Staff Sgt. Walter A. Schaller died instantly when he stepped on a landmine in New Guinea in 1944.
His body was buried nearby in the jungle like others in the Wisconsin National Guard Red Arrow Division who lost their lives fighting the Japanese in the penetrating heat and relentless rain.
Schaller’s remains returned to Milwaukee five years later for burial in the city where he grew up and worked at the local power company. But Schaller never got a headstone.
He had managed to survive the brutal and bloody Buna campaign throughout the fall of 1942 in New Guinea — a campaign that took such a toll on Wisconsin National Guard troops, the unit needed a year to recuperate in Australia before returning to battle. He had endured another seven weeks of fighting in 1944. And then his remains were buried in an unmarked grave and all but forgotten.
But that will soon change.
Had it not been for a local historian taking part in a project at the War Memorial Center in Milwaukee to find photos and biographies of everyone on its Honor Roll, no one would have known Schaller had never gotten a grave marker.
Tom Mueller has helped write biographies and find photos for 60 of the 3,481 people from Milwaukee County who died in battle dating back to World War II. While researching Schaller he checked the location of his grave.
A volunteer for findagrave.com located Schaller’s resting place at Holy Cross Cemetery in northwest Milwaukee, and took a picture of the grass with the exact location.
“I thought that’s really bizarre — a soldier killed for our country as recently as 1944 has no tombstone,” said Mueller, who has helped procure headstones for Civil War veterans buried in local cemeteries.
“That just isn’t right,” said Mueller, author of several books on Wisconsin military history including “Duty, Honor, Country and Wisconsin.”
Though the U.S. government provides free headstones for fallen service members and honorably discharged veterans, it will cost $345 to install the memorial marker at Schaller’s burial site. Mueller tracked down Schaller’s niece, helped her get the required paperwork and then began fundraising efforts.
Mueller got in touch with Brian McManus, a We Energies retiree, who reached out to his former employer. Before Schaller enlisted in the Wisconsin National Guard in April 1941, he worked at Wisconsin Electric Power Company’s Lakeside Power Plant in St. Francis, which was torn down in the 1970s. The company is now We Energies.
“I said let me contact We Energies to see if they would help an employee who was drafted out of one of their plants and never came back,” said McManus, who worked for the firm for 33 years as an electrician and trainer.
We Energies quickly responded, with the company’s fraternal benefit society offering to pay the entire $345 fee.
Not an easy life
Judy Proell never met her uncle but heard stories about him as she grew up. Her mother, Dolores, was seven years younger than Walter, who was the second of five children.
Proell, 75, has vague memories of seeing a flag-draped casket at the 1949 burial when she was a youngster.
“Just from what my mom said I think I would have liked him. He would have been a favorite uncle. It’s a shame that he didn’t come home so that I could have gotten to know him,” said Proell, of Butler.
Schaller served in Company I, 128th Infantry Regiment of the 32nd Infantry Division, which was federalized in 1940 for training. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the 32nd was one of the first National Guard and reserves units activated for federal duty.
The Red Arrow Division was sent to Australia in May 1942 and ordered to New Guinea in September because of worries that the Japanese would use New Guinea for an invasion of Australia. Though they had little time to train for jungle warfare, soldiers like Schaller were sent to capture the Japanese forward base at Buna.
It was a costly victory, with around 2,500 casualties among the almost 10,000 men in the division, including 586 killed in action and another 100 dead of illness. Schaller returned to Australia with his unit for rest and training and made the amphibious landing near Saidor on the coast of northeastern New Guinea the day after New Year’s 1944.
The Wisconsin troops were deployed to help retake islands as Gen. Douglas MacArthur sought to hopscotch across the Pacific and create forward bases on the march toward Japan. Schaller was killed near Cape Iris, on the eastern edge of New Guinea, on Feb. 20. He was 26.
Less than a month before his death, two of Schaller’s sisters had gotten married in a double wedding on Jan. 29 in Milwaukee. One of them was Proell’s mother.
Schaller did not have an easy life. His mother died three months after giving birth to another boy, who would later die at the age of 12 from illness. One of his sisters contracted polio. Schaller was 10 when his mother died and his father, an alcoholic, moved the family from St. Nazianz in Manitowoc County to Milwaukee.
Schaller worked one season with the CCC in northern Wisconsin, his niece said, sending his paychecks home for his father to deposit in a savings account. But when he returned he learned his father had spent the money. Proell thinks her uncle probably joined the military to get away from his dad.
He attended St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on Milwaukee’s east side, where his photo was included in a parish bulletin along with a dozen other church members killed in World War II.
Despite his hardships, Schaller’s sisters described him as a loving, caring man, Proell said.
“My mother got emotional when she talked about Walter. She would always tear up a bit. She probably was thinking more of the man he would have become, what his ambitions were and the things he wanted to do,” said Proell.
She doesn’t know why her uncle didn’t get a headstone but said her mother and her sisters likely didn’t know, otherwise they would have made sure he wasn’t buried in an unmarked grave.
At some point after the headstone is placed on Schaller’s burial plot, it’s possible a service, perhaps with an honor guard of Red Arrow veterans or the Wisconsin National Guard, will be scheduled.
Unlike every veteran buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Schaller has never gotten a small flag planted at his resting place in honor of Memorial Day. That’s because no one knew a man who had fought in some of the worst battles of the Pacific was there.
Once cemetery officials learned of the oversight from Mueller, they made sure he will be honored. And so this will be the first Memorial Day an American flag will be at Staff Sgt. Walter Schaller’s grave.