written by Todd DePastino

A Veteran-of-the-Day Calendar from Marion Veterans website

Marion, Ohio, Army veteran Mike Crabtree is a retired firefighter and self-described history nerd. In 2018, his curiosity got the best of him, and he began collecting information about his hometown’s veterans stretching back to the Civil War.

One veteran’s story in particular got him hooked. Charles W. Stafford had also served in the Marion Fire Department before Mike. Stafford was a World War I veteran and Distinguished Service Cross recipient who had also served under General John “Blackjack” Pershing in the punitive expedition into northern Mexico to capture Pancho Villa.

Mike trekked to his local library to learn more. Like all good historians, he got lost in the archives and stumbled upon a treasure trove of records about Marion’s Company D of the 4th Ohio National Guard Regiment, which would eventually end up in MacArthur’s 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division in France in 1917.

“I discovered the similarities between D Company’s commander, George T. Geran, with that of Major Dick Winters from Band of Brothers. I began to dig up letters written by these Guard Members and stories of those killed in action. I told my wife about what I’d found, and she asked what I was going to do with the information. Up to that point, I was just researching for my own interest. She gave me the idea of a blog.”

In 2018, Mike created a Marion Veterans Facebook page and then launched the Honoring Marion Ohio Veterans website  to collect the information he’d found.

He kept up his research, especially into the names on Marion’s Honor Rolls. He wanted to find out who they were, what kind of lives they led, and how they died. Certain names caught his attention. Molly McMahon served in the Army Nursing Corps and died of the Spanish Influenza while caring for sick soldiers. Another name on the World War II Honor Roll was unusual. Joe M. Nishimoto was a Japanese Nisei native of California who enlisted in the Army in 1943 from Marion, Ohio. He was killed in combat in 1944 and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

“I was born and raised in this community,” says Mike. “How had I not known Joe Nishimoto’s story?”

Mike realized there was a story behind every name on the Honor Rolls. He wanted to learn each one and share the story with his community so everyone in Marion, Ohio could be educated and inspired.  He delved deeper into the archive, looked up deceased service members’ relatives and classmates and began interviewing veterans.

He learned how to do genealogy and began tracking everything he could find about Marion’s fallen. Some were just cold obituaries. Other were whole accounts long forgotten. He discovered a set of twins, Harold & Garold Lessig. Harold died in World War II, but Garold survived. Bizarrely, his research uncovered a second set of twins, also named Harold and Garold Lessig, both of whom died in the war.

“There are three Marion men who died on the same Japanese Prisoner of War Ship, the Arisan Maru. It makes us wonder if they knew each other before or during their captivity. And the stories go on and on,” says Mike.

Sometimes people offer Mike memorabilia and artifacts. But he’s a collector of stories, not stuff, so he encourages people to direct their items to Marion’s local museum, Heritage Hall, along with the stories that go with them.

Marion Veterans is a growing and ongoing project. Mike is always adding stories, especially from the Civil War. While Marion has a rich and proud history of service, he also knows other towns do too. He hopes Marion Veterans can inspire communities elsewhere to recognize and their native sons and daughters.
My favorite part of Mike’s sprawling blog is his “On This Day in Marion Veterans History.” It’s an ingenious concept. He links veterans’ stories to particular days on the calendar. People can look up a day or just read their day’s story. It’s a great way to break down the masses of information on Mike’s site into bite-size pieces and appreciate each story on its own, each day.
For example, precisely 80 years ago on February 20, B-24 Pilot, Lt. Stanley R. Neal was killed in action on his 10th mission over Germany. Neal’s commanding officer that mission was one James M. Stewart — that’s Jimmy Stewart, the Hollywood actor.
Mike knows these stories are all around us all the time. If only we could take a moment to learn them and understand the sad, fascinating, and inspiring histories that surround every community across the county.