On Sept. 30, 1944, a soldier from the tiny town of Sedan, Mont., died in the Battle of Angaur in the Palau Island chain in the South Pacific.
On Thursday, almost 75 years later, Army Pvt. William Boegli is returning to the Gallatin Valley where he grew up and will be laid to rest on Memorial Day weekend.
Plenty of evidence exists to indicate that Boegli was a good guy. In addition to the Purple Heart he earned for the fatal wounds he sustained in battle, he was awarded the Silver Star, acknowledging his valor in combat on that fateful day.
The Palau island chain, which lies 500 miles east of the Philippines, had been identified by United States for potential airfield development that could support military operations in the Philippines. In mid-September 1944, U.S. forces landed on Peleliu and Angaur islands with the mission of seizing territory from the Japanese, who had established fighting positions in the dense jungle and rocky outcroppings. The 322nd Infantry Regiment, to which Boegli belonged, succeeded in capturing Red Beach on Angaur’s northeastern shore. Over the next two weeks, the regiment began moving westward across the island, dividing into small groups to attack Japanese positions.
Official accounts of the events of Sept. 30, 1944 note that Boegli voluntarily took the lead in evacuating wounded servicemen from an area that was under heavy enemy fire, and insisted that his fellow litter bearers follow him at a safe distance. That decision would cost him his life and devastate his family back home, including his sister Elinor Boegli McHenry, who later wrote in her diary that “My brother William had a sunny disposition and everyone loved him.”
Regrettably for the 17 members of Pvt. Boegli’s family who will gather in Bozeman for his military funeral on Saturday, neither his sister nor other relatives said much else about him in the years following World War II, according to Don McHenry, Elinor’s son and Boegli’s oldest nephew.
“We don’t know much about our Uncle Bill,” McHenry said this week, while handling details of funeral preparations for the uncle he can’t remember. “I don’t know why, but the
family never talked about him.”
McHenry said that a representative of the Army’s Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, who has worked with the family on Boegli’s case for the past year, told him that such silence is not unusual. Some families glorify the service of their deceased member, while others tend to grieve silently.
For decades, Boegli was known to have been killed in action, but his body had never been identified. His name was permanently inscribed on the “Walls of the Missing” at Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines. But then, a little over a year ago, things started to change.
McHenry remembers receiving a phone call out of the blue from a military official in April 2018 – “I thought if they’re down to drafting people like me, we’re in trouble,” he jokes – but the caller told him the armed services had narrowed down the likely identity of a set of remains to five individuals, one of whom was his uncle.
McHenry, his brother Norm, and several cousins all agreed to provide DNA tests to help aid identification efforts. In August, officials confirmed that the remains were those of Pvt. William Boegli.
“Even though I never knew him, I was pretty emotional,” said McHenry, who was only a year-and-a-half old when his uncle died, but remembers seeing a photograph of himself as an infant sitting on William’s lap while he was home on military leave.
McHenry, who owns an insurance agency in Bozeman and lives north of Four Corners, has spent the past year trying to form a more complete picture of his uncle’s life. Every family member’s level of interest has been a little different, but together they have attempted to put together as much of Boegli’s story as they can. McHenry’s cousin Bill, who is Pvt. Boegli’s namesake, recalls hearing that when an Army representative came to the house to notify the family that Boegli had been killed, the soldier’s mother ran out of the house and kept running. Her husband found her several hours later crying in a haystack.
Elinor Boegli expressed her pain in a diary entry about her brother.
“In Sept. of 44 my dear brother William was killed in action and that is most of the reason for not enjoying that part of my life,” she wrote. “My brother Don came home for awhile and when I saw him I thought I just could not go on. The three of us had always been close and I couldn’t see how we could go on without him and ever be happy again.”
McHenry, his brothers and his cousins know from family anecdotes that their uncle was fun-loving and personable, that he laughed a lot and loved to play practical jokes, and that he kept lists of girls’ names in a little journal. He joined the Army in 1941, but McHenry doesn’t know whether he enlisted or was drafted. He married Beulah Beebe of Sedan while he was home on leave in November 1944, though that detail does not appear in Elinor McHenry’s journal. The family knows only that Beulah remarried after the war, and died at a young age in the 1950s.
They also can infer that William Boegli was a hard worker, like the other members of the family who settled in Wilsall in 1922. His mother ran a store in the town, and his father was a cheesemaker. Don McHenry remembers his mother telling stories about her father hitching up a team to go fetch a wagonload of coal in Wilsall, sometimes not returning until as late at 10 p.m. Her three brothers, including William, would grab shovels to help unload, even at that hour of night. Life wasn’t cushy back then; for example, McHenry remembers his parents telling stories about cars frequently getting stuck on muddy roads, and horses being deployed to pull them out. He also remembers hearing that the Boeglis had plenty to eat during the Depression, but that was because they raised their own produce and livestock, in addition to the other work they did.
McHenry knows that his uncle’s remains were exhumed from a mausoleum in the Philippines and sent to Hawaii in 1995, but they remained unidentified for more than 20 years. He regrets that identification didn’t come sooner, when family members who remembered him were still living and could have told the stories he wants to hear now.
Nevertheless, Boegli’s military funeral on Saturday will be well attended by relatives who still live in the Gallatin Valley and elsewhere in western Montana.
McHenry said he doesn’t understand why his uncle’s story has sparked so many emotions for him, but part of it may have to do with recognizing the military sacrifices that his family and so many others have suffered. He served in the Montana National Guard during the Vietnam War and remembers how poorly returning servicemen were treated after that conflict.
“Now, thank God, they’re recognizing that these soldiers went through a lot, and so did their families,” he said.
The surviving Boeglis and McHenrys decided that honoring their own family’s sacrifice was particularly appropriate near Memorial Day.