A Free Trip To France That Cost Dearly

(submitted by John Singleton) Ansley resident Mrs. Tillie Overstreet went on an all-expenses-paid trip to France in 1931, and the trip was paid, in full, by none other than the United States government. That’s the good news. The bad news, however, was that this was no vacation. Sadly, Mrs. Overstreet was going to visit her son’s grave in a military cemetery in Lorraine, France. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Please allow me to rewind this story to Kansas, November 6th, 1895. On that day, Robert Earl LaGrone was born, and why his Arkansas born parents were in Kansas, I have no idea. I tend to think they were typical of the “pioneer” families of that era, always ready to strike out for the land of milk and honey. I can almost picture them in their wagon, perhaps pulled by a team of mules.

I’m a volunteer researcher studying WWI soldiers who resided in Louisiana, and when I first stumbled upon the records of Wag Robert LaGrone, I had to Google “Wag” to find out what that rank was in the US Army. 95% of the soldiers I’ve studied have the familiar Pvt rank preceding their name. Wag? What the heck is a Wag? It’s simply a shortened version of Wagoner. And Robert LaGrone was a Wagoner, which reinforces my belief that the LaGrone family likely spent a great deal of time traveling in a wagon, and, also very likely, a young Robert might well have been steering the team of mules. I assume there weren’t many Wagoners in WWI simply because the auto-age was in full bloom by 1917 when America made its entrance into the “Great War”.

Large trucks with gasoline engines were the norm, but in the muddy battlefields of France, horse or mule power might have actually been more efficient. Wagoner LaGrone piloted not any old wagon. Nope, his team pulled a wagon-mounted machine-gun. And considering how deadly this weapon was in WWI, LaGrone’s entire Company B, 13th Machine-Gun Battalion was probably a high-priority target for the Germans. And, since Wagoner LaGrone was killed-in-action November 9th, 1918, that’s likely what happened.

Fast forward 13 years to August 19, 1931. Tillie LaGrone, after the 1904 death of her husband Robert Fernando LaGrone, was now married to Leander Overstreet. Mrs. Overstreet, along with thousands of other Gold Star Mothers, was invited by our government to make a pilgrimage to see their son’s graves in France, Belgium and England. I’m guessing most of the Gold Star Mothers were somewhat apprehensive to make the long voyage to France, but I’m betting Tillie Overstreet wasn’t intimidated at all. She likely summoned her pioneer spirit and took the journey in stride. When she boarded the ocean liner “President Roosevelt” on that warm summer day, she was simply thinking about her boy, who was killed just 3 days shy of his 23rd birthday.

I think our Congress is to be commended for voting to approve funding for the Gold Star Pilgrimages which took place from 1930 to 1933. Some may consider it sad to have a son or husband buried thousands of miles away on foreign soil, but Wagoner Robert Earl LaGrone is buried in a beautiful, well-kept military cemetery called Meuse-Argonne. What most Americans don’t realize is that the government had made an earlier offer to grieving families shortly after WWI was wrapped up in 1919: Any family who had a soldier buried in Europe could file a request for their loved-one’s remains to be shipped back to the US. Thousands of families chose that option.

Sadly, in my research, I’ve learned of dozens of Louisiana soldiers whose final resting places aren’t documented in any manner. It is a tragedy that these American heroes languish, often in unmarked graves, here in their own country. I’ve not found a single American soldier buried overseas whose burial location isn’t fully documented. Rest in peace, Wagoner LaGrone.

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