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WHAT'S IN A NAME: World War I casualty Ralph Gracie honored by hometown

Ralph Gracie is not only the name of a small park next to the Bemidji State campus, but the city’s ever-active American Legion Post also bears this namesake. What some may not know however is the brave man they are named after.

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Ralph Gracie Park along Birchmont Drive honors Bemidji's first World War I casualty.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Editor's note: This is part of a 20-story series titled "What's in a name?" completed by Pioneer reporters for our 2022 Annual Report. Read more of the section by clicking the embed at the bottom of this article.

Ralph Gracie is a name that many around the Bemidji area hear on a regular basis.

It is not only the name of a small park next to the Bemidji State campus, but the city’s ever-active American Legion Post also bears this namesake. What some may not know however is the brave man they are named after.

Ralph Gracie.jpg
Ralph Gracie is pictured in 1917. Four years later, his body was sent home for burial.
Beltrami County Historical Society photo

Ralph Gracie is known most notably as Bemidji’s first World War I casualty. While flying with the American 17th Aero Squadron with the British Royal Air Force, his plane was shot down over the English Channel on Aug. 12, 1918.

He was initially reported as missing in action, but one of his squadron mates reported him as being targeted by four enemy planes. The bullets splintered his wing spars, and he crashed into the English Channel two miles off the coast of Belgium.

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A letter to his father Daniel Gracie of Bemidji was signed by Samuel B. Eckert, commanding officer of the 17th Aero Squadron:

“Your son, Lieutenant Ralph D. Gracie, left this aerodrome with the other members of the squadron on August 12, 1918. While about 12 miles over the line they encountered a strong enemy formation and in the encounter which ensued the wings of one of our planes was seen to give way and the machine fell into the sea, the wing spars no doubt having been splintered by bullets.

“When the squadron returned, Lieutenant Gracie was missing and I fear it must have been he who fell into the sea. It will, I am sure, be a comfort to you to know that your son was loved by us all and universally admired for his character as a man and his oft proved bravery.”

Gracie’s body was not initially recovered. Eventually, his grave was found in a German cemetery where he had been buried on Aug. 13, 1918. His remains were brought home to Bemidji and buried in a family plot in Greenwood Cemetery.

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Ralph Gracie's grave marker in the Greenwood Cemetery.
Sue Bruns / Special to the Pioneer

The next year, Congress chartered a patriotic veterans’ organization, the American Legion.

On June 6, 1919, when Bemidji veterans gathered to organize the local American Legion, they proposed that the newly formed post be named to honor Ralph Gracie, the first Bemidji man killed in action in WWI. The charter became official in August 1920.

Gracie was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in April 2018 after his relatives located extensive documentation of his military career with photocopies from books, squadron archives and newspaper clippings.

His relatives, along with the Legion Post in Bemidji, supported Gracie’s nomination for induction to the Hall of Fame.

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Annalise is the editor and a photographer at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a Mass Communication graduate from Bemidji State University. Her favorite pastime is exploring the great outdoors and capturing its natural beauty on camera. Contact Annalise at (218) 333-9796, (218) 358-1990 or abraught@bemidjipioneer.com.
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