As the USA, Europe and their allies mark 75 years since the D-Day landings, stories surrounding this historic day are still being uncovered.
Retired French postal worker Andre Gantois had given up on ever finding out who his father was. The US serviceman was one of the 160,000 Allied troops that stormed the heavily-fortified 50-mile stretch of Nazi-occupied coastline in Normandy.
“Throughout my life, I lived with this open wound,” Gantois told the Associated Press. “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.”
In his twenties, he became determined to find out more. Visits to US offices in France proved fruitless. Gantois recalls 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 US government. But you have to have proof.’ I had no proof.”
However, Gantois was finally able to put his mind to rest and fill in a missing piece of wartime history thanks to a DNA test. Urged on by his daughter-in-law, Gantois took the test and weeks later, she called him in the middle of the night with the earthshaking results.
“‘You have an American brother, a sister, a whole family,’” Gantois recalls her telling him. “I didn’t know what to say.”
The DNA test had revealed that his dad had been Wilburn ‘Bill’ Henderson from Essex, Missouri. Gantois has since been able to put the pieces together and knows that his father had landed on Omaha beach, fought his way across France, taken a bullet to the skull, and been nursed back to health in a military hospital by Gantois’ mother, Irene. After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Henderson had visited Irene at her home in eastern France. Apparently, she never told him that she was carrying his child. He returned to the USA, started a family and never spoke to his children about her before his death in 1997.
The trail would have ended there for Gantois had his American half-brother not also taken a DNA test. The two men and Gantois’ half-sister have since met up in France.
Both Gantois and his half-siblings acknowledge how lucky they are not only to have found each other but also 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,” says 65-year-old Allen Henderson, who lives in Greenville, South Carolina. “Amazing that he survived.”
Henderson says he knew straight away when he saw Gantois that they were brothers because the resemblance is so striking.
Andre Gantois says he feels sorry for those without answers still seeking to resolve wartime histories.
“I’ve got closure. The whole issue of my father, that’s it, it’s done. I’m no longer in a fog.”
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