In Ludres, France, Andre Gantois had lost hope, after decades of searching.
Gantois, a retired French postal worker, thought he would die before he found out who his father was. He knew his father was a U.S. serviceman, who had struggled across France in the aftermath of the D-day landings, and was shot in the skull. Gantois’ father was brought back to health in a military hospital by Gantois’ mother.
But Gantois, in his 70s, had no leads and no name to help him in his search. This left him ill at ease.
“Throughout my life, I lived with this open wound,” he said, as reported by Ashland Tidings. “I never accepted my situation, of not knowing my father and, most of all, knowing that he didn’t know about me, didn’t know of my existence.”
On June 6, the United States, Europe and their allies will commemorate the day 75 years ago when 160,000 allied troops attacked a heavily-fortified 50-mile (80 kilometer) part of coastland occupied by the Nazis in Normandy. Respect and honor will be given to the surviving veterans, though they are few.
Because the fighting was so ruthless in France, thousands went missing or were not able to be identified pre-burial. Their graves were marked, “A comrade in arms known but to God.”
On all sides there were soldiers who fathered tens of thousands of children. Many of those children could not answer the question: Where did I come from?
Until a few months ago, Gantois, was in that position. That is, until a self-proclaimed ‘miracle’ altered his life and solved one of the mysteries of wartime history.
Growing up after the war in eastern France, Gantois would draw a line on paperwork that required his father’s signature. His mother and grandmother lied to him, saying that his father was killed in France’s war in Vietnam that took place in 1946, the year Gantois was born. Gantois’ grandmother told him that his father’s name was Jack. Not knowing that he was being lied to, Gantois ignored the elderly neighbors who dubbed him “the young American” or “the American’s kid.”
When Gantois was 15, his mother died of tuberculosis at age 37. Finally, he got the truth.
“‘Listen, Andre, I have to tell you,’” the 73-year-old Gantois remembers his grandmother admitting to him. “‘Your dad was an American, in the war.’”
Gantois did not know what to do at first. When he reached his twenties, he was strongly motivated to find out more.
With a wife and intention to begin a family of his own, Gantois deeply desired to fill in the missing pieces of his past.
“He had no name, nothing to go on,” his wife Rosine said. “He told me, ‘I’ll die without ever knowing who he was.’”
Visiting U.S. offices in France was not helpful.
Gantois remembers that an embassy official told him: “A lot of people are looking for their fathers, because they want money, they want to be compensated by the U.S. government. But you have to have proof.”
Gantois did not have proof. Then, last June, influenced by his daughter-in-law, Gantois took a DNA test.
Several weeks later she called him with astounding results.
“‘You have an American brother, a sister, a whole family,’” Gantois recollected her words. “I didn’t know what to say.”
The test had revealed that his dad, Wilburn ‘Bill’ Henderson, had been from Essex, Missouri. Henderson, as an infantryman, had landed on Omaha beach on what seems to be just after D-Day. He made it through Normandy and received a wound to the head soon before the war ended. It was then that he met Irene Gantois at a hospital in occupied Germany.
When Germany surrendered in May 1945, Henderson came to visit Irene Gantois in eastern France where she lived. But it appears she didn’t tell him that she was pregnant with his child. Henderson returned to the United States, married someone else and never told his children about Irene. He died in 1997.
The story would have ended there. But Gantois’ American half-brother, Allen Henderson, also took a DNA test because he was interested in what the results would be. They both happened to pick the same testing company, which made it possible for them to be linked. The two men met last September, along with Gantois’ half-sister, Judy.
Gantois and Henderson are thankful that their father survived Normandy and its aftermath.
“When I was little, he was always telling me stories about being in France and he’d speak a little French and kind of talk about how it was like to lay in a foxhole and guns, bullets flying over your head and guys dying all around you,” said 65-year-old Henderson, who resides in Greenville, South Carolina. “Amazing that he survived.”
To read more of this story click here.