Captain John O. French remembered
Steamboat native and George Washington University graduate Libby Lukens presented her senior paper to community members Wednesday at the Museum of Northwest Colorado
The price of freedom has been paid in full throughout the history of the United States of America, arguably by none greater than those who served in World War II.
In Moffat County, more than 100 young men volunteered to fight on the beaches of France and Imperial Japan, in the deserts of North Africa, and in the mountains of Italy to ensure our freedom remained just that: free.
Of the roughly 109 young men who signed up for the War in the early 1940s, 24 never came back, while those that came back from the war remained changed for the rest of their days.
Moffat County and Craig residents know the story of Lewis “Dude” Dent well, as well as the story of one Norman B. Foster. However, the story of Captain John O. French was relatively unknown — until recently.
Libby Lukens, a Steamboat Springs native who graduated from George Washington University in early May, found herself knee-deep in researching French’s story from birth to his final days in Normandy, France in 1944 as part of her Price of Freedom: Normandy 1944 class at GWU.
Lukens was assigned a research project of finding a soldier from the area where she grew up, who is buried in Normandy. Unable to find anyone from Steamboat Springs, Lukens looked west to Craig, discovering French’s name thanks to the invaluable knowledge of Museum of Northwest Colorado’s Dan Davidson and Paul Knowles, as well as Moffat County High School history teacher Jim Neton.
From there, Lukens set off on a five-month deep dive into the history of one John French, while learning more about Craig as a whole in the 1930s and 40s.
“What was really hard for me was, most of the people in my class were able to contact family members of those soldiers; I didn’t have that,” Lukens said. “What I did have was the glorious, incredibly well documented archives of the Craig Empire Courier, which chronicled everything from that time period.
Through her research, Lukens found that French was born in 1917 in Maybell as the son of John and Edna French, who homesteaded in the area before moving to Craig n 1926 so that the children could attend school.
French later graduated from Moffat County High School in 1935, and then began working at the old Safeway building before later joining Company A of the 157th Infantry in the Colorado National Guard following the death of his brother, Edwin, in 1939.
French was part of the company that helped de-escalate the Kremmling Insurrection, as violence had escalated at a worker strike near a Kremmling dam, and several men were shot, according to Lukens’ research. Company A were the first national guardsmen to make it to the town, and began disarming anyone headed toward the dam, which was a tedious task as almost everyone carried their own weapons at that time.
Twenty-seven days after heading to Kremmling, Company A returned to Craig, thinking that their days seeing action were over for awhile. Two days late, Germany invaded Poland, kicking off World War II in September 1939.
One year later, Company A shipped off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for training as the United States prepared for war, sending roughly 5% of Craig into the great unknown.
In Lukens’ research, During the next few years of training at Fort Sill, French changed his name from Jack to John, and proved that he was a great soldier, moving up to the rank of Captain from Private in three years.
Entering World War II, French fought in North Africa in 1943, receiving a Purple Heart for “gallantry in action” after receiving a shrapnel wound. Later, French was part of the fighting force at Anzio Beachhead in Italy in January 1944, before ultimately linking up with the Allied forces set to invade Normandy as part of the 22nd Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division as a Captain for the D-Day landings.
A little over a month after leading the 22nd Infantry Regiment in the invasion of Europe, French on July 9, 1944 near Sainteny, France, marking one of the 24 Craig natives killed in action in World War II – roughly 1% of the town’s population.
Through her research, Lukens wrote a 28-page paper on the story of John French, from his birth in Maybell to his his time in the military and his heroics in the war until his death, presenting the paper to her classmates and professor in early May.
“The feedback from my professor and classmates was awesome; they were jealous I had those archives to dig into,” Lukens said.
Lukens then presented her findings Wednesday to roughly 30 people inside the Museum of Northwest Colorado, which was the old National Guard Armory for Moffat County after World War I.
Lukens’ presentation kicked off a remembrance period just before Memorial Day, while also starting a celebration of the Armory turning 100 years old this year.
“The timing to present this worked out so well,” Lukens said. “To be able to tell his story here in his community, it’s just so awe-inspiring to be here; it means a lot to me. It was important for me to tell his story because he’s more than a name on a gravestone in Normandy. He had a whole community that loved him, and he died for everybody here. I hope everyone can acknowledge that sacrifice. Hopefully I’m helping people remember that.”
Lukens plans on traveling to Normandy with her class next summer to read her story on French at his gravesite.
To read Lukens’ full paper, visit https://www.steamboatradio.com/2021/05/22/from-craig-to-normandy-the-story-of-a-moffat-county-soldiers-sacrifice/#_ftn23.
Managing Editor Joshua Carney can be reached at 970-875-1790 or email@example.com.
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