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Ron Warner at the grave of his father in Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.
Courtesy Photo
Ron Warner at the grave of his father in Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.

Solemn salute
62 years after his father was killed in war, Decatur man visits his grave in Belgium

By Patrice Stewart
DAILY Staff Writer

pstewart@decaturdaily.com 340-2446

Those last precious memories are captured in a small, treasured photo and etched in his mind.

His dad brought a child's version of an Army uniform home to him. Then father and son, both in uniform, were photographed with family and friends.

"I would salute and make Dad salute," recalls Ron Warner of Decatur.

The make-believe game was over quickly for the son who was 2 when his father headed overseas to do his part in World War II and never returned.

But this year, Ron Warner of Decatur got through Father's Day and faces the Fourth of July with more understanding and peace, because he made a spring trip to Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium to see for the first time the grave where his father is buried.

It was hard for a child to understand the significance of the telegram from the secretary of war that announced his dad was missing in action. Then just before Christmas and his fifth birthday in December 1944, he remembers uniformed men arriving to offer condolences and confirm that Army 1st Lt. William Albert Warner Jr. was killed in action in Germany on Dec. 1.

"He was just days or weeks away from coming home," said Warner. "I know I was just one of many children deprived of a parent in World War II, but I never stopped thinking about what a difference it would have made in my life if he hadn't been killed."

His mother, Opal Warner, reared him and his older sister primarily in Huntsville, but she didn't like to talk about his dad, so for years he only had bits and pieces of information.

While cleaning out her house in preparation for her move to his home a few years before her death in 2002, he found ribbon-tied items. They were a treasure chest for a man who had been hungry for information about his dad for six decades.

He saw the Western Union telegrams; papers about the Purple Heart medal, awarded for wounds received that led to his dad's death, and his Silver Star for heroism and leadership; condolence letters from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, War Department officials and others. There also was a letter from the 28th Infantry chaplain saying that the body was recovered by friends and taken to Belgium, where a Protestant chaplain presided over a burial service at the American military cemetery.

Warner also found 13 letters written from his father to his mother. They added bits of information to what he knew about the man his friends called "Al" — that he attended a military high school, was drum major for The University of Alabama band and got a civil engineering degree.

He has two other main memories of his dad. One was when he brought back an Indian drum for Ron and a doll for his sister when he went to Fort Huachuca in Arizona. The other was a spanking he got after he and his sister were running around a table and broke a picture frame.

"Because of not growing up with a father, I thought about him all the time," said Warner. When he was younger, "I wondered if he was really dead, or if he might walk in the door someday."

Warner said "for a long, long time" he had wanted to visit the American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery in Belgium. "There is a marker for him in our family plot at Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville, but knowing that the body wasn't there made it different," he said.

Finally seeing his father's burial site, after an hour train ride from Brussels to Liege and then a cab ride 12 miles to Ardennes American Cemetery, was overwhelming.

The American caretaker, Hans Hooker, is from McMinnville, Tenn., and with advance notice that Warner was coming, he had fresh flowers at the grave, one of 5,328 (three-fifths airmen) in the 90-acre cemetery. The graves are laid out in the pattern of a cross, and a cross marks each grave.

They keep a log of visitors to each grave, and Warner was the first listed for his dad. About 792 unnamed headstones mark unidentified servicemen.

The memorial building of white limestone decorated with a 17-foot-high American eagle holds a chapel, visitors' room, maps detailing that last enemy offensive in the Ardennes known as "The Battle of the Bulge" and the advancement of Allied Forces across the Rhineland to the Rhine River. Twelve slabs of gray granite record the names of 462 missing.

"It was awe-inspiring to me to see the area and what his final resting place looked like," said Warner.

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