French researcher Jean Paul Pitou ended an 18-year quest last month when he visited the gravesite of Captain John Wilner at Adas Israel Cemetery in Anacostia. Pitou had been studying the 83rd Infantry Division and its role following the Normandy invasion in saving the town of Saint-Briac-sur-Mer in Brittany. Just months after the town was liberated in August, 1944, the people of St. Briac erected a large stone monument in memory of the three American soldiers who were killed there. Captain John Wilner of Washington, D.C., was among those listed. But Wilner's name was misspelled on the French monument as 'Woelner', a mistake that went unnoticed until 1994 when an American veteran, in town to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day, noticed that the name Woelner did not appear in the historical records of the 83rd Division. It took years of searching before Pitou and fellow researchers Gille Billion and Antoine Nosier correctly identified the soldier who gave his life liberating St. Briac as Captain John Wilner, the company commander of the 709th Tank Battalion that supported the 83rd Infantry. With that information in hand, they traced his burial place to the Adas Israel cemetery in Anacostia.
The story began in Washington, D.C., in 1897, when Joseph Wilner, a recent immigrant from Vilna, Poland, opened a tailor shop on 6th Street, NW. While his business prospered, he and his wife Ida raised four sons: Bernard, Morton, Paul, and John. Joseph Wilner quickly became a prominent leader in the Jewish community, founding the Jewish Community Center in 1920s and serving as president of Adas Israel Congregation for 25 years. When World War II broke out, all four sons left Washington to serve their country. Just six weeks after Bernard died from an illness, the Wilners were notified of John's death in battle. Killed on August 15, 1944, while on a reconnaissance patrol in preparation for the attack to liberate the town, Captain John Wilner posthumously received the Bronze Star for his actions.
As part of Pitou's plans to attend the 83rd Infantry Division's 66th Reunion in Nashville, Tennessee this month, he contacted Glenn Easton, Executive Director of Adas Israel Congregation, for information about Wilner's final resting place. Easton quickly reached out to the extended Wilner family. John Wilner's daughter Cathy, who never met her father, made an emotional phone call to Pitou from her home in Switzerland. Neither she nor the rest of the Wilner family had known of the monument to her father or the town's annual memorial service. Weeks later, Pitou and Easton joined Joel Wind of the Jewish Historical Society and other members of the Wilner family at the Adas Israel cemetery on a warm July afternoon.
At the graveside, Pitou shared his research into the battle's history and gave family members an engraved stone and some soil from St. Briac. Later, Pitou visited the archives of the Jewish Historical Society to view documents and photographs of the Wilner family.
And the story will continue next year, when the village of St. Briac will correct the historical record by adding a plaque with Captain John Wilner's name to the monument on August 15, 2013.
These words from Captain John Wilner's letter to his daughter and his brother's children was found among his papers after his death.
More than anything, I value a cause, an ideal, which is decent and clean, representing relative happiness and insuring the validity of a few of the finer thing which life can offer... I am willing to die fighting for these things; I am happy to fight for them...