Published: Aug 07, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Aug 07, 2012 07:16 PM
“Someday I hope to visit that cemetery. Meanwhile I wonder if there is any way to secure a photograph of his grave. Is there anyone, even a French civilian, who might take an interest and with whom I could correspond? This means a great deal to me.”
This was part of a letter that my great-great aunt Sara wrote to one of the commanding officers after her husband was killed in World War II.
When we think of World War II veterans, we think of an older generation of men who are now dying off. But many of the veterans are still young men frozen in the time when they gave their lives for our country.
A serendipitous connection to this past was discovered recently when my aunt Johanna was working on a public health project at UNC. She and her colleague Melissa were hanging out one night when Melissa mentioned something about another colleague, a man named Gene Matthews, who also lives here in Chapel Hill.
“He’s a Matthews from Matthews, North Carolina! You don’t hear that too often!” she said.
Johanna said: “Well actually, my great aunt Sara married a man named David Matthews who was from Matthews, North Carolina. He was killed in World War II.”
“Well you know,” Melissa said, “Gene’s son is named David; wouldn’t it be crazy if he named his son after your great aunt Sara’s husband?”
Right away, Johanna got on the phone and called Gene. David Matthews was indeed his uncle, and his son was indeed named after him.
David Matthews was flying supply missions in late 1945 and early 1946, just after the war ended, when his B-24 crashed, killing all on board.
A lot was already known in our family about this tragedy, but I wanted to talk with Mr. Matthews to learn more.
Gene Matthews was just a baby when his uncle was killed. He said he had very few photos of him, but growing up he was always told that he had his uncle’s eyes.
Gene said the crew was probably flying one of its supply missions to Marseille, France, from Germany when, as he says, they “found a rock in the clouds and crashed.”
David Matthews had been writing to his wife, Sara, every day. For six days after she got the telegram from the War Department saying he had been killed, she continued to get letters he had previously sent, because of the time it took mail to arrive from overseas.
In the last letter, dated one day before his death, he tells her that he’s exhausted and thankful he doesn’t have to fly the next day. After that, the letters stopped coming.
Clearly there was a change in plans, but no one knows the full story.
After his death, Sara was never the same. She never remarried and was always sad because she didn’t have children.
My mom and her five siblings adored their great Aunt Sara. She always kept on hand lots of candy, far more than they were ever allowed to have, and was very generous with it. She bought my mom and aunt Johanna their most beautiful Easter dresses, nicer than they would have otherwise had. My mother remembers her as “incredibly sweet, always with open arms for us, but also always a little bit fragile.”
Her husband’s body was never brought back. There is only a marker in the Matthews’ family plot. He is buried in a cemetery in southern France.
Sara wanted to bring David home, but there were a number of people in the community who convinced her not to. Because he was so badly burned in the plane crash, it would not be the way she would want to remember him.
Sara Matthews died in 1984. She was never able to go and visit his grave, and it’s not certain that she ever got to see a picture of his grave, as she had pleaded for in her letter.
However, I am going to France with my family this summer, and we have now made it a project to search for his grave in her memory, and his.