Wendell Frank Applegate was born on January 10, 1924 in Lewis Co., Kentucky to Alfred Glenn and Opal (Latham) Applegate. He had three siblings–Rosetta Grace (b. 1918), Joseph Oran (b. 1921) and Alice Gertrude (b. 1926)–and the family rented a farm on Old District Road. Wendell’s paternal grandparents were Clarence Glenn Applegate and Achsa Jane “Axie” Browning, and his maternal grandparents were James Latham and Lurenia Garrett. On his father’s side, Wendell descended from Thomas and Elizabeth Applegate of Gravesend in Long Island; on his mother’s side, he could trace his family tree back to a number of Civil War veterans.
Wendell’s parents were married on December 7, 1916 in Maysville, Kentucky; Glenn was 16 years old, and Opal was only 13. Almost two years later, Glenn was drafted into the United States Army, and Opal had to manage the family farm and take care of their newborn daughter, Rosetta, on her own for the duration of World War I. (An armistice agreement to end the war was signed a few months later on November 11, 1918.) By 1920, Glenn, Opal and two-year-old Rosetta were living with Glenn’s mother, Axie, and working on the farm she owned in Burtonville.
Glenn Applegate’s World War I Draft Registration Card, 1918
On the eve of World War II, Glenn, Opal and their three youngest children–Joseph, Wendell and Alice–were renting a home and farm down the road from Rosetta, her husband, Vernon Clarence May, and her eleven-month-old son, Billie Shay May. The family was living next to a number of Applegate cousins, aunts and uncles, as well. According to the 1940 census, Glenn’s and Opal’s highest level of education was fifth grade, while their children had each only attended school through the eighth grade. Glenn’s income was an estimated $400 in the past year, and all of their children worked on the family farm.
The Applegate family lived down the road from Rosetta, her husband & her son in 1940
On January 18, 1941, eleven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wendell and a few of his Applegate cousins enlisted in the United States Army at Fort Thomas Newport in Kentucky. He was 17 years old at the time–too young to enlist in the military–so he claimed to be 19 years old instead. Wendell reported for basic training and was sent home with orders to return to base in two weeks; after two weeks, though, Wendell did not return for deployment, and the Army classified him as a “deserter.” He had committed treason, and he was on the Army’s “wanted list” for failing to carry out his commitment to the service.
Fort Thomas Newport, c. 1940 // “Troops at the Fort”
Wendell’s paper trail ends here, right where my great-grandfather’s story picks up. Government officials would stop by the Applegate family farm at random to track down Wendell, and he would sneak out the back door and run through the woods from his parents’ house to his sister’s house and back to avoid them. After a few weeks of hiding, Wendell packed up his things in the middle of the night and left for Ohio, and his family never saw or heard from him again. The Applegate family–Glenn, Opal, Rosetta, Joseph and Alice–did not talk about Wendell often after he left, and the local gossip eventually calmed down; it was as if he no longer existed.
Once in Ohio, Wendell applied for Social Security under the name “John Gates,” omitting his parents’ names and the “full name given [to him] at birth” from his application. Each state had their own requirements for name changes at the time; while some states required an individual to complete an official name change request, others merely asked an individual to publish their “new name” in their local newspaper. Ohio required its residents to write their “new name” on an official government document; since John did not have to note his name change or include the name “Wendell Applegate” on his Social Security application, there was no way to trace him, and the name change was official.
Fort Thomas Newport, c. 1940 // “Troops at the Fort”
John continued to travel north until he reached a small farm in the state of New York. He started working as a farmhand for the man who owned the farm–the man lived alone and was getting too old to maintain the fields himself–and slept in the barn at night. The old farmer in Western New York was the only person who knew the full story for decades: John never shared details of his past with his wife, children or grandchildren, and it took me a few years to track down the farmer’s account to help confirm, without a doubt, that this connection between Wendell and John is true.
After a few months at the farm, John left for the city and married my great-grandmother, Marie Helen Getman. He enlisted in the United States Army on April 28, 1944 at the age of 20 under the name “John Gates,” and he served in Germany for the duration of the war, even choosing to remain in Germany for a few years after the war’s conclusion. John and Marie had six children–Joseph, John, Patrick, Judith and Peter–and they made their home in Lockport, New York. My great-grandfather worked as heavy equipment operator at International Paper Co., and he died in a workplace accident in 1971 at the age of 47.
There’s a few reasons I’m confident that Wendell Frank Applegate and John Gates are the same person (in addition to the farmer’s personal account). First, each document I’ve found for John lists his parents as “Glenn and Opal,” and while his parents’ surnames vary from document-to-document, they are always either “Latham,” “Garrett” or “Gates”–all family names in Wendell’s tree. Second, Wendell’s paper trail ends where John’s picks up, and there are no records for “John Gates” before 1941. Third, and most importantly, my DNA results matched with Wendell’s nieces and nephews; what are the odds?
I wish I could travel back in time and ask my great-grandfather why he deserted the Army in 1941–and why he chose to enlist again in 1944. I’d like to think that he was just young and, ultimately, afraid to go off to war; he initially enlisted at the age of 17, and he may have felt pressured to join the Army at the same time as his cousins. As he got older, married my great-grandmother and had a child on the way, he may have chosen to enlist again in order to provide for his family, or to make up for his desertion in 1941. I know this is potentially wishful thinking, but I also hope it’s true; I guess I’ll never know for sure.
Wendell’s–er, John’s–choice to desert brought a lot of shame to his parents and siblings, but I wonder, too, if they ever forgave him, or at least hoped that he would return home. His oldest sister’s obituary reads, “Besides her parents, Mrs. May was preceded in death by one sister, Alice Rhodes, and two brothers, Joseph O. and Wendell F. Applegate;” maybe my great-grandfather wasn’t erased from their story after all. My next goal? To find a photo of “Wendell John,” as I refer to him now; wish me luck.