Merl Leroy Schroeder first stepped foot on The College of Idaho campus at age 17 in 1938. Born in Nebraska, Merl and his family moved to Caldwell before his junior year of high school. He spent two years at the College before the world and its chaos beckoned, leaving after his sophomore year to become a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot.
On Dec. 16, 1943, Merl and his crew were flying back from a mission over Germany. Not far from the coast of the Netherlands, a plane flying near Merl’s was hit by anti-aircraft flak. The debris tore through Merl’s aircraft.
In the seconds before Merl’s plane plunged into the Wadden Sea, God only knows what thoughts went through his mind. Did his mind drift to his mother, father and little brother back home in Caldwell? Did he look at the picture of his girl taped inside the cockpit as he strained to pull up on the controls? Or was he too busy shouting orders in an attempt to save his crew?
Like other Coyotes who went off to WWII, Merl would never return, dying just eleven days after his 23 birthday. None of the ten crew members aboard his plane survived. Five of their bodies were found. Merl’s and four others would remain missing.
Though his body was never found, Merl’s story has been unearthed and preserved by the most unlikely of people.
Hearing WWII stories from her grandfather, Deborah Schröder grew up with a deep sense of gratitude for American veterans.
“The stories my grandfather used to tell me always sounded like exciting adventures,” she said. “Only later did I learn how dangerous it was for him. The day his city was liberated was one of the best days in his life and I can still remember his glittering eyes when he spoke about it.”
That deep appreciation of sacrifice led Deborah to adopt a veteran from among the 1,700 names on the Wall of the Missing in the American Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands. For the last 70 years, the Dutch people have adopted and adorned the graves of these brave, fallen soldiers with flowers and tokens of remembrance.
The name Deborah received for her adopted veteran was First Lt. Merl Schroeder.
With nothing more than a name, Deborah went to work unearthing the story of a lost Yote, learning about Merl’s life and his crew.
“I adopted Merl's name just to show my gratitude to a boy from far away who travelled so far to bring us freedom and who never made it back home,” Deborah said. “Still, I wanted to know something—anything—about him, his birthday, how he died, maybe even a picture. So I started my research, not knowing anything about the air war in Europe.”
Last year, after stories about Deborah’s search ran in the Idaho Press-Tribune and Idaho Statesman, Deborah found a Boise woman who used to know Merl and got in touch with his Merl’s nephew, learning how the loss of Merl greatly impacted the Schroeder family. The search has turned out better than she imagined, Deborah said, and she is grateful for what she’s learned and hopeful to fill in even more of Merl’s story.
This year, Deborah will again make the trip to the American Cemetery in Margraten on May 24 as the city hosts its 70th Memorial Day celebration. Last year, Deborah placed a blue Idaho flag near Merl’s name on the Wall of the Missing.
“I have 2 young sons who visit Margraten regularly with me,” Deborah said. “They have to know that their freedom wasn't free and appreciate what others did for my grandfather’s, and for future, generations. If they don't learn from the past, I can only fear for their future.”
Just as Deborah has made strides to keep the memory of a fallen solider alive, The College of Idaho remembers all YoteFam soldiers who have come and gone through the halls of Sterry, who have roamed the Morrison Quadrangle and who have sacrificed their lives for their country.
Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars and 14 Marshall, Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College’s beautiful, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.