Occasionally, D-Day artifacts still wash up on the beaches of Normandy. But these days, it is rare for someone in France to be able to trace them back to America's Greatest Generation.
SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE - The sand on a beach is sometimes like a memory – one day, things that you thought were buried forever surface again, and you don’t know why.
Last September, Stéphane Lamache, director of the Airborne Museum of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, in Normandy, in northern France, was taking a walk on the dunes of Agon-Coutainville with friends. It was a cloudless day. A small piece of metal was sticking out from the surface of the sand.
The historian immediately recognized that it was a dog tag, the metal identification worn around the neck by American soldiers on D-day.
On it were engraved the soldier's name – James Kelson -- his blood type, religion, and next of kin: Elsie Kelson, as well as an address in Washington DC.
This kind of discovery isn’t unheard of in Normandy, where more than 160,000 Allied soldiers landed on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – to liberate Europe from the Nazis. But when locals stumble upon a World War II relic, they usually just put it on a shelf or in a drawer and forget about it.
But being a D-Day historian, Lamache decided to search for Kelson in U.S. military archives and was able to retrieve a partial biography of the soldier.
James Kelson was born in 1921. He was African-American -- a negro citizen as they were called at the time. He worked small jobs in restaurants, trains and steamboats. He was drafted on Dec 2, 1942, and sent to Fort Myer, Virginia before being sent to England and eventually landing in Omaha Beach, Normandy, in June 1944.
Like many African-American soldiers during the years of segregation, he was not in a combat unit, but in supplies – laundry.
A few words of French
The archives gave information on Kelson’s life but nothing on the circumstances of his death. When he searched death records and burial registers, Lamache found no mention of a James Kelson. He contacted a genealogist network in the U.S., who discovered a daughter, named Joan.
“And then, she told us that her father was still alive,” says Lamache. The 91-year-old veteran lives in a retirement home in Washington DC.
Antonin Dehays, a historian from the Airborne Museum who was in the U.S. for a research project, was able to meet with him in Washington. “I met a lot of French people, good people,” says Kelson. After being stationed in Normandy – in the cities of Cherbourg and Valognes – he was sent to patrol the Franco-Belgian border in late 1944, and then to Japan. He returned to the U.S. in 1946, and found work in construction.
He still remembers a few words of French, like the expression “comme ci, comme ça” (“so-so”).
What about the dog tag? Kelson has no memory of losing it, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Last Friday, the veteran was given his dog tag back in a small ceremony -- nearly 70 years after it was forgotten in the sand of a Normandy beach.