By Bob Kerr/Journal Staff Writer
Jean Kerr cried some as she unwrapped the two battered pieces of metal. She didn’t expect tears. She wasn’t quite 11 back in 1944 when the telegram telling of her father’s death in Normandy arrived at the house in Newport. She thought her memories would remain firmly where they had always been.
But there in her hands was the canteen her father had carried into battle in Normandy in 1944. It was all beat up and broken in two. But it was a solid connection to the very minute that he died.
“Amazing,” she said, as she gently ran her fingers over the rough metal. “I almost can’t believe this was something that he touched.”
It was. Thomas James carried that canteen when he landed in Normandy and he carried it on July 13, 1944, when he was killed in fighting in a place too aptly called Purple Heart Draw. That it should end up in the living room of his daughter on Channing Street in Newport 66 years later is a wonderfully unlikely story that involves a Normandy tour guide, a Rhode Island filmmaker, an avid genealogist from Warwick and three people named Bob Kerr.
“It’s one in a million that Ed could still read the serial number and trace it back,” said Tim Gray, who brought the canteen to Kerr Friday night.
Gray is the middleman in this wonderful long-shot connection. He is a documentary filmmaker who has produced fine films about D-Day and the men who fought. One of them, “Navy Heroes of Normandy,” has been nominated for three New England Emmys.
Gray has worked with Ed Robinson, an Irishman who is a tour guide in Normandy. Robinson, Gray says, is the best of the guides. He goes where others don’t.
The two men have become friends. And when Robinson traced that canteen pulled from the Normandy sand back to Rhode Island, he knew who to call.
Robinson found the canteen as he has found so many other bits and pieces of World War II — walking the beaches in and around Normandy with a metal detector. He traced it using the one initial and four digits of a service number scratched into the bottom — J 5615. He used battle maps and an Army Web site. He knew the unit, the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division that had fought in the area, and he worked on the assumption that the owner of the canteen had been killed in action.
His research brought him to Thomas James, a 34-year-old private from Newport. He contacted Gray in the hope of finding family members. Gray contacted me. I wrote a column about the canteen two months ago.
Evelyn Murray read the column at her home in Warwick. She thought what a sweet thing it would be if Thomas James’ canteen could be brought home to his family. So she got to work.
“I’ve been doing genealogy since 1976,” she said.
She picked it up from her mother who was inspired by the TV series “Roots.”
Murray checked a 1930 census. She used the Web site called Ancestry.com, went through Social Security death records and Providence Journal obituaries.
She went from Thomas James to Jean Kerr. Jean Kerr’s late husband was Bob Kerr. Their son is Bob Kerr Jr. He’s the one who put down a box of tissues as Jean Kerr reacted to the contents of the package Gray brought to her house.
Murray sent her information to Robinson. Robinson called Newport.
On Friday night, Kerr passed the canteen around the large family circle that had settled in for the return of a different kind of heirloom. A picture of James in uniform and a copy of the letter from his commanding officer, saying that he was held in high regard by his fellow soldiers, were also passed from hand to hand.
And there was the account of the battle that Robinson sent along with the canteen. His research is impressive. He has concluded that James died along the north wall of a house from which German machine gunners had been firing. The site is now a grassy field.
James is buried in the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer in France.
“It’s a beautiful spot,” said Kerr, who visited the cemetery in 1989.
She remembers the small possessions of her father that were sent home from France — rosary beads, a prayer book, a letter she had written him.
And now, there is this canteen, this war-scarred reminder of a family’s loss in World War II.
Jean Kerr is not sure how she will display it or if perhaps she will just put it away in a safe place. She does know the delivery from Tim Gray on Friday has changed her a little.
“It kind of brings everything back,” she said.