MILWAUKEE – A Red Arrow Soldier killed in action during World War II finally received a headstone during a Sept. 10 ceremony in Milwaukee 76 years after making the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
Staff Sgt. Walter Schaller of Milwaukee enlisted in the Wisconsin National Guard on April 29, 1941.
He served as a member of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division’s Company I, 128th Infantry Regiment. In Papua New Guinea, he served alongside his Red Arrow brethren, surviving the treacherous Buna campaign in 1942. After Buna fell, the 32nd Division returned to Australia to recuperate and retrain before heading into battle again.
On Jan. 2, 1944, the Red Arrow began moving toward their next objective, the airstrip at Saidor, New Guinea. Approximately seven weeks later, Schaller was killed instantly when he stepped on a landmine near the village on Feb. 20, 1944. He was buried in the jungle alongside his fallen comrades.
In 1949, Schaller was brought home and buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Milwaukee for 71 years. On Sept. 10, Schaller’s new headstone was dedicated in a memorial service at the cemetery.
Schaller received a headstone in part due to the diligence of local historian Tom Mueller who volunteered to take part in the Milwaukee War Memorial Center’s project to find photos and biographies to preserve the memory of the fallen service members on its Honor Roll.
“I have been a working journalist since 1972 and written about the ultimate sacrifice since 1984, and this is one of the best stories yet,” Mueller said during the dedication earlier this month. He added that he knew he needed to act when coming across the unmarked grave.
The service brought together different elements of Schaller’s life. Father Michael Bertram, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi – Schaller’s parish while he was alive – gave the opening prayer and benediction. Members of the Red Arrow Veterans Association provided an honor guard while current Wisconsin National Guard “Red Arrow” Soldiers with Battery C, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team provided a color guard. Schaller’s former employer, the Wisconsin Electric Power Company, now WE Energies, donated the money to pay for the headstone.
“We’re just honored to be a part of this, honored to be allowed to be here today,” said Tim Smith, secretary of the WE Energies Employees’ Mutual Benefit Association. He added that the board’s decision to grant the money for the headstone was unanimous.
Lt. Col. Derek Schultheiss, a member of the Red Arrow Veterans Association and the director of the Wisconsin National Guard State Partnership Program, participated in the three-volley salute. He said he was honored to participate in the service.
“I'm humbled by his sacrifice and saddened that that moment in history is fading from memory,” Schultheiss said, referencing the perils Schaller and other Red Arrow Soldiers endured during World War II in New Guinea. “However, I'm encouraged that there are still people who care enough to find these unmarked military graves and do the research to properly honor those heroes and ensure there is a marker for their names to live on.”
The Wisconsin National Guard recently announced its selection to begin a new state partnership with Papua New Guinea. As the program director, Schultheiss has been in close contact with the embassy.
“I have heard heart-warming stories from the embassy team in Port Moresby that the people of Papua New Guinea have not forgotten the sacrifices of the American Soldiers of the 32nd Division, and that they stand united with us as we face future challenges,” Schultheiss said.
And now, with a headstone marking his final resting place back home in Milwaukee, Schaller’s memory, sacrifice and legacy live on, renewed by volunteers who were compelled to act when they discovered a Soldier’s unmarked grave.