The Final Resting Place of Private John Matthew McGillis

Left: Private John Matthew McGillis, photo courtesy of Jasper van Kampen. Right: His burial place (Photo by Matthew James)

John Matthew McGillis, known to his family on Duluth’s Park Point as Jack, died on Christmas Day 1944, one day before the end of major fighting in the final German offensive of World War II. He wasn’t a combat soldier.

Only 22 years old when killed, he was born and raised in the Oatka neighborhood of Park Point. According to Crossing the Canal, Tony Dierkins’ first book on the lift bridge, the house where he grew was at the same location as an amusement park that operated from 1906 to 1909. After it closed, the old bandshell was incorporated into a house that still stands at 4010 Minnesota Ave. It became the McGillis family living room.

A postcard of White City Amusement Park with an added inset showing the McGillis family home

His family was a member of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church from its opening on Park Point in 1922. Jack attended Cathedral High School, a Catholic School associated with Sacred Heart Church (the present day Damiano Center building was part of the complex and served as the elementary school) which moved to the top of the hill in 1963, later becoming Duluth Marshall. After graduating from high school, he went to work in the repair shop for Northern Pacific Railroad on Garfield Avenue.

John McGillis’ draft registration card, showing his address and place of employment, courtesy of Jasper van Kampen

When the U.S. entered World War II at the end of 1941, a selective service act required all men between the ages of 18 and 65 to register for the draft. The railway companies had been given the responsibility of forming specialized reserve battalions in the event of war. Because of his work experience with the railroad company in Duluth, John McGillis was assigned to Norfolk & Western Railroad’s 755th Railway Shop Battalion. On Nov. 30, 1942, they were activated for deployment. He trained in the U.S. before arriving to join his battalion in England on Dec. 12, 1943.

Private John McGillis with his parents after enlisting. Photo courtesy of Jasper van Kampen

The work was tough. For the first few months of their service, the 755th took box cars shipped flat from the United States and assembled them for use on European rail lines. They could fully assemble a box car in 45 minutes. After the D-day invasion of France on June 6, 1944, their work shifted to assembling barges in order to transport supplies across the English Channel. Civilian groups had been launching a barge every 12 days. The 755th averaged a new barge every 26 hours.

The battalion was then transferred to France. Private McGillis and other soldiers of the 755th landed on Utah Beach on Aug. 16, 1944 at 10 p.m., an hour after sunset. They joined a truck convoy which brought them to the Brittany Base Depot in Rennes, France, about 15 miles from the front lines. Their mission shifted from moving supplies to repairing damaged equipment. They slept in bombed-out apartment houses next to the rail lines and worked with local civilians to bring rail equipment back into service.

The 755th Railway Shop Battalion in front of the Palace of Versailles, date unknown.

On October 11, 1944, the battalion moved to Namur, Belgium, a small, quiet city at the western edge of the Ardennes Forest. Most of Belgium had already been liberated. On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched a surprise attack on the eastern edge of the Ardennes. The need to transport supplies by train directly to the troops often meant the 755th Battalion often had to work along the front lines. In addition to the headquarters of rail repair operations in Namur, two locomotive shops were set up farther west: one at Herbesthal, a small Belgian town next to the German border and another in the provincial capital of Liege.

Private McGillis died in Liege on Christmas Day 1944 as a result of injuries sustained from a German aerial attack carried out the day before. The specific circumstances of his death are not known. What is known is that on Christmas Eve 1944, the German command was working out the final details of a plan to be executed that same day. They intended to disrupt Allied supplies with an air attack on either Namur or Liege, with planes departing at 4:00 p.m. At 3:00 p.m. the pilots learned their destination would be Liege. Their targets would be two rail facilities being used to unload medical equipment and evacuate wounded soldiers. The Allies had already established air superiority and were prepared for a German air attack. They spotted the formation on radar and Canadian pilots moved quickly to intercept. They were not, however, prepared for what they encountered: the Arado AR 234 B-2. The planes were not only incredibly fast, they were of a type the Canadians pilots had neither seen nor heard before. Each plane carried 600 to 800 kg of incidiary bombs that they dropped over their targets, making their attack on Liege the first ever use of jet bombers in combat. Estimates suggest that between 50 and 80 Belgian civilians were killed in the attack and approximately 30 Allied soldiers. The rail lines were operational again by Dec. 28, no doubt in part due to the work of the surviving members of the 755th Battalion.

A rail station in Liege after the bombings during the Battle of the Bulge

While the military impact of the bombing was minimal, all of the jet bombers and their escort planes returned from the mission intact. The Nazi’s heavily promoted the attack as an historic success in German newspapers and radio broadcasts, but the propaganda could not counter the realities of the war. The day after Private McGillis died, General Patton reached Bastogne from the south, ending the siege on the city and effectively ending the last major German offensive of World War II. Germany surrendered unconditionally five months later on May 8, 1945. The war cost three members of the 755th Battalion their lives. Private McGillis was the last.

A map of Private McGillis’ service in Europe including the location of the military cemetery where he is buried.

A post-war banner honoring McGillis’ 755th Railway Shop Battalion

The military buried Private McGillis, along with 7,992 other U.S. citizens that lost their lives in the war, in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, located 20 miles east of Liege just south of the Dutch border.

When he died, Private McGillis was just one week older than my grandfather, who also served in the European theater of World War II before returning home safely to his mother, father and younger sister in Northern Minnesota. Like my grandfather, John McGillis had one sibling, also a younger sister. She lived her entire life in the same Park Point house where they grew up together. Mary McGillis was a lifelong member of the Park Point Community Club and the most consistent volunteer at the Park Point Art Fair. She was such an integral part of the neighborhood that she earned the nickname “The Queen of Park Point.”

Mary passed away in 2012, a member of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church from its opening in 1922 when the Catholic church bought a building on the East Hilliside and moved it to Park Point. She was the first baby baptized in the new church. The church closed permanently in 2016.

Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, Park Point, awaiting likely demolition. (Photo by Mark Nicklawske)

Her obituary notes no surviving relatives other than a cousin in Canada. It does state that she was preceded in death by her parents “and brother, Jack, who was killed during the Battle of the Bulge.” While Jack McGillis may no longer have any direct living relatives, he has not been forgotten. In February 1945, the Railroad Transportation Corps named Locomotive 2791 after him. He has cenotaph (a monument to someone buried elsewhere, from the Greek for ‘empty tomb’) in Duluth’s Calvary Cemetery where his sister is buried. There is a plaque in a small church in Northern England dedicated to him and the two other members of the 755th Battalion that died during the war. And there is his grave in the U.S. Military cemetery in northern Belgium.

Because the soldiers in Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery are buried in a place likely far from any friends or family, the cemetery has a program that allows local residents to adopt a grave, making sure the sacrifice of these soldiers is not forgotten. The program asks those who participate to visit the grave at least twice a year and to try to learn something about their soldier. In 2020, Private McGillis’ grave was adopted by Jasper van Kampen, a Dutch citizen whose father lived through the war as a child. Much of the information about Jack McGillis in this post, and all of the photos of him, are the result of the work that he did (he also brought the flowers seen in the photo of his grave the day before I took the photograph). He reached out to historical societies and the library in Duluth, ultimately coming into contact with someone who knew Mary McGillis and who shared stories with him along with a photo collection that Mary had put together honoring her brother. When I contacted Jasper about this post, he suggested I add one of the stories that he had been told. Draft-aged men were required to turn their registration cards in to local boards where a volunteer registrar would ask them to affirm the information that they had provided was true and sign their own name as registrar. Mary McGillis was volunteering when her brother went to submit his registration card. Because she had signed the draft card that enrolled him in the military, she felt she had unwittingly signed a warrant for his death on December 25,1944. Because of this, she never celebrated Christmas again.

The back of John McGillis’ draft card, with Mary McGillis as registrar

As a resident of the Netherlands, my own awareness of Jack McGillis came from an invitation from a Belgian event list that I subscribe to. Over 14,000 U.S. service personnel are buried in Belgium across three different military cemeteries. Every U.S. Memorial Day weekend since 1923, officials from the United States and Belgium have held ceremonies to honor these war dead. When I received an invitation, I searched the records of the cemetery closest to me to see if anyone from Duluth was buried there and found John Matthew McGillis.

A Belgian student reads a letter to the soldiers that died in the Battle of the Bulge during a memorial ceremony at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Photo by Matthew James)

But my desire to tell his story here doesn’t just come from my connection to where he was born. At least 10 other soldiers from Duluth are buried in U.S. military cemeteries in the Netherlands and Belgium.

From where I live in the Netherlands, the train trip to the middle of Belgium only takes an hour. It’s an easy place to go for a cheap vacation. When asked what my favorite city in Belgium is, I have always said Liege. People find it an odd choice. Belgium has a number of cities with beautifully well-preserved historic city centers. Liege is not one of those cities and so I’m always asked to explain. And I always answer that I like to go there because it reminds me of where I grew up.

There are some superficial comparisons to be made. Like Duluth, the city is built on rolling hills that overlook water, in this case the Maas River. But more than that, Duluth and Liege share some common history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nearby mining and the opening of a major steel plant in the city brought incredible wealth to Liege. The city is still full of beautiful homes built during this period. These homes aren’t always well maintained, as the wealth didn’t last long. After World War II, a combination of factors led to a significant economic decline. In 1981, the same year that U.S. Steel ended its operations in Duluth, the steel plant in Liege laid off nearly half its workers, continuing a process of gradually shutting down that would last until 2014. In Liege, it seems that many of the historic buildings are only still standing because no one has yet worked up the funding for a redevelopment project to replace them.

A historic church in Liege, awaiting likely demolition. (Photo by Matthew James)

But also like Duluth, Liege has seen a bit of resurgence over the past decades, reinventing itself as tourist destination by becoming a cultural hub for the region and capitalizing on the unique sense of place created by its industrial past. It’s this sense of a shared story, as much as fall colors that transform the hills every year, that make me feel a bit at home whenever I visit Liege.

When I first read that Private McGillis had been at work in Liege when he died, I wondered if he felt the same way during his brief time there. It would have been a different city then, but so was Duluth. And then I realized the obvious: He was in Liege not only in a time of war but when the city was in the midst of an active battle. It probably couldn’t have felt farther from home. The only familiar element was likely the cold, with 8 inches of snow on the ground and an average temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

A family member recently found a photo that our grandfather sent to his sister in the early summer of 1945, after the war had ended and before he returned to Northern Minnesota to start a family. He’s out of uniform and enjoying the sun in front one of the grand cafes of the French Riviera. Jack McGillis never had an opportunity to send his sister a similar photo. He never saw Liege in peacetime. It’s a nice place. It feels like Duluth. And in writing this, I now have some understanding of how much the McGillis family, and so many others, sacrificed to make it possible for me to know that.

A hillside neighborhood in Liege. (Photo by Matthew James)

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