ONEIDA, N.Y – The gravestone of a New York National Guard Soldier who died while storming the Hindenburg Line more than 100 years ago was set right the day after Memorial Day 2020 by present-day members of the regiment he served with during World War I.
Ten members of Headquarters Company of the New York Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry, took time away from their families May 26 to restore the headstone marking the resting place of Pvt. Laurence Uebelacker in a small cemetery near Oneida.
According to historical records, Uebelacker was living in Oneida when he enlisted in Company F of the 3rd Regiment, New York National Guard, on June 27, 1917. On Oct. 1, 1917, the regiment was federalized and renamed the 108th Infantry, a part of the 27th Division.
The 27th Division was one of two American divisions that served with the British Army in Flanders during World War I. In the closing days of the war, the 27th was assigned the mission of cracking the line of German fortifications named after General Hindenburg, the German Army’s commander.
The 20-year old Uebelacker was killed in the assault on Sept. 29, 1918.
According to Craig Burleigh, a retired infantryman and former member of the 108th, 27th Division records indicate Uebelacker was buried near Bellicourt, Belgium, following his death. The family apparently had his remains returned to the United States in 1921.
It was Burleigh who discovered the grave.
“I was at the cemetery visiting my mother’s grave and I saw this gravestone about 10 meters behind it,” Burleigh said. The ground around the grave had settled unevenly and the two pieces had separated and the headstone had tipped over.
But he could tell it was the grave of a Soldier who had served in the 108th Infantry.
“I tried to move it, but it must have weighed 200 to 300 pounds,” Burleigh recalled.
So he posted a photo of the stone on Facebook and noted that it was too heavy for him to move by himself.
The Facebook post was forgotten until it was seen by Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Markle, the 2-108 Infantry’s senior enlisted Soldier.
“I was browsing Facebook and I stumbled onto the 108th Infantry Regiment Facebook page,” Markle said. “And as I was scrolling through the pages, I found a picture of this gravestone that was tipped over and it said Company F, 108th Infantry, Laurence Uebelacker. One of the fellows who found it said he had tried to upright it, but it was too heavy.”
Markle said he knew he had to act.
“When I saw it, I was like, I’m going to have to rally some of my guys and some of the Soldiers and head out there and fix that,” Markle said.
“I went to Lowe’s, picked up 30 bucks worth of stuff I would have needed. The guys gathered some tools together and, using the tools and some muscle, we were able to upgrade it and put it right back where it needed to be,” he added.
The Soldiers leveled the ground, remounted the headstone to its base and scoured the stone clean with a wire brush.
Many hands make light work, and fixing the gravestone only took a few hours, Markle said.
Everyone was excited to be a part of the restoration project, he said.
“They recognized all of the sacrifices this kid made, and when I showed them the pictures of the gravestone toppled over, they were like ‘Oh, we got to fix it,’” Markle said.
“They wanted to be able to take care of it. And afterward, to be able to sit back and look at it, there was this great amount of satisfaction in all of them,” he added.
Now Pvt. Uebelacker’s headstone once again proudly sits between those of his father and sister.
“This guy was a past veteran of our unit, he was killed in combat, and there appeared to be nobody that was able to take care of the grave,” Markle said.
“It’s really important, I feel, to honor what he did to make sure that this monument is always there and that it’s upright and to carry on that heritage and the history of the unit,” the sergeant major said.
Even though the work on Uebelacker’s gravestone is finished, the battalion is just getting started, as the Soldiers work toward honoring their veterans and preserving their legacy, Markle said.
“That day just kind of lead into another project that we want to look into, and that’s building a database of our fallen veterans that are buried here stateside so we can find them,” Markle said.
“It’s more of a historical project we’re going to put some people on, because we know where they’re buried overseas,” he said.
The 108th Infantry has 147 Soldiers buried in the Somme battlefield cemetery who died during World War I and another 74 Soldiers from World War II interred in Manila who were killed while fighting in the Philippines.
“We have over 300 that are buried here in the states somewhere, and we would like to be able to build a database that identifies where they are and locate them,” Markle said. “It’s really important to make sure that those monuments stay preserved so people can see them and recognize what they’ve done.”
One of his duties is to to educate new Soldiers on the history of the regiment, Markle explained. Fixing Uebelacker’s gravestone helped to connect the Soldiers to their unit’s past.
“One thing that has always bothered me is when you talk to Soldiers about what our unit has done in the past and they had no idea,” Markle said.
“We’re a National Guard unit, but we took part in some incredibly magnificent yet horrible events in American history. And it’s something that we shouldn’t forget about,” he said.