Shore Story: Grand Haven man champions Company F, Purple Hearts awarded posthumously

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore, columns by local and former residents about their lives. 

In 2019, Charles A. Conklin American Legion Post 28 Grand Haven celebrated their 100th anniversary. As a member of the Post’s Sons of the American Legion Squadron 28 Grand Haven, I wanted to learn more about the Post and the Post’s namesake. I began the journey of writing a book and co-producing and co-directing a documentary film on the 100-year evolution of Post 28 and the life and military service of Charles A. Conklin. The documentary was broadcast on regional PBS stations.

Along the way, I discovered several soldiers who were raised in West Michigan and served in the courageous 126th Infantry/Regiment, 32nd “Red Arrow” Division which was instrumental in breaking the German line and subsequent victory over the German forces in November 1918. Many of the West Michigan “Red Arrow” Division soldiers were either wounded in action, died of wounds received in action, or were killed in action.

Charles A. Conklin, was raised in Grand Haven but moved to Ohio after high school, enlisting in the Ohio National Guard. He died of wounds received in action. Digging deeper, I discovered 22 soldiers, including Sgt. Alvin Jonker VFW Post 2326 Grand Haven namesake, Alvin F. Jonker, who was raised in Grand Haven and enlisted in Michigan National Guard Company F Grand Haven. All served in the 126th Infantry/Regiment and were either wounded in action, died of wounds received in action, or were killed in action. I wondered if Conklin and the other 22 soldiers had ever received a Purple Heart medal. 

Dr. Chris Petras was honored as the Tri-Cities Historical Museum's “2023 Historian of the Year.”

The Purple Heart medal is awarded to U.S. military servicepersons who are either wounded in action, died of wounds received in action, or killed in action. I reached out to my U.S. representative at the time, Bill Huizenga, who immediately offered to assist. 

When Conklin’s letter of eligibility status arrived, it was disappointing. In 1973, the military service records of Conklin and thousands of other WWI soldiers were consumed in a major warehouse fire just outside St. Louis, Missouri. Things looked bleak, until a couple days later, when I remembered discovering a U.S. Army document noting Conklin’s cause of death — died of wounds received in action. I circled back to Congressman Huizenga whose team submitted the new evidence. A week later, Conklin’s eligibility letter arrived. He was determined eligible for a Purple Heart medal. Of the remaining 22 soldiers, four had previously received Purple Heart medals.

That left Jonker and the remaining 17 soldiers.

Jonker was killed in action and determined eligible. Post 28 and Post 2326 accepted Conklin’s and Jonker’s posthumous Purple Heart medals, respectively, from Congressman Huizenga, on behalf of the president of the United States. One year later, I finished researching the 17 remaining Grand Haven WWI Company F soldiers. They, too, were determined eligible for Purple Heart medals. This time, I personally facilitated the procurement and engraving of the 17 medals and donated them to the Tri-Cities Historical Museum ( in Grand Haven for future generations to honor and enjoy. Congressman Huizenga presented the medals, posthumously, at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum. 

Dr. Chris Petras worked diligently to find the documentation necessary to bring home 20 Purple Hearts to WWI servicemen.

Later that year, I was beyond honored and humbled to receive the Tri-Cities Historical Museum’s “2023 Historian of the Year” award.

Most recently, the 93-year-old daughter of a WWI Company F Grand Haven soldier contacted me about her father, whom I discovered was wounded in action. U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten and her team graciously facilitated during the eligibility process and on Jan. 5, Congresswoman Scholten presented the Purple Heart medal, posthumously, to the daughter during a ceremony in Grand Haven. 

My journey is a blessing, and the least I can do for the sacrifices the soldiers made. In the words of Cpl. Emil Gansser of the 126th Infantry/Regiment, WWI:

“Those of our number who are not privileged to return, become our most precious contribution to the onward march of democracy. They become, too, a heritage for those yet unborn, an inspiration for them to serve as they served to make this world what God would have it be. Though no longer to contribute in the flesh, their deeds will form a chapter in the book of ideals that nourishes those who would be great. It is in the memory of our glorious dead that we find those impulses that urge us onto better and more noble men.”

Chris Petras earned his doctorate in public administration/public policy from Western Michigan University. His late grandfather served in the U.S. Army overseas during WWII. Several of his ancestors served in various wars, including the Civil War and WWI. Dr. Petras lives in the Grand Haven-area and has published columns for the Grand Haven Tribune on the history of Grand Haven during WWI. Dr. Petras is a Life Member of the 126th Regimental Association Grand Rapids and VFW Post 2326 Auxiliary Grand Haven. He is also a member of the Charles A. Conklin Sons of the American Legion Squadron 28 Grand Haven. 
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