May 12, 2013

High school student brings fallen Maine soldier's memory to life

Maranacook sophomore Sydney Green finds the brother of a soldier who died during World War II.

By SUSAN McMILLAN Kennebec Journal

READFIELD - Sydney Green had a name from a headstone in France, some military records and a geneology website just recently loaded with information from the 1940 U.S. Census.

click image to enlarge

Maranacook High School sophomore Sydney Green stands beside the headstone of Sgt. George C. Arsenault, shown in inset.

Courtesy photo

Now, thanks to sleuthing by the Maranacook Community High School sophomore, caretakers at the Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial have information about a Rumford soldier, Sgt. George C. Arsenault, to share with visitors.

Nearly 900 Americans are buried in the war cemetery in southern France. Seven of them were from Maine, as a group of Maranacook students learned when they visited on an exchange trip two years ago.

Green was one of several students who volunteered to research soldiers from Maine and elsewhere in New England in advance of another school trip to France this spring. She was the only one who succeeded in finding a living relative of a fallen soldier: a brother, Leo Arsenault, who's 85 and still lives in Rumford.

"I was quite flabbergasted," Arsenault said in an interview. "(After 69 years) somebody remembered him. It's quite something."

History teacher Shane Gower helped the students in their search, mainly through a school subscription to the geneology site Records from the 1940 Census were just released last spring, but most of the students nonetheless struck out quickly.

Gower said the search for George Arsenault's relatives immediately looked more promising. He'd been one of 15 siblings, and he fell in the middle of the pack, so it was possible some of the others were still alive.

Together, Gower and Green unearthed a sister's obituary that named dozens of relatives, including a nephew in Winthrop. He wasn't listed in the phone book, but Green had the idea to reach out to him through Facebook.

The man said yes, he had an uncle named George who was killed in action in France. He gave them a phone number for another uncle, Leo Arsenault, who agreed to meet Green and Gower at Maranacook.

"The first thing he asked us is, 'Why are you doing this? Why my brother?' " Gower said. "Sydney hadn't really talked about it ahead of time, but she sort of kind of quickly responded that it's important, it's something meaningful and it's an important thing to do. I think it made sense to him, and after that he gave us everything we wanted."

Green said it was rewarding to have her research pay off, and Arsenault seemed to appreciate the effort.

"He was really happy that we were continuing the memory of his brother and continuing to show respect and show admiration for these soldiers who died for us," she said.

Arsenault allowed Green to scan letters his brother had sent home and photos of him with friends at basic training and in Naples, Italy, and then provide those to the Rhone cemetery staff.

George Arsenault left high school in the fall of 1943 to join the Army. As part of the 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, he went first to North Africa, then fought at the Anzio beachhead in Italy and in the push to capture Rome.

In one of his letters home, Arsenault wrote about capturing a soldier in Italy. He had resolved to shoot the next Axis soldier he came across because they had killed his best friend, but he couldn't bring himself to do it when he saw that the boy was even younger than himself.

His division was among the first Allied troops to enter Rome, Arsenault wrote, and they were greeted by cheering crowds. He had his first chance to shower, shave and change clothes in three weeks.

Eight days before he died, Arsenault wrote a letter to one of his sisters, asking her to have his siblings pray for him as he prepared to lead a dozen men into the next campaign, and for her to notify two girls in town if anything happened to him.

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