Bob Kerr: A canteen that connects with the battle
The beach continues to give up its small pieces of history decades after the fighting. The metal rusts and breaks apart, the cloth fades and is reduced to ever smaller shreds.
But the person who searches the sand with a fine eye for detail and a sense of historical connection can still find the well-worn piece of equipment that tells a story. Some of it is obviously part of something much bigger — a tank or artillery piece perhaps. And some of it is from the things a solider carried.
Ed Robinson found the canteen while doing what he has been doing for years. He was walking the beaches in and around Normandy, where he conducts tours and sometimes shows American veterans the exact spot where they did amazing things in 1944.
“They know what they did but not where the hell they did it,” says Robinson, an Irishman who ended up a tour guide after seeing a lot of the world and doing a lot of “little crappy jobs.”
A few months ago, he found the canteen with his metal detector. It belonged to a guy from Newport. It was in two pieces and on the bottom piece, numbers and a letter were scratched into the metal: J 5615. The numbers were clearly part of a service number but not all of it. So Robinson did the kind of research he has learned to do.
He studied battle maps and went to an Army Web site with the partial service number. He knew what unit — the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division — had fought in that area, and he worked on the assumption that the owner of the canteen had been killed in action.
He found the full service number was 31445615 and the letter J was the first letter in the last name of Thomas James, who lived in Newport when he enlisted in October of 1943.
James was 34 and married. He was a private. He is buried in grave 28, row 7, plot J in the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer in France.
Robinson loves being able to make this kind of connection, but he wants to take it still further. And, as soon as he found that the owner of the canteen came from Rhode Island, he thought “That’s Timmy.”
Tim Gray, who has produced fine documentaries on D-Day and Rhode Island veterans who took part, met Robinson when he was filming in Normandy. They have become friends and Robinson visited Gray in Rhode Island.
“Eddie’s a real character,” says Gray. “He goes places others don’t. And he’s extremely knowledgeable.”
So when Robinson determined the owner of the canteen, he asked Gray if he could help locate James’ family. Gray told him he knew this guy at the local paper.
“Our desire is to see if [James] still has anybody here,” says Gray. “Eddie wants to see this canteen go back to the family.
“This man never came home. It would be nice to have a piece of him here.”
This is what they know from the archives Robinson explored via the Internet: James enlisted in the Army on Oct. 6, 1943, in Providence. He enlisted, as did everyone else, “for the duration of the war or other emergency, plus six months.” He died on July 13, 1944. He had completed one year of high school and worked as a salesman.
Now, more than 55 years after James’s death, Robinson would like to bring something pulled from the sand in France back to the family of the man who carried it into battle.
His Web site is BattleofNormandyTours.com.