Brothers in arms title

A tale of two heroes on the fields of France

Two brothers in arms lay down their lives

Where the brothers in arms gave their lives
The brothers in arms, Cpl. Lowell Coleman and Pfc. Darrell Dunkle, died together on Hill 172. (Fourth Division in the World War)

The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts in Goodland, Kan., and the Reno, Nev., American Legion post share a backstory. During World War I, Darrell Dunkle stopped to help his wounded best friend Lowell Coleman on the bloody fields of France. As Dunkle treated his friend’s wounded leg, a shell exploded above them. They died together. They are gone, but their memory lives on in Reno and in Goodland. Reno’s Legion post is named Darrell Dunkle Post 1. Goodland’s post is named Lowell Coleman Post 1133.

This is their story.

The brothers in arms fall among 300,000 casualties

“… [We] never fully realize that our boys must fall….” — The Goodland (Kan.) Republic

Lowell Coleman, one of the brothers in arms
Lowell Coleman’s senior picture in 1916 (Sherman County Historical Society)
Darrell Mellvile Dunkle, one of the brothers in arms
Darrell Dunkle in his Army uniform (US Army)

U.S. Army Cpl. Lowell Finley Coleman and Pfc. Darrell Melville Dunkle died July 20, 1918, during the Second Battle of the Marne, World War I’s pivotal battle. In vicious fighting, Dunkle sacrificed his life to help his best friend. They were like brothers. Brothers in arms. When the battle had ended, Coleman and Dunkle were two of 166,524 dead or wounded Allied soldiers and Marines.


July 18 battle map
The Fourth Engineers were fighting on the front lines between Soissons and Chateau-Thierry. (Fourth Division in the World War)

Battlefield was “something better described as Hell”

Coleman, Dunkle, and Coleman’s high school classmate Earl Hodgkinson all served in Company A, Fourth Engineers, part of the Fourth Division. They were positioned near Chevillon, France.

After Coleman’s death, Hodgkinson wrote (PDF) his parents about the sad event. “We were making our first trip to the line,” he wrote, “and crossing an open field.” Without any protective cover, the Germans soon spotted the advancing soldiers. They rained down shrapnel, high explosives, and poison gas on the advancing Americans. Their situation was “something better described as Hell,” Hodgkinson wrote.’

The brothers in arms killed by shell concussion

World War I artillery barrage
An artillery barrage bursts above German troops in the trenches. The waves coming from the explosion could kill. (Wikimedia)

While Company A was advancing over Hill 172, Dunkle stopped to assist Lt. R.C. Knight, who was wounded. Knight later testified that Dunkle had saved his life.

As Dunkle was helping Knight, Company A continued to advance. Then disaster struck. A piece of shrapnel hit Coleman’s leg. Seeing his best friend  — his brother — wounded, Dunkle stopped to bandage the wound. Later, the Fourth Division’s Headquarters’ General Orders No. 32 cited Dunkle’s actions “with pride.” …[D]isplaying great courage and with utter disregard for his personal safety,” he stopped to help Coleman despite “exceptionally heavy shell fire”. One of those shells burst over them, and both died from shell concussion.

The concussion from shell blasts was so strong that it could rupture internal organs or stop a man’s heart, leaving no external wounds.

Maj. R.A. Wheeler wrote to the Coleman family, notifying them of their son’s death. “He died a brave death on the battlefield, being struck by a shell while marching toward the enemy,” the major said.

In Wheeler’s letter to the Dunkle family, he said Dunkle had died “a brave death …, the glory of which you may cherish with keen memory. … His act was one of supreme unselfishness in a moment of intense strain.”

The two brothers in arms had died as they had lived. Together.

The Allies turn back the Germans on the Marne River

Their sacrifice was not wasted. The Germans started the offensive, but the Allies ended it.  They hoped to win the war before the Americans could come with enough force to defeat Germany. They failed. After their defeat, some of the senior German commanders recognized that they had lost the war. The German commander, Gen. Erich Ludendorff, canceled his planned offensive in Flanders.

The Germans’ defeat cost them 139,000 dead or wounded men.  Even though many generals knew they had already lost the war, the Germans’ stubborn resistance prolonged the conflict for another year and a half.

Dunkle left everything to volunteer

Fourth Engineers Coat of Arms. The brothers in arms belonged
Fourth Engineers’ coat of arms (Wikimedia)

When the United States declared war on April 6, 1917, Dunkle was a student at the University of Nevada in Reno. He was active in a fraternity; he played baseball and football at the university. Instead of continuing his education, he decided to leave college and his family to serve his country. Twelve days after the US went to war, Dunkle enlisted as a private at Fort McDowell, Calif. He was sworn into the Second Battalion of the Second Engineers. Later he transferred to the Fourth Engineers. The Fourth was an all-volunteer unit.

Coleman was first in his county to volunteer

Coleman had graduated from Sherman Community High School in Goodland in 1916. He had left quite an impact at the school. Coleman was involved in nearly everything possible at SCHS. He also found time to work for the telephone company and for the Rock Island Railroad.

He was working at Foster Lumber in Goodland when he enlisted. Coleman was not required to register for the draft. He was too young. Men aged 21 to 30 had to register. Coleman was only 19 years old the day he enlisted. He didn’t care. He and his classmate Lloyd Warner were the first Sherman County men to enlist. They signed up on June 11, 1917. After his enlistment, Coleman began his military service at Fort Logan, in Denver.

Coleman never would reach 21. He died four months after his 20th birthday. Coleman was the first man from Sherman County to be killed in a World War I battle.

Related: The Kidder Massacre was Sherman County’s first recorded event.

The brothers in arms’ paths cross

Where the brothers in arms may have met
Fort Vancouver Barracks in 1917. Dunkle married Edith Duarte here. Coleman arrived at the barracks a few days before his division was shipped out on a troop train. (Fourth Division in the World War)

On December 12, 1917, the Army sent Coleman to Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Wash. Dunkle was already in Vancouver and he married Edith Duarte there on Dec. 19. The newlyweds had little time together since Dunkle had to leave on December 21, only two days later. Military orders wait for no one. Honeymoon or not, the Fourth Division loaded onto a troop train for a cross-country journey, leaving the new Mrs. Dunkle behind.

Home for Christmas

Goodland train depot brothers in arms
Goodland railroad depot a few years before the Christmas soldiers arrived in 1917. (Kansas Memory/Kansas State Historical Society)

Early on Christmas morning in 1917, a troop train pulled into Goodland. No one in Goodland knew a troop train was coming. The soldiers on board did not know where they were going. Then the train stopped “on a never-to-be-forgotten Christmas Day,” as Sgt. H.A.M. Kisor (PDF) of Company B, Fourth Engineers, later wrote.

The Goodland people heard bugle calls, and they came to the railroad depot to see who had arrived. Among the sea of strange soldiers’ faces, two familiar faces stepped off the train. Coleman and Hodgkinson had come home for Christmas. The two hometown boys received a rapturous welcome from their surprised and delighted friends and families.

After Coleman had died, the Goodland Republic recalled the joy of that morning: “How soldierly and manly he looked that Christmas Day. … There were none of the hundreds here who made a better appearance.”

Goodland welcomes all the Fourth Division’s soldiers

While the hometown boys were the most special treat, Goodland welcomed all the soldiers into their hearts and homes. The troop train stayed nearly all day, and the citizens entertained the soldiers the entire time. “You forgot your own Christmas to make the day a pleasant one for the soldiers,” Kisor said. He recalled “the sweet young ladies who were never too tired to dance and bring joy to the hearts of their soldier partners.”

Perhaps the Coleman family welcomed Dunkle into their home. They could not have been acquainted for more than 12 days, including Dunkle’s wedding and only-too-brief honeymoon. After the friends died together, their mothers corresponded (PDF). Maybe that memorable Christmas Day had kindled a spark of friendship between the families.

Tent city at Camp Greene, N.C., where the brothers in arms prepared for combat
Tent city at Camp Greene, N.C., where the soldiers lived while training for combat in France. (National Archives)

Headed to France as brothers in arms

The Fourth Engineers ended their cross-country journey at Camp Greene in Charlotte, N.C. During the next month, the Army promoted Coleman to corporal. The engineers left Camp Greene on April 20. They stayed for a time at Camp Merritt, in Bergen County, N.J. The camp was 10 miles from New York City. They embarked from New York for France on April 29. In April, 52,393 soldiers left Camp Merritt for their French destinations. Fourteen days later, on May 12, the engineers landed in Bordeaux, France.

The brothers in arms arrive at their final destination

By June 5, they were stationed in Samer, France. On the 16th, the French asked the Fourth Engineers to construct a second line of defense near Crouttes. They worked on the defenses for three weeks.

While he was in France, Coleman wrote to his parents that he would be home for Christmas (PDF) in 1918. Coleman’s prediction would never come true. He would never come home again.

On July 17, 1918, Coleman wrote another letter to his parents. He talked about practicing with hand grenades. He was rolling up his pack and drawing his rations because the Fourth Engineers were about to see combat.

The march to combat: “Trying beyond description”

Phosphorus rains on the brothers in arms
A phosphorus shell explodes during the night, silhouetting an American soldier. (National Archives)

That night, the Fourth Division marched to the front line. The division’s official history (PDF) notes that the night march “was trying beyond description.” Rain lashed the men while the wind drove the raindrops through all their clothing. The wind-driven rain blinded the men. They staggered forward at a snail’s pace on a night without a light. They only knew about obstacles when they crashed into them. Occasionally, lightning flashed, or flashes of light from gunfire illuminated the scene. As dawn arose, mist covered the field. It was the last morning Dunkle and Coleman would ever see.

cemetery in Flanders
Stereograph card of a temporary cemetery (National Archives)

The Fourth Engineers collect their dead

The Army removed the Fourth Division from the front lines on July 21.

Finally, the soldiers could tend to their dead. The officers sent salvaging parties to find bodies. They had many to find. The Fourth Division had left 302 soldiers on the field of battle. To identify the bodies, the division’s chaplain checked each soldier’s dog tags. Then he marked the graves.

The engineers built two temporary cemeteries for the Fourth Division’s soldiers lost in the Second Battle of the Marne. One stood just outside Chevillon and another on the Courchamps-Priez road. They built ornamental archways for each entrance and enclosed each with barbed wire.

The fallen soldiers’ permanent place of rest would wait for years.

“We never realize that our boys must fall”

Coleman’s July 17 letter needed three weeks to cross the ocean and arrive in Kansas.  Three days after the July 17 letter arrived, his father pulled an official letter out of his mailbox. When William Coleman saw the official envelope, he guessed that it contained some insurance papers. Once he had opened the envelope, he was shocked to find his son’s death notification letter.

The Republic said, “We all knew that many brave boys must fall before victory can be won, but we never fully realize that our boys must fall….”

In the most hallowed ground

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day
Ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day, 1922, the year Dunkle’s remains were inurned there. (Arlington National Cemetery)

After the Armistice, when the guns had fallen silent, graves registration teams could finally move the fallen to a permanent place of rest. Inseparable in life, Coleman’s and Dunkle’s remains are an ocean apart. Dunkle’s remains lie in Arlington Cemetery’s Section 18, Site 4265, in the nation’s most hallowed ground. The Army inurned his remains at Arlington on March 2, 1922. Perhaps the brothers in arms were together initially, then Dunkle moved to Arlington.

Forever in Flanders fields

Aisne-Marne Cemetery
Crosses row on row in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial. Coleman is buried here. (Aisne-Marne American Cemetery)

The Army laid Coleman to rest in Plot A, Row 11, Grave 23 at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial at the foot of Belleau Wood in France. The Colemans likely never saw their soldier’s grave.

In 1920, W.B. Lockwood and his daughters Lucille and Ava of St. Francis toured Europe. While in France, they took a 20-mile detour to see Coleman’s grave (PDF). the Lockwoods photographed the stone. They presented the photos to the Colemans when they returned home.

Related: Jack Weinstein earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Korean War. He rests in Wheeler’s Cheyenne Valley Cemetery.

A tribute in the Coleman family cemetery plot

Lowell Coleman's memorial stone
Lowell Coleman is remembered in his hometown by a memorial stone.

The Coleman family placed a memorial headstone in their plot in the Goodland Cemetery. It stands in Block 2, Lot 42, Plot 7 of the Old Cemetery. The inscription on the stone’s final line reads, “In Flanders Field”. A nearby tree was planted in his memory and is marked with a plaque.

Related: William Johnson, the black artilleryman, rests in the cemetery’s Old Veteran’s Section.

“We are the Dead”

The inscription refers to the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields“, written by John McCrae, a British Army surgeon. The poem reads:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.


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