They Saved His BodyApril 7, 2017
By JASON RECKER
When Kent Fay headed for France, the lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army left instructions for his family: If I don’t come back, bury me there.
It was the 1940s and Fay had a wife and three young daughters for whom he provided financial support before his departure. Having waited to wed until his fiancee graduated from nursing school, he took another practical step by selling the family business, a steel company in New York. Mildred and the girls, at their home on Long Island, were as prepared as they could be for whatever came next.
Long after Fay indeed died during World War II in France, the family lived an enchanted life. Mildred carried on. The children wanted for little. Family and friends and whoever heard about the Army man who died for his country, they all bowed at the bravery.
Yet for Kent and Mildred’s oldest daughter, the comfort was never complete.
Just 4 years old at the time of Fay’s death, Judy Wilson, now 77 and living in Birdseye, suspected her father reported for active duty in 1941 and took a lead position on a mission in 1944 fully aware he was likely to perish. She thought, as she grew older, it was as if her father killed himself. Afraid of seeing what might have happened, she didn’t watch war movies. Told her father was with God in heaven because Mr. Fay was such a good man, she decided she did not want to behave well because if heaven was the reward for good behavior, Judy wasn’t ready to go there just yet.
Not until this time 18 years ago did Wilson find comfort by connecting with the family and community that picked up her father’s body, prayed for his soul and welcomed his descendants more than 50 years after an attack that left multiple American soldiers and French civilians dead.
Lt. Col. Kent Fay was awarded the Silver Star for his “gallant leadership of the 5th Armored Division’s mechanized reconnaissance squadron,” the paperwork reads. “The leadership ... was an inspiration to his unit and in keeping with the highest traditions of military service.”
The man died gallantly.
“I had to tell myself that it’s OK to be the daughter of a great American hero,” Judy says. “Now I’m so proud.”
They put his body in a wheelbarrow
Paris was about to be liberated and as U.S. troops rolled through the city, the men scooped up babies and kissed them. Fay was among those troops hailed for their work in World War II.
But just because Germany was losing its grip on Europe didn’t mean the Nazis were quitting. On Aug. 30, 1944, Fay was part of a group working its way through France toward Belgium with plans to liberate whatever towns needed attention along the way. Outside the town of Rully, Fay sent two units of armored cars ahead of the bunch to scout what lay ahead. They cars never returned.
Fay knew what that meant.
It’s customary for men in positions of power to take a spot near the end of the line — brains in the back, they call it — but Fay asked one of his men if the armored car nearby had ammunition. The man confirmed, so Fay climbed in, ordered his radio man to come along. He handed a leather wallet to another soldier and asked that the photos inside be returned to his wife; Fay had recently received photos of his wife and three daughters and wanted his family at home to know that he’d seen them.
“What he did, to some people, was against all orders and reason,” Judy says. “You do not lead. But my father knew the men would follow him.”
Outside Rully, the Nazis had leveled part of an orchard to hide weaponry. As the American troops advanced, the Nazis opened fire.
“It looked peaceful, quiet,” Judy says. “The shell hit with enough force that we know nobody suffered.”
The radio man was taken prisoner. Two French civilians were killed, one as he left to seek help for another who was wounded.
From afar, the townspeople were watching and when the battle subsided, they walked to the site of the car. Troops removed Fay’s body from the wreckage and laid him alongside the road. A French farmer who’d witnessed the death was so moved, so incensed, so solemn, that he put a mattress on a flat wheelbarrow, placed Fay’s body on it and wheeled it through the streets of Rully to a nearby church.
“When I was little, I didn’t want to think about my father dying,” Judy says. “Didn’t want to talk about it. It made me angrier and angrier. But now ...”
They answered my emails
Until 1999, Judy knew nothing of the body and the wheelbarrow.
Mildred died when Judy was 19 and questions of Lt. Col. Fay’s past went unasked for decades. But Judy’s brother-in-law liked history and had found a New York Times story from 1944 documenting Fay’s death and the community response. He’d planned a business trip to France and while there hoped to find the church where Fay’s body had been taken.
“I said I didn’t know anything about a church,” Judy recalls. “Well he tells me about this New York Times article he found and ... a couple days later, I said, ‘Wait a minute, it’s my father and if anybody is going to go looking for this church, it’s me. So I bought a ticket to France.”
Judy is a former newspaper reporter who knows that, especially in small towns, the church is often the hub of information. She sent an email to a Catholic church in the area where she suspected her father died and hoped to get lucky. Email was uncommon in 1999 and language provided an obvious barrier.
Two days later, a man named Antony Brown replied.
He was the chaplain in charge of veterans for the Anglican Church in Paris. He spoke English and French. He was a World War II veteran. He was comfortable using email.
“I not only hit the jackpot,” Judy says, “I hit it big.”
Judy thought the best way to curry interest was to make a public appeal. Through Brown, she wrote a letter to the editor to be published in a local newspaper. She explained what she knew and expressed gratitude for those people who stood by her father at the hour of his death. Again, she hoped to get lucky. Again, her instinct turned up roses.
At 9 a.m. one morning in 1999, Antony emailed to say the letter appeared in the newspaper. At 11 a.m., Antony emailed to say they found exactly who they’d been looking for.
“I have just had a call from Andre, one of the sons of Monsieur Dhuicque, the farmer who retrieved your father from the armored car and brought him to Rully church, just as the NYT report had said,” Antony wrote in his email. “The father died some twenty years ago, but Andre and at least one of his brothers who are living in the greater Paris area have seen the letter. He will be sending me an account of all of the circumstances which he clearly remembers very clearly. He was speaking with some emotion and most anxious to be of help.”
Andre confirmed everything.
The armored car was on fire when the wounded American troops removed the body from the vehicle and ran for cover as Nazi men rained machine gun fire. Etienne Dhuicque (he died in 1979) having seen the fight and in support of the troops who had liberated his country, “placed an improvised mattress on a wooden wheelbarrow,” Andre wrote. “All alone, (he) brought the body at about 4 p.m. to the village church.
“At 6 a.m. the following morning, both my mom and dad went to the church to pray beside the lieutenant colonel’s body, but it had already been taken away to the nearby airfield. Since Aug. 30, 1944, it has not been possible for us to hear anything more.”
They had a parade for us
Judy wanted to see the church and the spot where her father died and those plans alone were heavy enough.
Get to Paris. Rent a car. Visit Rully. Thank whomever she passed in the street or the bakery or the church. The French had far more in mind.
Antony contacted the American embassy and the town of Rully basically went wild over the story. There was a service in the church, a stone building that dates back to the 16th century (Joan of Arc prayed there). There was a parade. There were massive dinner parties at the Dhuicque residence, where the dining room was cleared and guests circled a large table and food just kept coming and coming (you have to try this dessert even though it’s after midnight). There was a wine reception. And ceremony in which the town dedicated a cross at the site of Fay’s death.
Initially, Judy was terrified at the thought of such pomp and circumstance.
But it wasn’t only the party that scared her. It was the introspection borne of coming so close to the place where her father was ambushed.
“I was 59 and I was going to go to Paris and go to the spot on the road where my father died,” Judy says. “Lord, I can’t do that. I’m pretty brave ... but I can’t do that, no way. But because it expanded with all the wonderful things that happened and all the memories people have and all the support we got and (the French) got, it just sort of blossomed.”
Judy went with her son, Joel, now a retired member of the U.S. Air Force working out of the Pentagon, as well as two nephews, one of whom is named Kent, after her father. She’s been back since and her brother-in-law, the initial man with the nose for history who initiated this entire process, has gone too after missing the first trip because he’d been diagnosed with cancer. Her sisters have been, too, and they’ve seen the place down the road in France where their father is buried. Members of the Dhuicque family have returned the favor, visiting Birdseye; they brought a suitcase full of wine, took a trip to Holiday World and ate at the Schnitzelbank.
To Judy, it’s perfect. She grew up in New York — among a host of places — and moved to Birdseye a few years ago by convincing her late husband, a man named Roger Donahue whose grandparents formerly lived in the town, to come back to Indiana. The small town reminds her of a place she once lived in Connecticut. It’s home now.
There may be only one other place where she feels so comfortable.
“I didn’t know what life was all about until this happened,” she says. “I’m not the same person. Maybe this is God’s destiny for me, to tell the world what it’s all about. At 35 years old, my father went, acted on life and in a way, he knew that if he had to make a choice, he would choose to die. But it’s cool ... because we found each other and this (relationship) is real. They never forgot that day and to (connect) so many years later, I just think it’s the best thing that ever happened.”
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