Student’s D-Day research project becomes emotional journey

Nov 19, 2015 by

By Meg Jones –

Before the B-24 bomber nicknamed Victory Belle crashed into Nazi-occupied France shortly after the D-Day invasion, several parachutes were seen as frantic crew members tumbled to safety from the flaming aircraft.

Nose gunner Eugene Mlot was not among the lucky.

His remains stayed inside the plane until German troops removed the Milwaukee man’s dog tags and buried him in a nearby cemetery. A year later, Mlot was reinterred in the bucolic American cemetery overlooking the sea where thousands of men lost their lives on Omaha Beach.

It’s quite likely no memorial service was held in France for Mlot, who left behind a mother in Milwaukee who spoke only Polish and an older sister who worked as a hairdresser.

More than seven decades after Mlot was laid to rest, a 17-year-old Milwaukee girl walked up to the simple white marker with the airman’s name, military unit and date of death and began to read from pages she held in her hands.

“Eugene deserves to be honored for his bravery,” said Julia Brunson, “but also for what he left behind when he began a journey many cannot even imagine, including myself, in order to liberate families and mothers and fathers in a country halfway across the world, while his own family waited in fear.”

How Brunson ended up in Normandy, France, last summer eulogizing a fallen hero whose death didn’t merit a mention in his hometown newspapers began when she and her U.S. history teacher at Ronald Reagan High School, Maggie Holtgreive, applied to a unique program. They learned last December they had been selected for the “Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute,” which chooses 15 students across the country to research a military member who lost his life in the Allied invasion of France.

The program, sponsored by real estate developer and philanthropist Albert Small, paid for Brunson and Holtgreive to travel to Washington, D.C., for research at the National Archives and then to France to visit the cemetery and the D-Day beaches. Last summer’s program was filmed by PBS.

Brunson, now 18 and a senior, started with a long list of Wisconsin names buried in France. Intrigued by Mlot’s name, she chose the young man who grew up on Milwaukee’s south side, raised by a poor mother who emigrated from Poland. Using census records and documents from the Milwaukee Public Library and Milwaukee County Historical Society, Brunson learned that before Mlot enlisted in the Army Air Corps in April 1942, he had worked as an electrician, shipping clerk and milliner.

“I had no clue what that was. I had to look it up,” said Brunson, who learned Mlot made hats.

Brunson kept a journal, blogged and updated her teacher as she continued to peel away the layers of Mlot’s brief life.

“She’s a great researcher and writer,” said Holtgreive. “It was a great opportunity for Julia to meet other students who like history and to go to Washington, D.C., and France.”

Brunson’s research led to several frustrating dead ends. But once she discovered Mlot’s unit — 328th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bombardment Group — she found out the name of the Victory Belle pilot and could track Mlot’s missions. In Washington, she found flight log books and handwritten maps of bombing missions of the Victory Belle, but “they warned us not to get too emotionally vested in the veteran because you probably wouldn’t hit a jackpot.”

Then she hit the jackpot.

A researcher told Brunson she could see Mlot’s dog tags, which had been taken to Berlin by German troops, found by American soldiers at the end of the war, and stored in the National Archives. Brunson got emotional gazing at them.

“I was thinking about history and how this was something that had touched someone I had been chasing for so long — that these were with him when he died,” said Brunson.

When Brunson and Holtgreive arrived in Normandy, they walked on Omaha and Utah beaches and were struck by the beauty on a sunny, warm day — far different from June 6, 1944, when the seawater was stained with blood and filled with floating bodies of young men.

They went to the American cemetery so each student in the group could visit the final resting spot of his or her veteran. When it was Brunson’s turn, she carefully washed Mlot’s marker with a bucket of sand and water carried from Omaha Beach, stuck small American and French flags in the grass, and left a letter to Mlot under a rose.

Then Brunson stood behind the grave of a man who never returned home to Milwaukee, who died before he could celebrate his 21st birthday, and paid him a fitting tribute — she remembered Eugene Mlot.

Source: Student’s D-Day research project becomes emotional journey

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