Connaître les affres de la guerre
SANFORD- It was an honor to record the World War II history of les frères, my husband’s first cousins when we visited them in Sanford.
Among the young men from Maine who fought in World War II were five L’Heureux brothers, Franco-Americans from Sanford (one died prior to being interviewed). Their memories were vivid and startling, as though they had never left the scenes they described.
America’s Greatest Generation includes this once silent group of five heroes. Their numbers dwindled, even since they met for this interview. Only Robert is still alive, living in Sanford. For many World War II veterans, reliving their experiences during those horrible war years has been difficult and, understandably, emotional.
They were courageous soldiers who served during an era we know through movies, where their bravery was portrayed by larger than life actors who tried to reenact their battlefield horror. Although humble, they were obviously the heroes of their generation, during a time defined by The Great Depression that was sandwiched between two 20th century World Wars.
Young people today are challenged to answer questions about what college they plan to attend or where to work after high school, in the 1940s, the big questions were pointedly about survival and sacrifice.
“What is your draft number?,” was in the uppermost minds of 18 and 19 year olds during the distressing years 1940-45, during World War II.
Like in many Sanford families, the five L’Heureux brothers made their mother and father, Blanche and Albert, “Silver Star” parents. It was distinction they surely did not seek, but was recognition of their supreme sacrifice. As part of the Silver Star program, the parents were involved in efforts on the home front where they could support bringing their children safely home.
Fate may have intervened in their survival, but they hold their return home to the power of plenty of prayers. In fact, all five brothers returned home alive, although two were wounded.
Robert (“Bob”, now 94 – living in Sanford), along with his brothers, all of them now deceased since the taped interview – Walter, Henry and Arthur, agreed to meet and talk about their rarely shared war memories of military service and fighting on the Pacific and European fronts. For Henry, especially, the war was still vivid. “Even my three bothers have never heard some of this before now. Believe me! I saw even more than I’ve talked about,” he said.
Henry’s difficult to discuss descriptions about personal survival in the face of horribly close combat with the German Nazis in Europe provide a miraculous example about the emotional power of prayer. In his case, the prayers of his mother and family sustained him through unbelievable ordeals.
Henry and Bob received Purple Hearts, when they were wounded in Europe. Arthur and Walter fought in the Pacific, in the Philippines, Australia and in Japan.
As teenagers, they were drafted to fight. The brothers sadly recalled how their father, Albert, walked them from their home in Sanford to the bus stop located near the corner of Main and Washington Streets, when it was their time to leave.
Although each young man left for the service at a different time, all 5 brothers were gone between 1941 -1945.
Robert is somber when he recalls how sad his father looked as the bus slowly pulled out of Sanford after the two said good-bye. It’s a memory the four men find
difficult to talk about, even after the passage of more than 50 years. “Don’t forget to write,” is what Albert said to his son during their good-bye.
“I could see his tears,” said Robert. “But, I wondered, could my father see mine?”
Years later, Robert learned how his father spoke with someone at the bus stop about his feelings. “I just gave another boy to the army,” his father told an observer on that day of separation.
Daily prayers and the devout faith of their Franco-American parents, Albert and Blanche, sustained the family during the difficult war years. They were joyously rewarded when the family was able to enjoy a reunion after the war. In fact, Albert was so happy to see his five sons home and safely together, he even broke the family’s rule against allowing them to drink at home.
For the first time, their father let them drink beer while they rejoiced on the family’s front porch.
“We prayed every day to the Blessed Virgin,” recalled Henry about his heroic attempts to fight for his life when the odds seemed dead set against him surviving. But, nearly miraculously, he survived a series of bloody and brutal battles.
In fact, the 1944 U.S. invasion of Anzio beachhead in Italy (January 22-May 29, 1944) brought Henry to his first miraculously survived incident. His mother’s life saving prayers may have arrived in the form of a package. Henry, as a first gunner, said he was “penned down” in the same area for three months when a package was delivered to him and a fellow soldier who were stationed at their machine gun. “LAAarooooo!” yelled the delivery man who dropped the package into his gunner site. “This is from home!”
Soon, both Henry and his comrade found themselves acutely ill with stomach cramps from devouring the cookies in the package, which had spoiled in transit. So, they left their machine gun post to vomit in a nearby stream. In an instant, while the two were at the stream, their gun post was directly hit with enemy fire and completely blown up. They had escaped certain death thanks to the miracle of those spoiled cookies. “My mother’s love saved my life,” said Henry.
Of course, enormous media attention is given to the allied invasion of Normandy, France under troops commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower that gets the attention of modern movies and books. But, as Henry witnessed, an equally horrible picture of death and devastation awaited allied troops in 1944, in Anzio, Italy.
“The guys were blown up all around me on Anzio beachhead. Twice, I was the only survivor. When I looked around, I was the only one left. Blood was flying around
like rain. The blood fell on me like rain,” Henry recalled, while crying. “I was all alone, all alone. All my friends were dead.”
Henry was also with the Third Infantry Division when they fought during the bloody battle for Monte Cassino.
After seeing the horrendous carnage at Anzio, Henry didn’t make friends with his comrades anymore, because he never knew when they would be killed in combat. “I only knew them a few days,” he said. (Henry’s emotional interview is audio taped.)
On May 24, 1944, about five miles south of Rome, Henry earned his Purple Heart. “Fighting on the way to Rome was hell. We slept maybe one hour at a time. Every day was like hell. Then I was wounded,” he said.
Even his wound was a spiritual experience. Henry says he prayed every night about being wounded. “In my prayer, I asked to get wounded in my little finger so it would never show. In fact, his prayer was answered when a bullet hit his little finger, just as he had prayed. His one regret was the injury prevented him from moving with his unit into Rome, where he wanted to see the Vatican. He never got to Rome.
Although Henry’s wound temporarily took him out of combat, it didn’t keep him away from the front lines of the War for very long. Soon, he was back in the European war where he continued to see combat and even more unimaginable horror, first hand.
“Did you kill Nazis,” I asked him?
“Yes, I killed some….No, I killed more than some,” Henry said, in what was a profoundly difficult moment. A moment of silence followed.
Among Henry’s modest collection of war memorabilia is a small Nazi insignia he cut from the uniform of the very first man he had shot and killed. “I prayed for him,” he explains. “I prayed for him when I cut off this emblem.”
While Henry fought in repeated engagements in Southern Europe, his brother Bob was involved in the June 1944 allied invasion of Normandy. Bob was a Private First Class (PFC), working with communications when he landed nine days after the first bloody allied invasion of France.
“Operation Overlord” was the code name for the Invasion of Normandy on the French coast and the establishment of Allied forces in France in 1944, during World War II. It was the largest amphibious operation to ever take place.
Allied land forces in combat during the Normandy invasion on June 6th, came from Canada, the Free French Forces, the United Kingdom and the United States. In weeks following the invasion, Polish forces also participated with the Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Norwegian Navy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasion_of_Normandy
Bob recalls how he arrived in a ship. “We got off on a pontoon bridge. We landed at four o’clock and I saw some brown things on the beach. I asked what those brown things were? They were GI bodies, he recalls.
While in Normandy, Bob was able to call on his Franco-American heritage to bridge a language friendship with local people. He was able to communicate with a sever year old boy named Gigi Letourneau, who quickly learned how to get American chocolate bars from the funny soldier who could even speak to him in French. Bob called the boy “Gee”.
“Viens ici (come here”, Bob asked the boy. “We were dug in about 200 yards from him when I gave the kid chocolate. He told me it was the first time he ever ate chocolate.”
Eventually, the boy asked Bob to meet his mother. To Bob’s surprise, the boy’s mother was the same age as his own mother, Blanch, in Sanford. “I went to their house at night. Gee’s mother liked to hear me talk French so much,” he says. Mrs. Letourneau wrote letters to Blance in French. Several months later, on November 29, 1944, Bob was wounded near the Rhine River in Germany and he also received a Purple Heart.
Many years later, Bob and his wife Theresa visited Normandy where they searched for and eventually found the man who was the young boy “Gigi”, who he befriended with chocolate.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Letourneau had died about one month before Bob and Theresa’s visit.
While visiting Normandy as a World War II veteran, Bob admired a handmade wooden crucifix hanging in a Catholic Church near the village where the Letourneau’s lived. He looked to buy one just like it as a memory of his experiences in Normandy. Instead, Theresa suggested he carve one for himself. So, when they returned home to Sanford, he did just that.
On the Pacific front, Walter and his brother Arthur experienced war in other horrible ways, but just as nightmarish as their two siblings who were in Europe. Rather than the often close and even hand-to-hand combat of Europe, they saw other horrors. One effect was the results of torture inflicted on Filipino women in Manila by Japanese, who forcibly compelled them into prostitution.
Arthur said he often unexpectedly saw decaying and unclaimed bodies of Japanese while walking around the streets of Manila in the Philippines during the US occupation. He witnessed body parts floating in the water or the carcasses of people shot to death on abandoned train cars. He could only imagine what happed, how they were killed and left behind.
Walter and Arthur experienced a very special surprise moment in Manila when they enjoyed an unexpected meeting at a USO entertainment show. Walter was promoted to first Sergeant within nine months of being drafted. He eventually wound up working in engineering unit unloading heavy equipment in Manila. Arthur was also a sergeant serving with the occupation army in Manila. Walter saw that his brother’s outfit number and company was in Manila, so he went to the USO show to try to find him.
Someone got a message to Sergeant Arthur L’Heureux about someone wanting to see him. It was startling for Arthur when he saw his brother Walter was waiting to greet him. His unexpected reunion helped Arthur’s loneliness, a little, while he was serving in Manila amid the war carnage.
“We were not always good boys, but we sure prayed a lot,” said Arthur.
Walter found his passion to play baseball helped pass time when he wasn’t working with heavy equipment. He was noticed for being an excellent baseball pitcher. (In fact, Walter is a member of Maine’s Baseball Hall of Fame). In perhaps the biggest game of his life, he pitched to baseball’s great icon Joe DiMaggio and to his brother Don, when he played opposite them both at a U.S. Army baseball tournament, in Australia. Amazingly, Walter struck out Don DiMaggio when he pitched five scoreless innings against the DiMaggio brothers on the opposing team. Unfortunately, Walter’s team lost the game, but the stats put Walter into Maine’s baseball hall of fame. Walter is among Maine’s baseball heroes listed along with President George H.W. Bush, who played collegiate baseball in York County leagues, when he was home in Kennebunkport, during his Yale college years.
Interviewing the L’Heureux brothers even 50 years after their World War II experiences was personal evidence about how war memories don’t fade away with time. Their recollections were just as vivid as though they had recently happened. Their memories were the true life experiences now being archived by many historical societies and in family memoirs.
Henry’s war experiences continued beyond his combat. Tragically, he was eyewitness to the human ashes found in wine casks during the liberation of Holocaust death camps, where thousands of Jews were tortured and cremated.
“No one can tell me the killing of Jews did not happen.” His anger blew at some modern attempts to redefine the murders of 6 million Jews. He has nothing but disdain for the Holocaust denial by people who don’t acknowledge the murder of innocent Jews, in addition to other designated ethnic groups, by Nazis during World War II. These mass murders were part of the heinous genocide Hitler ordered in his horror scheme to create one white master human race. Hitler compounded the junk science of eugenics with racism as the basis for the extermination of millions of people.
Before his death, Henry worked with Veteran’s Administration supporters who were interested in sponsoring more recognition for his personal and extraordinary dedication and bravery during World War II.
It took three hours to interview the four surviving L’Heureux brothers about their extraordinary Word War II experiences. Thankfully, some of their discussion is captured on audiotape. Their stories complement a long and proud family history of military service. Moreover, their ability to relate their personal stories is a touching confirmation about the brothers’’ bravery and their faithful camaraderie in the face of very difficult and, at time, wrenchingly emotional recollections.
Let’s hope Americans continue to appreciate the importance of Veterans Day for what our heroes of all Wars have given to protect our nation’s freedom from tyranny. Otherwise, as the cliché warns, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
Ceux qui oublient l’histoire sont condamnés à le répéter.
On November 11, 1995, the US World War II Veterans Memorial was finally dedicated to The Greatest Generation, in Washington DC.
This article is a tribute to the memories of all Veterans of World War II.