MARYHILL, Iowa | Dorothy Walker picks up the phone in the Orwell, Ohio, home she's had for 35 years. In seconds, she's talking about 1944 and a telegram that alters her life in tiny Meriden, Iowa.
"The last letter I'd gotten was on June 6," Walker says. "Leo and a captain had been somewhere and they'd gotten bacon and eggs and it tasted so good."
Leo was U.S Army Staff Sgt. Leo Heinen, 30, the husband of the former Dorothy Lamont. They'd married at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church Rectory in Cherokee, Iowa, on Oct. 30, 1941, a gorgeous day capped with a beautiful snowfall, probably the first of the season.
Dorothy remembers the snow. Fluffy, white and posing no problem, whooshing left and right as their car speeds north and east to their wedding night destination in Spencer, Iowa, two lives together just beginning.
The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor two months later, changing the world and these newlyweds. Dorothy and Leo are at her parents' farm northwest of Meriden when the phone rings that Sunday. A friend asks Dorothy if she has heard news of the attack; asks if she's going to get her gun. She gets her husband.
"Leo was outside. I walked out and told him," Dorothy says.
All these decades later, she can remember her husband's Army serial number. Though it's long, she can still recite it. She can't remember his draft number. It's short, maybe 171.
Leo knows he'll be going to serve his country in this fight. He does, five months later, in May 1942.
The couple celebrates the birth of a son, Leo Charles Heinen, in 1943. His father earns a furlough home from training exercises in Arizona two days after his son's birth. He heads back to training 10 days later.
By Thanksgiving 1943, Leo Heinen Sr. is overseas preparing for the Allied invasion that everyone is sure will come.
Dorothy and the baby reside with her parents near Meriden during World War II. The young mother keeps close tabs on the mailbox, waiting for letters from parts of the world "foreign" in more ways than one to a farm girl from rural Cherokee County.
Leo's last letter arrives June 6, 1944, the same day he dies, one of an estimated 4,200 Allied servicemen killed on the shores of Nazi-occupied France in the D-Day invasion.
It takes more than two months for Dorothy to learn of Leo's death. She unfolds a telegram on Aug. 17, 1944. The mailman doesn't make chit-chat.
"Usually the mailman stopped to speak for a minute," she says. "But he dropped off a telegram that day and tore out of there very fast."
The note reveals U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Leo Heinen died in the fighting at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He is buried overseas. A grateful nation mourns with a young woman for her husband's sacrifice.
Leo Heinen's body returns to Cherokee two years after war's end. Mayor George Hicks asks that all businesses close from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the day of the funeral, Dec. 20, 1947. Leo is buried at Maryhill Cemetery, land dotted with gravestones from those born here, a largely Catholic farming community six miles west and one mile south of the county seat.
His Good Conduct Medal and Purple Heart are presented to his widow, as is the U.S. flag that drapes his coffin. Dorothy keeps the medals and the flag for years.
She raises Leo Jr. by herself and watches as he matriculates from Meriden-Cleghorn High School to Buena Vista College in nearby Storm Lake, Iowa. Young Leo earns degrees in biology and chemistry in 1965. He earns a master's degree as well, and begins work as a counselor serving the high school in Everly, Iowa.
Young Leo, who is single, dies in a car accident in Everly in 1968. A mother buries her son at Meriden.
Dorothy Heinen weds again, but not until 1977 when she and childhood friend Earl Walker exchange vows. At that time, Dorothy presents U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Leo Heinen's U.S. flag to officials with Oak Hill Cemetery in Cherokee. Like many others, she wants to see that Leo's flag flies each Memorial Day, a reminder of his sacrifice.
Earl Walker's job takes the couple 898 miles east to Orwell, Ohio, in 1978. They work and retire at Orwell, and still reside in that village of 1,640 people.
The couple comes "home" to Cherokee County about once per year. They visit extended family, but tend to most of their affairs in Orwell. Earl and Dorothy take up a Memorial Day and Veterans Day tradition in presenting Leo's Purple Heart and his photo for a display at Orwell Presbyterian Church.
This Veterans Day will be remembered for more. The story begins last Memorial Day as Leo Heinen's World War II flag fights rain and wind at Oak Hill Cemetery in Cherokee.
Steve Reinert of the Cherokee VFW L.A. Westcott Post No. 2253 works to take flags down following a record Memorial Day weekend deluge that floods much of the county.
"The weather was just terrible this year, so we didn't have our volunteers help take the flags down (when they normally do, late on Memorial Day)," Reinert says. "There were eight to 10 of us who took them down after the wind and sun dried the flags out."
Reinert finds a stain on a particularly brittle flag, one boasting 48 stars for the 48 states recognized in 1944.
While many of the flags are washed at the laundromat in Cherokee, Reinert takes this flag home. He washes the flag three times and can't remove the stubborn discoloration.
Working with the flag he finds a number that corresponds with a dog tag the VFW has made, as it does for each of the 614 flags placed in the group's trust.
"The date of death was June 6, 1944," Reinert says. "I thought, 'Holy crap! That's D-Day.'"
Standard operating procedure in a case like this involves properly destroying the flag and obtaining a replacement. Reinert, a distant relative of the Heinens, can't bear to destroy a flag that draped the coffin of a man killed on a day that shaped world events as no other.
"I researched our family tree on both sides and everything I found showed that Dorothy had passed away," he says.
Knowing that Leo Heinen came from the Maryhill area, Reinert contacts the Rev. Gene Sitzmann, the retired priest and military veteran who served Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church at Maryhill for more than four decades. Sitzmann now toils as caretaker for the Maryhill Welcome Center Museum and Treasury, an historical facility that helped replace the church, which crumbled in 95-mph winds on Aug. 1, 2006.
Not finding any immediate family members, Reinert asks if Sitzmann would like the original flag for the display at Maryhill. A replacement flag would be ordered for Leo Heinen and be sent to the local VFW for the Oak Hill Cemetery Avenue of Flags.
Reinert and Sitzmann work up a short Veterans Day program at Maryhill and post notice of the event in the Cherokee Chronicle-Times newspaper. A couple of days later, Reinert's phone rings. A caller tells him Leo Heinen's widow is very much alive in Ohio.
Reinert calls Dorothy immediately, and offers her the original flag he attempted to clean. That was his intention, after all, to get it back to a family member.
"She was quiet for a little bit and then told me that what we were doing was very honorable," Reinert says. "She told me she'd given the flag away in 1977 and that it belongs out there with Leo."
On Thursday, Dorothy Walker picks up the phone and talks about the Veterans Day program in Iowa. She speaks about the flag that once covered her husband and how it now has a place in Maryhill history, a most suitable home.
"I didn't quite know this was going to happen," she says of a special Veterans Day in 2013.
Did she ever learn how her husband died on that fateful day in 1944? No, she didn't. The telegram yielded no clues. There would be no connection with Leo's fellow soldiers in the decades to follow.
Dorothy Heinen focused on raising their son on the farm. She would bury him, too, and wed again, much later in life.
She once heard her husband made it to shore on D-Day, and that's all she's ever known.