Duty of memory is always present

Published 9:15 am Thursday, November 9, 2017

By Joel McNeece

“Le devoir de mémoire est toujours présent.”

Those were the words from my friend Gerard Louis of Chanteheup, France in our most recent email exchange.

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As many emails as we’ve exchanged over the past 11 years, I’m very comfortable calling Gerard a friend. I’m not as comfortable translating all of his emails. My French is an ocean away from fluent, so at times I have to pour his writing through a translator. I bet he has to do the same from time to time to get the meaning of my Mississippi English.

The line quoted above from our last email I recognized immediately because it’s one Gerard uses often and with absolute sincerity.

It says, “the duty of memory is always present.” That’s most appropriate for all of us as Saturday, Nov. 11 approaches, also known as Veterans Day.

Gerard first contacted me in March of 2006 when he was trying to track down family members of Clayton Judge Hellums of Sarepta.

He had discovered an American soldier’s “dog tag” reading “Cpl Judge C Hellums” unearthed by a recent rain while he was hiking in the Forrest of Parroy. Clayton Judge Hellums served in the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion and was killed in action with four of his comrades on Oct. 9, 1944, by a German rocket that hit his M10 tank destroyer. The U.S. Government listed Cpl. Hellums as “missing in action” until Gerard’s discovery.

“On about eight square meters one can see that the dirt is different,” he told me. “It must have been burnt. The dirt is very black and nothing seems to grow.”

Gerard had found several other items in the area — buttons, razors, a piece of a zipper, a piece of a field telephone, pieces of tank headlights — that led him to believe that U.S. soldiers had fallen at this place.

After numerous back-and-forth communications with him, the Hellums family, and a few government agencies working on the case, the tags were returned to the family in Calhoun.

In 2010, I was in Shady Grove Cemetery on a sunny morning when Cpl. Hellums’ remains were returned to his native soil in a moving service with full military honors.

It might have closed the book on my talks with Gerard, but instead, it did the opposite. We began emailing even more. He continued scouring the forest on his daily walks hoping to find other artifacts.

“L’émotion est toujours présente malgré toutes ces années,” he said. Translated, “the emotion is still present despite all these years.”

Gerard emails me pictures of all his finds and tries to do all he can to preserve what they mean and return them to those who may find them of great significance.

“Since childhood, I have had a passion for history and the events that happened in our region,” he said. “I am not a collector, but when I walk about these sites, loaded with history, I walk with my eyes stuck to the ground. Everything that looks out of the ordinary talks to me.”

Gerard, along with his neighbor Philip Sugg, hosts annual memorials to the fallen in his area,  specifically each October he honors the memory of Clayton Judge Hellums.

“I think about Corporal Hellums every day,” he told me.

Gerard makes it a point to pause on the American Memorial Day in the spring and this Saturday for Veterans Day as well to pay tribute to the men and women, American, French, English and much more, who all paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.

“What I would like is for these stories not to be forgotten,” he said. “Their sacrifice inspires me.”

Joel McNeece is the publisher of the Calhoun County Journal.