In 1944, Pfc. James E. Wickline, a World War II soldier from Osage, West Virginia, was killed when his parachute failed to open during a military operation. Nearly 60 years later, a teenage boy, Maarten Vossen, approached Wickline’s grave - one of 8,300 American soldiers buried in the American Military Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands — unknowingly beginning a quest that would span 13 years and two generations.
Vossen, now a 27-year-old physical therapist, has always been a World War II enthusiast, consuming books, films and anecdotal information about the war from a young age. In 2002, Vossen adopted a soldier at the Netherlands American Cemetery, responding to an ad in a newspaper.
The soldier Vossen adopted was Wickline, who joined the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment in 1943 during the second World War. Prior to joining the military, Wickline went to University High School in Morgantown, where he played for the Hilltoppers basketball team and graduated in 1942. Wickline died during Operation Market Garden, a military operation that aimed to liberate Holland on Sept. 17, 1944. He was initially reported as missing in action.
But in 2002, Vossen only had a name.
“When I saw that name for the first time, it was kind of real,” Vossen said. “I knew that this was someone who had really experienced the second World War.”
After adopting the veteran, Vossen wanted to know more. He began researching and writing to American authorities to obtain any available information about his soldier. Eventually, Vossen’s letters paid off and he received Wickline’s personnel file. Inside the file, Vossen discovered letters from Wickline’s mother sent to military officials while her son was missing in action.
“I could really feel the pain and the emotions reading those letters,” he said. “The questions that James’ mother had, those were the same questions that I had.”
The letters only made his fervor for answers more powerful, Vossen said. He continued his research by exploring Wickline’s genealogy, tracing the soldier’s family name back to Morgantown. While Vossen said finding Wickline’s hometown was easy, the thousands of miles separating him from West Virginia placed an indefinite hold on his investigation.
By 2012, Vossen had had enough.
“I said, ‘I’m going to the United States. I’m going to West Virginia,’” he said. “If I don’t do it right now, maybe nobody will ever tell this story.”
After ringing doorbells, visiting local stores and even driving to Beverly, Randolph County, where Wickline’s parents relocated and eventually were buried, Vossen came across Maxine Wickline, a descendant of the Wickline family. Though Vossen had discovered a direct link to Wickline, Vossen said it was difficult to break the ice with the woman.
Unable to gather any new information, Vossen’s cross-continental crusade was to no avail and he left with as many questions as he came.
Vossen wasn’t finished, though. After arriving home, he contacted John Wickline — a journalist who shares the same name but no known familial relationship with the World War II soldier — who spoke to Maxine Wickline and wrote an article about the young man’s search for the truth.
Jeanne Williams, a former neighbor of Wickline’s parents, read the article and sent Vossen photos of the veteran. Upon receiving the photos, Vossen was overwhelmed, finally putting a face to the name he had possessed for so many years.
Around this time, Vossen came into contact with Tom Bloom, a Monongalia County commissioner. Bloom was enthralled with the story of Wickline’s life as well as Vossen’s thirst for knowledge and became an instrumental figure in his quest for the truth.
“I thought it was a joke at first,” Bloom said, “but Maarten was persistent. He really wanted to know about the family and if anyone was left.”
Maarten said that he and Bloom discussed the institution of a permanent memorial for Wickline, something both favored. Bloom then spearheaded an initiative, along with Monongalia County delegates Charlene Marshall and Joe Statler, to rename a bridge located a few blocks away from Wickline’s home in his honor.
The bridge represents a symbolic connection between the United States and the Netherlands, said Vossen and Bloom, and is a way for Wickline to finally come home.
Vossen returned to the Mountain State in Sept. 2014, motivated by the 70th anniversary of Wickline’s death as well as the knowledge that Williams was in possession of a scrapbook created by Wickline’s mother.
When he arrived, Bloom had a surprise for him. The county clerk had located Marie Comley, a former friend of Wickline.
Comley told Vossen about her childhood friendship with Wickline and how she was present when Wickline’s parents received correspondence of their son’s missing in action status. Wickline’s mother had asked Comley to run to the mines to deliver the news to his father.
“It was really emotional hearing that,” Vossen said. “That was actually the point that they had experienced, you know, ‘Something has happened to our kid, our only child.’”
Vossen also had a chance to view Wickline’s mother’s scrapbook and have dinner with Williams and Maxine Wickline.
Vossen had come far, but he had yet to complete his quest. In the Netherlands, he had retrieved dried flowers from the grave of Wickline and brought them to the Beverly cemetery where the veteran’s parents are buried. Vossen placed the flowers on Wickline’s parents’ graves with the hope that answering his own questions about Wickline had also answered the questions of the soldier’s deceased parents.
Vossen is now the subject of a documentary, “Ageless Friends,” which explores his journey for information about the life of Wickline. Vossen returned to West Virginia in 2015, along with Dutch filmmaker Marijn Poels, to retrace the facts that he had unearthed and to create the documentary of remembrance for the lost veteran.
The documentary was pre-screened at the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C. last month and will premiere in Morgantown June 18 as part of Morgantown’s Veterans Appreciation Day celebrations.
Bloom said he attended the pre-screening in D.C. and described the film as “powerful.”
“A couple of the people who saw it said ‘Thank you,’” Bloom said. “It was closure not only for them, but for their friends and buddies that did not return.”
Reach Jared Casto at email@example.com, 304-348-4832 or follow @JaredCasto on Twitter.