Bob Jones (shown above) and his wife, Kim, visited the grave of Bob’s uncle, Joseph “Ray” DeMint, last September in France. The couple was overwhelmed by the continuing gratitude of the French and Belgian people to the American soldiers who fought there and to their families. / Bob Jones, third from left, with part of the Brest 44 group that dressed in WWII uniforms for the anniversary of Brest’s liberation. Courtesy photos
• Brookings couple’s recent visit to Europe reveals many remember, are grateful for our
BROOKINGS – Bob and Kim Jones remember clearly a moment during their trip to the graves of Bob’s two uncles – both killed in action during World War II – when they realized that the gratitude of the European people for what American soldiers did there endures.
The rural Brookings couple had just come from the grave of Bob’s uncle Teddy David Jones at Belgium’s Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery. Riding a train back to their hotel in Liege, they carried small Belgian and American flags that had been at Teddy’s grave.
“We were just kind of chugging along on this train and I had set the flags on the table in front of us and these two young Belgian guys came and sat down next to us,” Kim said.
“He pointed at the flag, because the American flag was on the outside, and he said, ‘Are you Americans?’ And we said ‘Yeah, we are.’
“And I said we had just come from the American cemeteries; his uncle is buried there. And without even a moment’s hesitation, he went, ‘Thank you. Thank you for your sacrifice.’ He said, ‘Without you we don’t have freedom.’”
That man was in his early 20s, Bob and Kim said, born long after the war ended. They weren’t expecting his words of gratitude.
“It was one of the first of many times that we noticed while we were there that they have not forgotten the sacrifices of these guys. Even all these years later, their young people still remember the sacrifices,” Kim said. “Time and time again, people thanked us.”
First visit in 70 years
Kim and Bob traveled to visit the graves in September 2011. For 70 years, no one on either side of Bob’s family had made the trip. For his mother, Aurora resident Nadine Jones, it has been difficult to even talk about. Joseph Raymond DeMint – who went by “Ray” – was her older brother and only sibling, and a collection of his letters home reveal that the family was quite close.
Bob was a history major in college and leading up to the trip, they watched television documentaries on the war. Bob also joined a group called Friends of the 2nd Infantry Division, the unit to which Ray had belonged. He knew Ray had been killed during the effort to take the city of Brest, France, and planned to attend a ceremony commemorating the 67th anniversary of the city’s liberation, with members of the Friends group.
But first, the couple headed to Belgium. Henri-Chapelle was breathtaking, they said, a stretch of U.S. soil in the heart of the Belgian countryside, surrounded by green fields and dairy cattle. A cemetery caretaker took them personally to Teddy’s grave.
“The gravestones are white marble and, when you first see them, you can’t really read them very well because they’re just engraved with the person’s name,” Kim said. “But what they do that is so beautiful is, they have sand from the D-Day beaches in a pail and they wet it down and they massage that sand into the letters on the gravestone. It’s very symbolic and very touching.”
D-Day plus one
From Belgium, Bob and Kim traveled to the Normandy beaches: Omaha, Gold and Juno, stopping at other sites along the way.
“It’s quite silencing when you stand there and see it all,” Kim said. “Ray’s unit was directed to land on the Normandy beaches and then to move inward and to go toward the western part of France, to a town called Brest. Brest was a major port city.”
German U-boats were harbored there, and the Allied forces wanted to control the port and land supplies there for their armies. But, fighting moved so quickly toward Germany that by the time they took Brest, the harbor was mostly destroyed and the armies were too far away to benefit from the landing spot.
“Brest was a terrible battle, but it’s rarely mentioned in WWII histories because, by then, they had liberated Paris and they were on to Germany,” Bob said.
Perhaps for that reason, not many Americans seem to visit Brest. But the people there have not forgotten their liberators, and the reception they gave Bob and Kim was beyond what the Brookings couple ever expected. It was planned by a Brest native and authority on WWII fighting in France, named Ronan Urvoaz. Bob met Ronan through the Friends of the 2nd Infantry.
On the 67th anniversary of Brest’s liberation, Sept. 18, 2011, they met in downtown Brest, where a memorial to the 2nd Infantry is set. Ray and 16 other U.S. soldiers were specifically remembered during the ceremony that day, and organizers presented Bob with a certificate, medallion and necktie. The mayor, chamber of commerce, veterans’ organization and other Brest officials were there with their families. Children from the town brought forward flowers in honor of each soldier to lay on the memorial.
“It was just lovely, and we didn’t expect it to be so personalized. We thought we’d just be in the crowd,” Kim said.
Members of a group called Brest 44 were there, too, dressed in U.S. WWII military uniforms. That afternoon, Ronan and other members of Brest 44 took Bob and Kim to the home of a local collector, whose house is full of artifacts from WWII battlegrounds.
“He has stuff that museums would probably be envious of,” Bob said.
“I mean, all kinds of guns and helmets and uniforms and other equipment from both sides, from everybody,” Kim added.
After admiring these items, they heard a noisy vehicle outside: A 1943 U.S. Army Jeep, completely restored. It belonged to the museum owner, Kim said, and he had quit smoking to finance it.
The Jeep took them to a second monument to the 2nd Infantry, in the countryside, where a convoy of Brest 44 members waited. They drove more WWII-era cars, trucks and Jeeps, and the entire group was dressed for the period: As an American Red Cross worker, a member of the French Resistance, military personnel and others.
“It was just incredible,” Kim said. “So, they all jumped into their vehicles, all these WWII restored vehicles, all in their outfits, and we had a caravan across the French countryside again.
“Of course, these are all history buffs; they’re all passionate about the 2nd Infantry and what happened there and, through the use of their research and their GPS systems and all that kind of stuff, we ended up at the exact place where Ray was killed, which was in the middle of a field, surrounded by hedgerows.”
Huge hedges enclose small fields there, Bob explained, and once an army was dug in, it was very difficult for another army to take the area.
“The Germans would kind of embed themselves in these hedgerows and have a place to pick people off, which is what happened with Ray,” Kim said. “From all their research, they were in these fields and a sniper got him.”
Brest 44 let Bob and Kim spend time just taking it all in, they said, then got out their metal detectors to find anything buried in the field that they could take as a souvenir.
Their reception in Brest, and throughout France and Belgium, was better than they had ever hoped, Bob and Kim said. They had no idea that people there are still passionate about remembering and honoring fallen soldiers like Ray and Teddy.
When they returned, they created photo postcards for the members of Brest 44, and asked Kim’s sister to translate them into French. They got several notes in return, including one that was especially heartfelt.
“In response to our thank-you note,” Kim said, “he said, ‘Dear Mr. Jones, I have a great emotion with your nice letter. The French have to remember the thousands of Americans who died in our ground for the liberation from oppression. We say thank you. We say we remember. From generation to generation, we shall never forget their sacrifice.’”
Watch a video of the 67th anniversary ceremony and Bob and Kim’s time with Brest 44: www.dailymotion.com/video/xliqml_67th-anniversary-liberation-brest_people.
Contact Charis Prunty at cprunty@-brookingsregister.com.