The small package came in the mail from France last year, rekindling memories of the father who had died seven years ago.Renee Bompiani opened it and found the original dog tags worn by her father, Army Pvt. Gerald Smith, while he served overseas in World War II.
“I was so moved by it. I knew his story, but these dog tags confirmed he was there,” said Bompiani, 56, of Youngwood. Now she is traveling to France to see for herself the stage where her father played his part as a member of the Greatest Generation. Bompiani and her husband, Tony, will travel today to see where the tags were found. They had been sent by a policeman from Reims and had been found several years earlier by a man digging in his garden.
The rest of their tour will be guided by locations described by Pvt. Smith in a diary his family still cherishes. Smith wrote of his travels as he served in a quartermaster unit that provided support during the D-Day invasion at Normandy and other military operations throughout France, Holland and Belgium.
“I just want to see what he was doing and what happened. The dog tag was found in the ground after being there 60 to 70 years. It’s just crazy,” Bompiani said.
She will take her father’s diary and dog tags back to France.
Benoit Fief, a gendarme in Reims who has an interest in military history, was given the task of trying to track down Pvt. Smith and his family. The tags bore his name, serial number, home address and mother’s name. A year ago, through contacts with the Westmoreland County Veterans Office, Fief found Smith’s family. According to Fief, the dog tag was found four years ago, near an old shooting range built for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Reims, which was liberated from the Germans in August 1944, hosted the U.S. military during that time. The range building was used as a medical facility and laundry depot for American GI’s returning from the front, Feif said in an email exchange.
“The dog tag itself has been probably lost while changing clothes … or during a stay at the medical facility,” Fief said.
The family had no idea Smith’s original tag was missing. “I was in shock,” said Eleanor Smith, 85, the private’s former wife. “He never said anything to me about it. I had his tags.” Eleanor Smith actually had her husband’s replacement tags. The original had lain in a French field for decades. Once the tag arrived back home, Bompiani and her mother revisited Pvt. Smith’s experience through his diary. He wrote about his days at sea in 1943 en route to England and his time waiting in a landing vehicle as part of the second wave of troops who stormed Normandy Beach. He told of harrowing experiences, of gunfire and bombs roaring in the distance during various encampments.
On June 20, 1944, two weeks after D-Day, Smith wrote about his fears and his encounters with French civilians, trading rations and chewing gum for cider. At night, the bombs would fall.
“Jerie comes over and keeps coming all night. It’s pretty hard to sleep,” Smith wrote.
He wrote about Reims in April 1945, when Pvt. Smith had just returned from Antwerp, where Allied troops engaged in fierce fighting with the Germans. Back home, Eleanor Smith worried about her boyfriend, whom she would marry about two years after he returned home. “I prayed all the time. What could you do?” Eleanor Smith said.
Pvt. Smith returned home in early 1946. He never mentioned his lost dog tag to his daughter. He died in 2004. Bompiani now keeps safe the original, which still has French soil embedded in the lettering. She occasionally wears the tag.“I wear them when I go hunting. I always think it’s close to my heart. My dad taught me everything I know about hunting,” Bompiani said…