Many of you have read the recent story “Lost on D-Day: The story behind the plaque down a lonely lane in Normandy“, published on War History Online about the circumstances surrounding the death of Lt. Joe Sullivan from the 77th Squadron, 435th Troop Carrier Group, on D-Day.
The decades long search by our family to unravel this mystery came to closure in 2001 with the placement of a plaque at the location where his 77th Troop Carrier squadron C-47 Dakota, tail number 43-30374, came down in a farmyard in the tiny hamlet of Clainville in the Norman countryside near the town of Picauville. What follows is an update on Joe Sullivan’s story, seventy-four years after the events on June 6, 1944.
The aluminum plaque placed at the crash site in 2001 that memorialized Joe and the eighteen other Americans who died in the Clainville farmyard has not stood up well to the weather over the past 17 years.
Paul Clifford, a good friend of our family and the Chairman of the WWII Foundation, visits the Clainville crash site annually on the D-Day anniversary to leave flowers on behalf of the 77th Troop Carrier Squadron veterans and the Sullivan family descendants.
Each year Paul would send pictures of the continuingly deteriorating condition of the Clainville plaque. After viewing Paul’s 2017 photos, the “next generation” members of Joe Sullivan’s family agreed it was time to take action.
Paul recommended we speak with a wonderful gentleman from Pennsylvania by the name of Dennis Montagna for a new plaque. Dennis provided us with guidance and expertise on how and where to have a plaque made that would withstand long term exposure in an outdoor site with the weather conditions encountered in Normandy.
The plaque was produced and shipped to another family friend, Geert Van den Boegart, who lives in Normandy, where he is a highly respected full-time tour guide. We set the date to replace the 2001 plaque for Wednesday, the 29th of May of this year.
Shortly before 2:00 PM the group who would witness the change-over of the plaques assembled on the tiny lane that had been the scene of such chaos 74 years earlier. My brother Bill and I, and our wives, Marianne and Denise, represented our family.
We were also joined by Philippe Nekrassoff, a local historian who had been very helpful during my original research in the 1990’s, when the actual crash site was found.
Philippe brought along several important local guests, including Regis Bisset, owner of the nearby farm where a second aircraft from the 77th Troop Carrier Squadron had crashed on D-Day morning, and Marion Samuel, the current owner of the Clainville property whom we were meeting for the first time.
Marion recently purchased the property that includes the crash site and is in the process of restoring the original farmhouse. When Philippe had explained our wish to replace the original plaque Marion had immediately agreed.
Several other prominent guests from the historical community were also present, including anthropologist Dr. Geoff White, and his wife Nancy, who were in Normandy for Geoff’s research for a book on the subject of French civilian interaction with the American D-Day forces. Also on hand was Dr. Jeff McGovern, representing the United States Air Force via his position as the official 435th Group civilian historian, stationed at the Group’s Headquarters in Germany.
As this diverse group of individuals from the local area, other French towns, Germany and the United States, introduced ourselves to each other – sometimes with translations – the Picauville based masonry team consisting of Francis Julien and his son-in-law, Canadian ex-pat, Eric Leboeuf, unboxed the new plaque. This quickly got everyone’s attention and many positive comments that did not require translations.
Francis then removed the decaying aluminum plaque from the stone wall of the house and handed it to my brother, Bill, who passed it to Jeff McGovern. Jeff had agreed to bring the plaque back to the current 435th Headquarters, where it will become a permanent piece of the Group’s history – a fitting and honored final home.
After the old plaque was removed, Francis and Eric measured and discussed details and then began drilling the holes that would secure the new plaque to the wall for, hopefully, many years to come. Francis’ expertise with a drill and a tape measure became obvious to the group as with only minor adjustments the new plaque was quickly secured into the wall.
Paul Clifford placed two flags, one French and one American, on top of the new plaque, and flowers from our family and a local French historical society were placed on the ground beneath the plaque.
Paul and I had agreed that as the senior member of Joe Sullivan’s family I would thank those present who had made the new plaque and the gathering itself possible with appropriate words and gifts, and that we would then celebrate with French pastries and some wine.
As planned, I made my comments and presented our thank you gifts. Then, as the group gathered for refreshments and conversation, I walked out to the field where the wreckage of my uncle’s C-47 had come to rest – as I have done on four previous visits to the site.
I use this private time to say a few words to my grandmother, who died in 1960, still distraught that she never knew the circumstances of her son’s death, and to my uncle whom I had learned so much about from his younger sister, my mother, who mourned his death until she passed away in 2007.
While standing by myself, separated from the group, I looked at the precise location where the wreckage of my uncle Joe’s aircraft had burned for three days after the crash. Three sheep were peacefully grazing where I was told the cockpit of the aircraft had been found.
Seventy-four years later I am proud that the names of my uncle, and the eighteen other Americans who died with him in that field, are still being remembered and honored. May they Rest In Peace.
Learn the entire story behind the plaques at Clainville. Signed hard copy from the author: email@example.com
All photos provided by the author.