Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Guest post: It's a Small World is not just a ride at Disney World

by Louis G. Gruntz, Jr.
   In the 1980s comic science fiction trilogy "Back to the Future," the plot centers around lightning striking the clock tower of Hill Valley city hall on November 12, 1955. A date before which the main character, Marty McFly, is born but with which he is inexorably connected and his time travels to the past and future are associated. His friend, Doc Emmett Brown, says “the date might hold some special significance, being the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum! Other than that it could just be an amazing coincidence.”
   It seems I also have a date that occurred three years before I was born in a town 4,500 miles away to which I seem to be inexorably connected that has a special significance or it could be just an amazing coincidence. The date is July 26, 1944; the place, Périers, France, where my father found himself situated during World War II. My father, a tank gunner in B Company of the 712th Tank Battalion, along with the 359th Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division, liberated Périers during the hedgerow fighting in Normandy. When a town’s train station was captured, the town was considered liberated -- my father’s tank was the first to reach the Périers train station.
One of Dad’s good friends, Tullio Micaloni, was killed just outside of Perier as the Americans were advancing on Périers. The 359th sustained numerous casualties as well, including, Sgt. Arnold T. Marchand of G Company, from Minnesota, who was killed in action.
   As the ground troops were advancing on Périers, a squadron of P-47s was flying overhead providing aerial cover. One plane swooped down on a strafing run while the other maintained its flying elevation. When the diving plane returned to its flying elevation, tragedy occurred as both planes collided in mid-air. Both pilots, Ben Kitchens and Bert Espy, were killed. The planes crashed on a farm not far from Périers and the French farmers, the Cousins family, buried the bodies of both pilots.

    Several months later, when the fighting had moved to eastern France, the U.S. Army sent several soldiers to recover the bodies of the downed pilots. One was a Colonel Moon, who led the operation, there was also an army photographer, Hugh Anderson, and a GI who spoke French to serve as an interpreter -- his name was Joachim Ordoyne.
   A 13-year-old boy named Henri Levaufre lived in Périers during this time. Always fascinated by the events affecting his town during WWII, he has become a noted historian in the area and is constantly seeking information surrounded Périers’ liberation.
   So how, you might ask, do all these events connect to a lawyer who born in New Orleans in 1947 two years after WWII ended? Well, in 2000, the association headed by Henri dedicated a monument depicting four soldiers to represent the hundreds of Americans killed during the liberation of Péeriers.  One of the soldiers depicted was Tullio Micaloni. My father, mother, and two of my children traveled to Périers on June 6, 2000 for the dedication ceremonies. Learning that I was doing research for the 712th Tank Battalion Association, Henri asked me to help him locate an American soldier. Henri had found Colonel Moon and the photographer, Hugh Anderson, who had come to Périers in 1944, but could not find the interpreter, Joachim Ordoyne. Since Ordoyne was from Louisiana, Henri enlisted my aid. I told him I couldn’t make any promises; while Ordoyne sounded like a familiar Cajun name in Louisiana, it was neither a common name nor an uncommon one.
   Henri stated, “But he speaks French.”
   I replied, “Henri, that only narrows it down to about half of Louisiana’s population.”
   Henri also provided several photographs in which Ordoyne was depicted
   In 2000 the internet was still somewhat in its infancy, and it was before the days of Facebook and Twitter. E-mail was just beginning to take hold as a popular way to communicate. When I returned home, I began an e-mail search and I located the e-mail address of a young lady named Ordoyne who was a student at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. She responded to my e-mail but indicated that she did not think the Joachim Ordoyne I was searching for was a member of her family. She did indicate that there were a large number of Ordoynes living in Houma, Louisiana, a town approximately 60 miles southwest of New Orleans.
            I next contacted the Houma Courier newspaper and asked that they print a short human interest blurb with my name and telephone number stating that I was searching for this American GI from WWII.
            Several weeks later I received a call from a Mrs. Joachim Ordoyne from Gretna, Louisiana, the seat of government for Jefferson Parish, my home parish, which is just across the Mississippi River from my house.  She indicated that her husband was an interpreter during the war.  I became very excited as I began to tell her the details of the mission to recover the bodies of the pilots but my excitement was soon dashed when I could hear his voice in the background, telling her that he did not participate in any mission to recover bodies.  She did, however, tell me that there were several Ordoyne families that moved to Ponchatoula, Louisiana, about 50 miles northwest of New Orleans.
   I immediately searched the telephone book for Ordoyne families in that locale and found two telephone numbers. I called both and was greeted by a telephone answering machine in each case. I left a brief message and asked the parties to return my call. That evening I received a call from a young lady who at that time was living in Virginia. She explained that she had returned home to Ponchatoula to celebrate her aunt’s 90th birthday, and my message was on her aunt’s answering machine. She indicated that her aunt was the last surviving member of their Ordoyne branch but the Joachim Ordoyne I described sounded like her late uncle. He was a fireman and he had died in the 1950s from a heart attack. I told her that I had photographs of the Joachim I was searching for. She said her aunt did not have a computer but if I could e-mail the photo to her friend who worked in downtown New Orleans, he could print it out and bring it to her in Ponchatoula. The next day she called back and said the Joachim in the photo was indeed her uncle who had passed away. I thanked her and was both happy and sad that I could report to Henri that I had located the interpreter he was looking for but that he was unfortunately deceased. The niece also indicated that Joachim’s son, Joachim Jr., would be back in town for the birthday; he had moved from Ponchatoula to North Carolina several years earlier. She indicated that she would have him call me when he was in town.
   The weekend came and went with no phone call from the son, but the next weekend I received a long distance call from North Carolina and the voice at the other end of the line identified himself as Joachim Ordoyne, Jr. As I thanked him for calling and immediately began relating the events of the mission to recover the bodies of the pilot, he interrupted me, saying, “Louis, you don’t remember me, do you? I go by my middle name Walter and you did some legal work for me about 20 years ago.”  As soon as he said his name was Walter I immediately remembered him and realized why the name of Ordoyne seemed familiar to me. I immediately renewed our acquaintance.
   I was now even more excited about contacting Henri with my information on Joachim Ordoyne.  Henri happened to be in the United States and was planning on traveling through North Carolina. I gave him Walter’s phone number and they were able to meet several days later to discuss Joachim Ordoyne, the American GI who was in Périers in 1944.
   My final connection was the Minnesota GI, Sgt. Arnold Marchand, who was killed on July 26, 1944. In researching my family genealogy, I discovered that one of my 10th great grandparents were Jakob Schiesser and Margreth Figi, both born about 1560 in Linthal, Canton Glarus. My mother was their 9th great granddaughter. Another of their 9th great grandchildren was Arnold T. Marchand, born in 1916 and died in 1944 in Périers, France, my 10th cousin once removed.
   "It’s a small world" is not just a ride in Disney World.

Lou Gruntz is the author of "A Tank Gunner's Story: Gunner Gruntz of the 712th Tank Battalion"