Wednesday, January 23, 2013
For as long as I could remember, a creepy framed photograph hanged in my grandparents' Beckley home, just inside the front door. The photo was of a young soldier in uniform, and even though it was taken shortly after the outbreak of the second World War by a professional photographer, there always seemed to be something that made the photo look much older. It was a black and white head shot, but it had been artificially color-enhanced in some areas of the face. The cheeks and lips had been tinted pink and the eyes the palest of blue. The whole photo had a wash-out appearance, like the film had been exposed for too long. Honestly, as a child, this photo terrified me, and I wasn't the only one. It was a long-running "joke" in the family that no one cared for that picture because those pale, pale eyes seemed to follow you around, wherever you'd go in the room. It was relegated to the living room because everyone refused to sleep in a room where that photograph hung, but my grandmother refused to take it down. That's because, the photo in question was of her beloved brother.
Paul Lovell Williams was born July 25, 1922 and was only one of three boys in a family that had 13 kids. My grandmother, Mary Williams Gilkerson, was born three years later and constantly looked up to her big brother. With no siblings in between them, they were as close as a brother and sister could be.
Paul was called into service shortly after America joined World War II. He entered the service on November 21, 1942 and eventually rising to the rank of U.S. Army Corporal. Less than two years later, his life, as well as my grandmother's would change forever.
As troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, Paul was among the ground troops. However, when the brutal fighting was finally over, Paul was missing. He has been declared MIA since June 6, 1944. His mother, Mary Alice Boone Williams received his purple heart and a small pension. His father, Lewis Williams, had died when Paul was just five years old.
Having lost a loved one to war is tragic enough, but what happened years later is a mystery that has never been solved, and probably never will. It has been a source of family legend for years.
Sometime well after Paul's death, my great-grandmother, Mary Alice, received a letter postmarked from a small village in France. Inside, written in broken English, was a letter from a French woman. This woman claimed that she and Paul had been married for several years. All had seemed fine, but then he had become distant and agitated, like something was bothering him. Then one day he left and never came home. Going through the personal belongings he left behind, this woman had found my great-grandmother's address and believed that he may have been headed back home to the United States. In this letter, the French woman pleaded for my great-grandma to write back to her, letting her know where Paul was.
The exact contents of the letter have been lost to time and circumstance. My grandmother only read the letter once before my great-grandmother snatched it and threw it into the fireplace. Paul never did make it back home to Beckley, WV. Until the day she died, my great-grandmother refused to mention the letter or the French woman ever again. However, AFTER she died, rumors abounded as to just what really happened to Paul.
As I see it, there could be a few scenarios. My grandmother had spoken with a friend of his, also in the service, who claims that he did see Paul land at Normandy, but in the chaos, lost sight of him. It is very possible that this French woman may have stumbled upon Paul's deceased body, took his dog tags, and then waited an "appropriate" amount of time before contacting his family with the bogus wife story in an attempt to get money from my family.
In another scenario, Paul DID survive the attack on Normandy, but went AWOL to escape the horrors he had seen. He would go on to marry a local girl under an assumed identity. In a similar, but much more romantic story, Paul survived the attack, but was left wounded and dying (perhaps with a case of amnesia) when a French nurse found him near death and nursed him back to health. The two fell in love, got married, and lived happily ever after...until his disappearance.
If Paul DID survive Normandy, only to marry a French woman....why did he leave her? Where the heck was he going, and why did he never come home? He had a younger sister and a younger brother, plus a niece and a near-invalid mother at home who counted on his support. Did he TRY to make it home and met with an untimely fate, or did he simply willingly disappear, only to start his life over anew?
The general consensus among family members is that the letter was nothing more than a hoax from some woman trying to get money, but there are questions that will never go answered. Because the letter was destroyed and all parties who had even a fleeting glimpse are now dead, there are very little details to research. However, the photo in question remains as a testament to Paul's (short?) life and the eerily blue eyes and half grin show a face that is harboring a secret or two...in life OR in death.
*Unfortunately, I do not have access to the original photo. After my grandmother passed away, neither my mother or her brother wanted it in their home, so it was boxed up and shipped to Paul's only remaining sibling in Michigan. The photo posted here is that same official photo as found in the book, Young American Patriots-World War II-West Virginia, Volume II. It is a compendium of West Virginia natives who died or who were listed as MIA during World War II and was inscribed and presented to my great-grandmother. The book is now in my possession.*
UPDATE: February 2013--HPIR visited the state capitol for History Day, and before we left, we made a stop at the war memorial, where I found Paul's name.