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University of Wisconsin-Superior
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Veteran and Nontraditional Student Center
News and Events Details
"Honoring Our Heroes: My Great Uncle Johnny"
By Ivy Vainio, Alum '13 & Office of Multicultural Affairs
The week of July 16 - 20th, my family and I traveled to Luxembourg City, Luxembourg with the sole intent to visit the gravesite of my Great Uncle John Mercer, Jr. He is buried in the same American Military Cemetery as General George S. Patton.
John Mercer, Jr. was a tribal member of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe. His father and mother were John Mercer, Sr. and Frances (Beargrease) Mercer. Frances was the youngest child of the legendary John Beargrease and his wife, Louisa.
John "Johnny" Mercer, Jr., a trail gunner, received the rank of Sergeant within the U.S. Army Air Forces, 569th Bomber Squadron, 390th Bomber Group, Heavy. He died in action as his plane was shot down over Germany on November 30, 1944. He flew on a total of 6 missions in Europe. His last mission was dispatched to hit synthetic oil plants in Southeastern Germany and rail targets.
There were a total of 15 siblings in Johnny's family and my grandmother was a year younger than him. At the time of his death in 1944, all that they knew was that Johnny was killed in action when his plane was shot down towards the end of World War II. They didn't know if his body had been recovered, and if so, where it was buried.
When my son, Jacob, was born in 1998, I decided to find out what happened to Johnny. In my research, I was able to find the American Battle Monuments Commission online. Through that, I found out that Johnny was buried in an American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. I inquired through the site and the Commission sent me a framed photo of the cemetery with an inset photo of my great uncle's gravestone. They also sent me information on his missions. I was able to have that sent to my grandmother and Johnny's other siblings. My grandmother and her siblings were so appreciative that they finally had some closure to their brother's death.
My husband and I dreamed of the day of visiting Johnny's gravesite. We made this trip a reality by booking flights to Luxembourg in July of this year.
My family is Ojibwe, so we decided that we would travel to his gravesite and honor him with a traditional Memorial Day ceremony. We hold this same remembrance each Memorial Day at the Indian Cemetery where my husband's family and ancestors are buried. We planned to feast his spirit by having a feast at his gravesite.
When we arrived at the cemetery in Luxembourg on July 18, my husband began by singing an Ojibwe honor song called "Soldier Song" that was taught to him by a spiritual advisor who lives in Hinckley, MN. He then lit a ceremonial pipe, as is a traditional custom to the Ojibwe people, and prayed in all four directions for all the veterans who were buried there, for our family members, and for our close friends who are veterans. He surprised me by having two recorded messages from some very special people: Major Joe Gomer, Tuskegee Airman and my grandmother.
Both these recorded messages were directed to Johnny. It was a very emotional experience for me, my family and even the cemetery's tour guide. We believe we are the first ones in our whole extended family to visit his gravesite, and in reality might be the only ones to ever visit. We went there to honor him and his sacrifice. I carried the love of my whole extended family and I placed all that love on his gravesite. I am proud to state that we honor our Ogichidaa (warriors).
I encourage other students, faculty and staff members, and community members to reach out to, and honor, family members and friends who have served in the military in your own way. Listen to their stories if they are willing to share. You will learn more about their experience, and in a way more about yourself and your family history.
I sure wish I could have sat down with Johnny and listened to his stories. He fought for freedom and for his country, all the while representing the Ojibwe Nation, his family and the United States. It was time that we did the same for him. My Great Uncle Mally Mercer, Johnny's younger brother and a Korean War Veteran, shared with me during a phone conversation after our return from Luxembourg that he was so thankful that my family and I honored Johnny in this way. He would have loved to go but due to failing health he would never be able to attend his brother's grave. He told me that he loved me.
Family is most important!
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