The 130-acre Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in northeast France is where the most U.S. veterans are buried outside of their home country.
Cpl. Ferdinand Egon Deeringhoff Jr., a World War I veteran and Yakima Valley native who died a few weeks before the war came to an end, is among them — roughly 5,000 miles from home.
And now, a Yakima Valley teacher is making sure Deeringhoff isn’t forgotten back home.
Deeringhoff was born in Yakima in 1897 and raised on a farm in Moxee. In his youth, he joined the National Guard, where he bounced around units before being attached to the 32nd division of the 127th infantry for the duration of the war, according to Bradley Liebrecht, a social studies instructor at West Valley Junior High who has been researching the veteran since January.
Deeringhoff’s unit fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive — a 47-day battle involving roughly 1.2 million U.S. soldiers that brought the war to an end.
Weeks before fighting stopped on Nov. 11, 1918, Deeringhoff’s unit had broken through the main German lines of the offensive, Liebrecht discovered.
“He was taking a drink from a canteen when he was hit by a shell and killed instantly,” said Liebrecht.
The fighting that had stretched more than four years was only 27 days from ending when Deeringhoff died at age 21.
“He almost made it to the end of the war,” said Liebrecht.
It was months later that the Treaty of Versailles was signed by Germany and the Allied Powers, signifying the official end of World War I on June 28, 1919.
As part of the National History Day teacher professional development program, Memorializing the Fallen, Liebrecht traveled to France last month to witness the 100th anniversary ceremony of the treaty.
“Being at the Palace of Versailles on the centennial of the singing of the treaty that ended World War I was a surreal experience,” Liebrecht said. “The treaty was a step forward in many ways, but it ultimately did not solve many of the problems that were under discussion at the Paris Peace Conference. This treaty truly is one of the most important documents in history, and I want my students to be able to learn from its successes and failures.”
Just 20 years later, global conflict would begin again with the start of World War II.
But Liebrecht said that World War I is often lost in memory between the U.S. Civil War and World War II. To bring it to light in classrooms, the Memorializing the Fallen program helps a small group of teachers from across the U.S. prepare lessons on WWI, focusing on veterans’ stories.
Liebrecht has been preparing a history lesson on propaganda from different nations fighting in World War I and “what each nation was trying to communicate about its enemies in its own war efforts,” he said. That will become part of an online archive of lessons archived by the National History Day program.
During his visit to Europe, he uncovered more of Deeringhoff’s story to incorporate into similar curricula that could be used in the classrooms of other program participants.
He was able to visit the local veteran’s grave and give a eulogy for him there.
“I think probably the coolest thing I learned about him, though, was just probably the similarities I would say between his family and mine,” Liebrecht said. “Both were from German immigrant backgrounds. Both worked in agriculture. His mother sounds very similar to my great-grandmother.”
Deeringhoff’s father was involved in the founding of the Roza Irrigation District and helped resolve a problem with sugar beet production in the Valley.
Deeringhoff attended school at Holy Rosary Parish and played the trumpet. He was known to bring a candy bar back from town and tuck it under his sister’s pillow every time he’d return, Liebrecht learned from speaking with a family member.
“It’s the little details like that that make history come alive. … It becomes more relevant to the local community,” Liebrecht said.
“History is not old and ancient, it’s pretty important. Cpl. Deeringhoff is a perfect example. He could be any number of the kids I have in my class every day,” he said.
The veteran is not alone in that, Liebrecht emphasized, noting several veterans from the Pacific Northwest whose graves he was able to visit during his trip, which included several visits beyond Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.
Liebrecht said he hopes to bring this realization back to his classrooms — helping students understand how connected everyone is to each other and to history by having them conduct their own research on veterans, as he has done with Deeringhoff.
“There are other stories that need to be told,” he said. “I want to show my students that this is the right thing to do. We need to teach them to inquire about things and learn about past events and make those connections.”