On Memorial Day 2019, it is appropriate to publish some of the transcribed oral history I was fortunate to recently record on audio, when my husband and I visited Franco-American World War II veteran Gerard Lamontagne with his wife Solange (Thibodeau), at their residence in Scarborough. Mr. and Mrs. Lamontagne were lifelong residents of Sanford. In September 2018, they moved into a beautiful apartment, in Scarborough.
This is a transcribed section of the history recorded in Scarborough, on May 21, 2019:
Mr. Lamontagne opened the interview- Il dit, “Bonjour tous monde. Ca va?”
My name is Gerard Lamontagne. I am 94 years old this year. I was born at home in Sanford, Maine, when my family lived on June Street, on the East Side of town. We belonged to the Holy Family Parish.
Question: “Did you live in the French side of Sanford?”
“Indeed I was born on the French side of Sanford. But, so was St. Ignatius parish on the French side of Sanford. After Sally and I were married, we had our own home in the parish of St. Ignatius, until they closed the church. That was sad, to see the church close.
Question: “When were you and Sally married?”
“We were married on August 2, 1947.” (They were married at Holy Family Church in Sanford.)
Interviewer: “Congratulations! Indeed, that is wonderful!”
Question: “You grew up speaking French?”
“Yes, we spoke French. My grandparents, they didn’t speak English, so we grew up speaking French. In my family, were three boys and one girl. I am the only one left and I am the oldest. We went to the Holy Family parish school and that is where we learned to speak English. We had friends who only spoke English, but we always found a way to get along.”
“I went to high school for one year and then I was drafted. After I was drafted, I went to South Carolina, a hot place, for basic training. I was drafted into the US Army, about the later part of 1942 or the early part of 1943. We were shipped out as casualty replacements (to the Aleutians) and I was assigned to a particular unit, mostly joined with tall men, mostly from Nebraska and Iowa, they were farmers, very rugged. Fortunately, they took me under their arms, so to speak. We had heavy arms to move. I was in the Aleutian Islands (see footnote below*). We went from one island to the other. Mostly, we searched the islands to be sure no Japanese were there and then we began to build air strips, to help allies to launch air strikes.”
A particular experience recalled:
“Do you notice how my hair is white? An experience on the troop ship, when we would reach our destination, the side of the ship would drop a sea net so we could get to the barge. The sea was very choppy. As I looked down, the barge was perhaps 20 feet away, and when I looked down, there was no barge there. Instead, all I saw was open water. So, when the sea swell brought the barge back to the side of the ship, I did not climb down the rope. Instead, I just jumped and landed in the barge. At that point, my hair turned completely white. Overnight, my hair turned white!”
“So, when I returned home, my mother said, ‘What happened to your hair? Your hair is white!’. That story stuck with me all these years.”
“I tell people my white hair is a sign of wisdom.”
Question, “Did you receive letters from home?”
“My family were naturally interested to find out what islands in the Aleutians, where I happened to be and at what locations. So I would answer them, in French. I guess the mail censors were young Lieutenants who, perhaps, studied some high school French. They did not interfere with my French and my family knew where I was, when I wrote back to them in French.”
“I came back home in 1944, and I went home to Sanford.”
Note: In the oral history, Mrs. Lamontagne described how he was able to return to high school to receive his graduation diploma. He also took courses in carpentry through the benefits provided under the GI Bill.
He and his wife Sally owned a family farm, located on Route 202 in Sanford, until they retired.
In April 2019, Mr. Lamontagne received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Maine Health Care Association, through the “Remember Me” project. His interest in supporting the church, in genealogy research, farming, and carpentry, and his support for cemetery restorations were recognized.
*Aleutian Islands, also called the Aleut Islands or Aleutic are a chain of 14 large volcanic islands and 55 smaller ones belonging to both the U.S. state of Alaska and the Russian federal subject of Kamchatka Krai.
Aleutian Islands during World War II– In the Battle of the Aleutian Islands (June 1942-August 1943) during World War II (1939-45), U.S. troops fought to remove Japanese garrisons established on a pair of U.S.-owned islands, west of Alaska. In June 1942, Japan had seized the remote, sparsely inhabited islands of Attu and Kiska, in Aleutian Islands. A description of this campaign is at this site https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-the-aleutian-islands
Merci Monsieur et Madame Lamontagne. Merci pour votre service millitaire.