In the eastern Belgian village of Neupré lie the well tended graves of the Ardennes American World War II Cemetery. Walking these silent ranks of white marble in the crisp autumn air, the high number of graves without names is striking. This is because Neupré was once the location of the unit responsible for identifying, when possible, the remains of unknown soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed in the Second World War, and in doing so bringing closure to families who received a telegram that read, "Missing in Action."
One recent October afternoon, as a light rain fell on the changing autumn leaves, a group of blue-clad Americans filed into the cemetery. Members of the United States Coast Guard, the smallest branch of the U.S. military, came bearing orange, white and blue flowers to honor the memory and adopt the grave of one of their own; that of Kentucky native Apprentice Seaman (AS) Woodrow Elaman, who died in combat while serving in the Mediterranean.
In addition to many traditional responsibilities at home, the Coast Guard also participated in a wide range of combat and combat support missions during World War II. True to the service's motto, "Semper Paratus," which means "Always Ready," the Coast Guard piloted landing craft in amphibious assaults around the world, defended merchant shipping, ran navigation and weather stations, conducted search and rescue missions during combat, and manned Destroyer Escort (DE) ships which strove to defend allied vessels from air, surface, and submarine attacks. It was on one of these DEs, the USS Menges, that AS Elaman served.
Named for another Kentucky native, Ensign Herbert Hugo Menges, a naval aviator who died in combat during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Coast Guard-crewed USS Menges served as part of Task Force 66 in the Mediterranean in early 1944. On April 20th 1944, German torpedo bombers attacked the group, and after fighting off the foe, the USS Menges and her crew rescued 119 sailors from the stricken USS Lansdale. Continuing their efforts in support of the allied landings in Italy, the USS Menges again was attacked on May 3rd 1944, this time by a German submarine they suspected was operating nearby. The U-boat fired a torpedo into the stern of the USS Menges, killing AS Elaman and many others. Refusing to abandon ship, however, the USS Menges' commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. McCabe, directed the damage control efforts that saved the ship, and the vessel was later towed to Algeria for repairs.
More than 4,000 miles from his hometown of Greenbrier, Kentucky, and 120 miles from the sea, Apprentice Seaman Woodrow Elaman, the most junior casualty of a torpedo attack killing 30 of his shipmates, was taken to the Ardennes Cemetery after his death for identification. Due to the efforts of the cemetery's identification team, his family and friends back home were given the gift of knowing where their loved-one had been laid to rest—a small but meaningful solace that so many others in the war never had.
Although over 70 years have passed since that terrible day in the Mediterranean, Woodrow Elaman has not been forgotten by his fellow 'Coasties.' The adopters of his grave are members of Coast Guard Activities Europe, based nearby in the Netherlands. Originally created to help re-establish merchant shipping in Europe at the end of the Second World War, Activities Europe conducts vessel inspections, incident investigations, and international port security engagements in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
Members of Activities Europe hope that by sharing this story they will reach some of his relatives to let them know the Coast Guard has not forgotten his sacrifice. The unit will participate in the cemetery's Veterans Day ceremony on November 11th, and honor this Coast Guardsman and Kentuckian who gave his life for the freedoms we still enjoy today.