have to cross lines of heavy fire.

A few weeks after getting this letter in December, the French family were informed by John that he traveled to England for a furlough and was trying to find his brother Stanley. At this point, the two brothers had not seen each other for almost a year.[73] By this time it was Christmas, and John was hoping to spend a few days with brother to make up for the empty ache of not celebrating the holidays with the French family. At home, John Sr. and Edna had Christmas dinner with their daughters Madge, Lois, and grandchildren.[74] It was a lonelier Christmas than the previous one, when John was able to visit on furlough the year before. In England, John was unable to see Stanley, and had to return to Italy. At one point during his furlough the brothers were only 60 miles apart, but still could not manage to find each other.[75]

 

 An ad for giving war bonds for Christmas in The Craig Empire Courier, 1943[76]

Upon returning to Italy, John joined his company to continue fighting. In January 1944, he helped fight on the Anzio beachhead in Operation Shingle. The operation was an attempt made by Allied forces to open a road to Rome. While the operation was ultimately successful in causing Germans to retreat to Rome, it was extremely costly for Allied troops, who suffered around 23,000 casualties.[77] A local Craig soldier wrote to the newspaper saying "The local G.I. newspaper mentioned a number of Craig boys fighting on the Anzio beachhead, among them Lt. Col. Chester James and Capt. John French."[78]

Normandy


Soldiers at Utah Beach, June 6, 1944[86]

John sent his next letter from France. He had been recruited to join the 22nd Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division as a Captain for the D-Day landings.[87] Although his battalion and company are not listed, by process of deduction of the available lists of 22nd Infantry captains it can be assumed he was in the 1st Battalion.[88] Allied commanders thought John's expertise was needed far from the 157th in Italy. The Normandy landings were a major operation and required leaders who could help new infantrymen breach the German defense. While recovering in England, John was identified as one of these leaders. Similar to when he ran to find Pvt. Dibala's stretcher, John once again volunteered to serve under heavy fire. The 22nd Infantry landed on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944 and fought their way to secure towns in the Cotentin Peninsula. The 1st Battalion landed on the northern beach, into congested causeways that were inundated with water.[89]  That morning, 1st Battalion attacked the Crisbecq battery (pictured below),


a key German fortification near the village of Saint-Marcouf.[90] The soldiers advanced three separate times on the battery before they successfully broke through. After five days of fighting, German soldiers were forced to retreat due to a lack of ammunition and supplies. The battalion secured the Crisbecq battery.[91] Slowly they were able to secure strongholds through France, and helped negotiate the surrender of a German garrison, capturing 990 German officers and soldiers. On June 28, they were given a short rest period.[92]



The 22nd Infantry wading through watery stretches near St. Martin-de-Varreville, Normandy[93]

 

While in France, John wrote a short letter to his parents. He said that he was getting along fine in the new country but missed his friends and his home in Craig. When he was in the 157th Infantry, he was able to see members of Craig's Company A regularly, but now missed his classmates, teammates, and friends he had grown up with. At that point, he had not been home for two years.[94] After being in Colorado his whole life and knowing all of his neighbors, John was thrust into a conflict where he had to trust strangers. His records as a soldier showed that he could easily protect his fellow infantrymen and was willing to put himself into dangerous situations for the sacrifice of others. While in France, he witnessed the chaos of the D-Day invasion, and the extreme loss of life that followed it. During these days he missed his family, friends, and his home in Craig, where he would spend afternoons fishing, hunting, and exploring the Rocky Mountains. By the time his mother received the letter, John was dead.

On July 9, Captain John French was killed near Sainteny, France. At the time, the regiment breached enemy lines in an attempt to seize the area of La Maugerie in what became known as "The Battle of the Hedgerows."[95] During the days before, the 22nd Infantry was slowly making progress to secure La Maugerie and the western area of Carentan, but continuously were stopped from artillery fire.[96] In a morbid twist, they were also slowed down by German corpses that had fallen throughout the hedgerows after a battle with the 83rd Infantry. While moving up to meet the 2nd Battalion, the company suffered several casualties under heavy artillery fire, and lost the ground that they had gained.[97] It was a painful, difficult push forward. Enemy soldiers had pressed the infantrymen into narrow areas restricted by flooded land. There was an extreme number of casualties in a short amout of time. In recalling The Battle of the Hedgerows, soldiers wrote that "those who were there will long remember the names of Sainteny, La Maugerie, and Raids - all names of tiny French towns in the zone of advance."[98] The next day, Colonel Lanham was given command of the regiment. He told troops to take back the lost ground, and that he expected that there was "nothing to stop them under any circumstances."[99]During this time, Captain French was killed in combat.



The Battle of the Hedgerows to Secure the Cotentin Peninsula[100]

 

The 22nd Infantry pushed forward through Normandy and were taken off of the front lines on July 19. While resting, military commanders planned for a breakthrough operation at St. Lo. On July 25, B-17s bombarded the area around St. Lo until the 4th Division pushed through the German defense. The 1st Battalion covered the stream south of the town of Moyen, while the 3rd Battalion seized the town of Tessy-sur-Vire. The regiment received the Distinguished Unit Citation for their involvement in the operation.[101] On August 4, the 22nd secured St. Pois, and continued pushing into the vicinity of the Chateau Lingeard with the Second French Armored Division. On August 24, the 22nd Infantry was ordered to cross the Seine River, and after "reduc[ing] the German will to resist," infantrymen entered Paris on August 27.[102]Finally liberated from German occupation, the people of the capital city were happy to greet the Allied soldiers.

Far from France on a Sunday morning, July 31, the French family would have been preparing to go to church when a telegram came to them from the war department. Their son was killed in action. It was only four days before that they had received a letter from him, asking his mother to send him more peanuts, like the ones he had while in a hospital in England.[103] She had most likely sent him the gift already, but it would never be received. That day, a distraught Edna French was sent to a nearby hospital.[104] Her heart was broken by the grief of losing three children. She was so proud of John for being a soldier, but the war had taken him from her. The once large French family of seven had been reduced to four due to illness, accidents, and now an enemy far from Craig.

Maybell, the small community where John had been born and had spent his early childhood, extended their sympathy to the French family, remembering the hard-working homesteaders that had spent their time there.[105] Moffat County began grieving for the loss of one of their soldiers. A few weeks later, Stanley sent the family a letter from England.

I just heard the news about Jack. Don't know how to tell you how sorry I am and how I feel. Wish it were possible for me to be home with you at this time. I know it was a terrible shock for you all, especially you, Mom. You must remember that Jack died so that you and I could go on living. We mustn't let him down in this respect, we must keep on fighting for what he died for, you on the home front and me over here.[106]

Madge returned home from Salt Lake City to be with her parents for a few weeks.[107] Together, they were able to grieve over their lost son, while Stanley had to continue fighting from England.

In October, state officials decided to hold a Legion Rally to present the American Legion's Gold Star Emblem to John Sr. and Edna French. During the celebration, the Craig choral club performed and State Commanders of the American Legion spoke to all families who had someone in service.[108] Soon after, Stanley was transferred to join the Signal Corps, where he helped the military deliver messages.[109] Being out of the front lines meant that Edna, for the first time since 1943, could rest easier.



Photos Courtesy of Shannon Lukens

24 soldiers that perished in WWII were from Craig, just over one percent of the town's population. In 2015, the Museum of Northwest Colorado helped build and place a statue memorializing Craig's fallen soldiers.[110] Today, the statue of an infantryman stands near the center of town. At its base reads the name of Captain John O. French alongside two other Craig soldiers who died in the Normandy invasion, Pvt. Norman Foster and Lieutenant Lewis "Dude" Dent. Norman Foster graduate from Moffat County High School in 1943, just eight years after John. He joined the army soon after and was assigned to be a driver on one of the amphibious tanks as a part of the 70th Tank Battalion. Like John, Norman's ship was given the mission to assault Utah Beach on June 6. Little did John know, but another Craig boy was just a few ships away from him. Norman never made it to the beach, as the boat he was traveling on was blasted by an underwater explosion.[111] He is listed as "Missing in Action" at the Normandy American Cemetery, as his remains have never been recovered.[112] "Dude" Dent was John French's classmate, and died near Troyes, France on August 25, 1944 while working as a forward observer for the 94th Armored Field Battalion.[113] Every year the Moffat County High School honors Dude by giving out the "best senior scholar athlete award" to graduating seniors.[114] John, Norman, and Dude all chose to leave Craig to help protect their town from a distant enemy. To this day, these soldiers are honored by their hometown as heroes.

It is hard to quantify the loss of life during World War II, and it can be easy to forget what was sacrificed that day. John French was known for being athletic, hard-working, and helpful. To his soldiers, he was one of the "swellest fellows" around. To his classmates, he was a record-holder and grocery store clerk. To his friends, he was an avid adventurer, always joining them in the Colorado backcountry to go hunting or fishing. To his family, he was essential. His loss left a sickening feeling of emptiness that could not be filled. His caring personality could not be replaced. As with many that died in the Normandy campaign, his body would remain far from his home in Colorado, on the foreign shores of France at the Normandy American Cemetery.

John, like many others who fought in World War II, is now lost to the ages, and remembered only as a name on a statue. We owe it to him, and to the others that fought in World War II, to remember them in the same way we remember Eisenhower and Churchill: as a hero in our history.

  

Acknowledgments

This project would not be possible without the curators at Craig's Museum of Northwest Colorado. Dan Davidson and Paul Knowles helped me immensely, and I enjoyed their research and discussion while I wrote the story of John French.

I would also like to thank James Neton, who wrote short biographies on each soldier from Craig who died in World War II. Without him, I would not have heard about John French's sacrifice.

Additionally, my research was conducted mostly through newspapers during John's life. Without the hard work of journalists recording our present day, we may not be remembered by future generations.


[1] Craig Empire Courier, "Soldier Praises Commander Who Was Craig Boy," Craig Empire Courier, December 15, 1943.

[2] James Neton, "History in Focus: John O French - The Natural." Craig Press, April 10, 2016

[3] Craig Empire Courier, "Capt. John French Killed in Action on French Soil," Craig Empire Courier, August 2, 1944.

[4] Noelle Leavitt Riley, "WWII Memorial Planned for Craig's Fallen Heroes." Craig Press, April 4, 2015

[5] Tom Smith, "Smith Family Photographs," View of the Rockies, 1917.

[6] Dan Davidson (Director, Museum of Northwest Colorado) in discussion with the author, March 2021.

[7] Dan Davidson (Director, Museum of Northwest Colorado)

[8] Dan Davidson (Director, Museum of Northwest Colorado)

[9] Craig Empire Courier, "Know Your Neighbor," Craig Empire Courier, February 18, 1942.

[10] Albert Smith, "Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930," Department of Commerce, 1930.

[11] Craig Empire Courier, "Know Your Neighbor."

[12] Craig Empire Courier, "The Good Will Club." Craig Empire Courier. April 1, 1926.

[13] The Craig Empire, "Advertisement." The Craig Empire, November 17, 1926.

[14] The Craig Empire, "Local Brevities." The Craig Empire, August 19, 1926.

[15] The Craig Empire, "What Society is Doing." The Craig Empire, November 17, 1926.

[16] Craig Empire Courier, "School Children Vie for Honors at Annual Meet." The Craig Empire Courier, May 24, 1933.

[17] The Craig Empire, "Flu Fatal to Little Girl." The Craig Empire, May 18, 1927.

[18] The Craig Empire Courier "Local Brevities." The Craig Empire Courier, July 20, 1932.

[19] The Craig Empire, "Grad Schools to Give Musical Play at Victory Friday." The Craig Empire, March 20, 1929.

[20] Craig Empire Courier, "Students in Upper Quartile Are Announced." Craig Empire Courier, December 2, 1931.

[21] Craig Empire Courier, "Condensed News of the Moffat County." Craig Empire Courier, March 2, 1932.

[22] Craig Empire Courier, "News of Craig and Moffat County by Empire-Courier Reporters." Craig Empire Courier, May 31, 1933

[23] James Neton, "History in Focus: John O French - The Natural." Craig Press, April 10, 2016

[24] Dan Davidson (Director, Museum of Northwest Colorado)

[25] Craig Empire Courier, "Bulldogs are Preparing for Track Meets." Craig Empire Courier, March 31, 1934., Craig Empire Courier, "School Sponsors Dance and Program." Craig Empire Courier, April 3, 1935.

[26] Craig Empire Courier, "Track Men are Preparing to Hold Blue and White Day." Craig Empire Courier, April 5, 1944.

[27] Craig Empire Courier, "News of Craig and Moffat County by Empire-Courier Reporters." Craig Empire Courier, July 24, 1937

[28] Craig Empire Courier, "Major Operation" Craig Empire Courier, January 12, 1937

[29] Craig Empire Courier, "News of Craig and Moffat County" Craig Empire Courier, January 20, 1937

[30] Frances Terrill, "Society." Craig Empire Courier, January 26, 1938.

[31] Craig Empire Courier, "News of Craig and Moffat County" Craig Empire Courier, June 22, 1938

[32] Craig Empire Courier, "Edwin French is Fatally Injured When Struck by Electric Light Pole in Unusual Accident Monday," Craig Empire Courier, July 19, 1939.

[33] Craig Empire Courier, "Local News Briefs," Craig Empire Courier, August 16, 1939

[34] Craig Empire Courier, "Company A Recruits Men to Bring Guard Up to Requirements" Craig Empire Courier, October 18, 1939

[35] Army-Navy Publishers, "1939 Pictorial Review of the United States National Guard, State of Colorado," Army-Navy Publishers, Inc., Atlanta, 1939.

[36]  Dan Davidson (Director, Museum of Northwest Colorado)

[37] James Neton, "Neton's Then and Now: Company A," Craig Press, July 16, 2015.

[38] Craig Empire Courier, "Company A Gets Sendoff at Train Today," Craig Empire Courier, September 25, 1940.

[39] Craig Empire Courier, "Locals." Craig Empire Courier, December 25, 1940.

[40] Mr. and Mrs. John French, "SGT. John Oderfield French, Co. A, 157th Inf., 45th Division, Camp Barkeley, Texas." Craig Empire Courier, August 13, 1941.

[41] Craig Empire Courier, "Locals." Craig Empire Courier, December 3, 1941.

[42] Empire Courier Reporters, "Local News Briefs." Craig Empire Courier, January 7, 1942.

[43] Empire Courier Reporters, "Local News Briefs." Craig Empire Courier, January 14, 1942.

[44] Craig Empire Courier, "Know Your Neighbor," Craig Empire Courier, February 18, 1942.

[45] Craig Empire Courier, "Know Your Neighbor," Craig Empire Courier, February 18, 1942.

[46] Craig Empire Courier, "Locals," Craig Empire Courier, September 8, 1943.

[47]  Craig Empire Courier, "Locals," Craig Empire Courier, March 4, 1942.

[48] Empire-Courier Reporters, "Local News Briefs," Craig Empire Courier, May 20, 1942.

[49] Craig Empire Courier, "Local News," Craig Empire Courier

[50] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men in Service," Craig Empire Courier, December 9, 1942.

[51] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men in Service," Craig Empire Courier, December 30, 1942.

[52] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men in Service," Craig Empire Courier, January 13, 1943.

[53] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men in Service," Craig Empire Courier, March 3, 1943.

[54] World War II Recreation Association, "157th Combat History," January 5, 2020.

[55] World War II Recreation Association, "157th Combat History."

[56] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men in Service," Craig Empire Courier, April 7, 1943.

[57] WWII Museum Writers, "The Battle of Kasserine Pass," The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, Febraury 5, 2018.

[58] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men in Service," Craig Empire Courier, April 28, 1943.

[59] Craig Empire Courier, "George Foreman Dies Here After Lingering Illness," Craig Empire Courier, June 2, 1943.

[60] Craig Empire Courier, "Greystone," Craig Empire Courier, May 19, 1943

[61] Craig Empire Courier, "Craig Boy Wins Decoration for 'Singularly Meritorious Action'," Craig Empire Courier, May 30, 1943

[62] Craig Empire Courier, "Craig Boy Wins Decoration for 'Singularly Meritorious Action',"

[63] Craig Empire Courier, "John French Promoted to Captain's Rank," Craig Empire Courier, September 15, 1943.

[64] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men in Service," Craig Empire Courier, July 21, 1943.

[65] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, October 20, 1943.

[66] L.S. MC. "A Shot of Scotch," Craig Empire Courier, September 8, 1943.

[67] Craig Empire Courier, "John French Promoted to Captain's Rank"

[68] WWII Museum Writers, "Operation Husky: The Allied Invasion of Sicily," The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, July 12, 2017.

[69] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, October 6, 1943.

[70] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, November 3, 1943.

[71] Craig Empire Courier, "Soldier Praises Commander Who Was Craig Boy," Craig Empire Courier, December 15, 1943.

[72] Craig Empire Courier, "Soldier Praises Commander Who Was Craig Boy,"

[73] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, November 3, 1943.

[74] Craig Empire Courier, "Local News Briefs," Craig Empire Courier, December 29, 1943.

[75] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, February 23, 1944.

[76] Leff,  "American Heroes," Craig Empire Courier, December 8, 1943.

[77] Nicholas Roland, "Operation Shingle: Landing at Anzio, Italy," May 31, 2019.

[78] Craig Empire Courier, "Craig Man is Prisoner After Bitter Fighting," Craig Empire Courier, March 29, 1944.

[79] Nicholas Roland, "Operation Shingle: Landing at Anzio, Italy."

[80] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, April 5, 1944.

[81] Empire-Courier Reporters, "Local News Briefs," Craig Empire Courier, April 5, 1944.

[82] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, April 12, 1944.

[83] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, May 17, 1944.

[84] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, June 14, 1944.

[85] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, July 12, 1944.

[86] The National Interest, "WWII: Disarming Mines on Utah Beach," The National Interest, October 8, 2020.

[87] James Neton, "History in Focus: John O French - The Natural." Craig Press, April 10, 2016.

[88] Lauren Lefebvre, "D-Day - Units: 4th Infantry Division (Utah Beach)," American D-Day, 2000.

[89]Michael Belis, "1st Battalion 22nd Infantry: D-Day June 6, 1944," US Army Center of Military History

[90] Michael Belis, "1st Battalion 22nd Infantry: D-Day June 6, 1944."

[91] Michael Belis, "1st Battalion 22nd Infantry: Crisbecq, Azeville and Quineville," US Army Center of Military History

[92] APO 4, U.S. Army, "22nd Infantry Regiment: After Action Report." D-Day Overlord, July 21, 1944.

[93] 1-22infantry.org, "The 22nd Infantry in World War II." 22infantry.org

[94] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, July 12, 1944.

[95] Colonel Fred Meyer, "Action Against Enemy, Reports After Action Report." August 8, 1944.

[96] Colonel Foster, "Journal." July 8, 1944.

[97] Watson, "Journal." July 9, 1944.

[98] 1-22infantry.org, "The 22nd Infantry in World War II."

[99] Watson, "Journal." July 9, 1944.

[100] The National Historical Society, "Breakout and Pursuit."

[101] 1-22infantry.org, "The 22nd Infantry in World War II."

[102] 1-22infantry.org, "The 22nd Infantry in World War II."

[103] Craig Empire Courier, "Capt. John French Killed in Action on French Soil." August 2, 1944.

[104] Empire-Courier Reporters, "Local News Briefs," Craig Empire Courier, August 2, 1944.

[105] Mrs. Chas Wyatt, "Maybell," August 9, 1944.

[106] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, August 23, 1944.

[107] Craig Empire Courier, "Local News," Craig Empire Courier, August 30, 1944.

[108] Craig Empire Courier, "Big Crowd is Expected at Legion Rally," Craig Empire Courier, October 25, 1944.

[109] Craig Empire Courier, "With the Men & Women in Service," Craig Empire Courier, March 7, 1945.

[110] Noelle Leavitt Riley, "WWII Memorial Planned for Craig's Fallen Heroes." Craig Press, April 4, 2015

[111] Margaret Lichtenfels, "Norman Benjamin Foster Remembered by Margaret Lichetnfels," The Normandy Institute.

[112] Margaret Lichtenfels, "Search for MIAs," The Normandy Institute.

[113] James Neton, "History in Focus: Lewis 'Dude' Dent - the - 'Dude'." Craig Daily Press, May 8, 2016

[114] James Neton, "History in Focus: Lewis 'Dude' Dent - the 'Dude'."






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