Newspaper article News Sentinel

Love in War: Through Letters, Survivors, Knoxville Man Reconnects with French Love ; Decades after Their Romance, Knoxville Man Finds Former Love

Newspaper article News Sentinel

Love in War: Through Letters, Survivors, Knoxville Man Reconnects with French Love ; Decades after Their Romance, Knoxville Man Finds Former Love

Article excerpt

The remembrance is the presence in the absence, the voice in the silence, the endless return of a past happiness to which the heart gives the immortality -- Letter from Anthelmette Guillard to Charlie Brakebill, June 10, 1945


The World War II romance between Charlie Brakebill and Anthelmette Guillard is the stuff of which dreams and movies are made.

Brakebill was 19, Anthelmette 21. All of Europe felt the extremes of the growing conflict. A couple of kids, one American and one French, previously separated by culture, language and oceans, were brought together by the global struggle.

Even in war, innocence could still exist.

What makes this reminiscence even more memorable is that, after six decades, all of the letters and photographs that he sent to her in wartime were found last summer hidden in a souvenir box.

On Sept. 25, 69 years to the day that Brakebill, now 89, landed on Normandy's Omaha Beach, Anthelmette's 57-year-old daughter, Soazig Padovani,handed the Knoxville man a bundle and a note scribbled by Anthelmette entitled, "Charlie's Letters."

"Unbelievable," is how Brakebill describes the moment.

Family with a piano

When World War II began sweeping up young men in America for training, Brakebill was a freshman at the University of Tennessee. He wound up a tech sergeant with an engineering detachment headed for Normandy, France.

In September 1944, three months after the bloody D-Day landings by Allied Forces, Brakebill, a country boy who grew up on a farm near Madisonville, Tenn., got his first look at the grim realities of combat. After arriving at the shore, he walked up a steep hill spliced by sand dunes. Before him were over 15,000 white wooden crosses on a hill above the crystalline sands of Omaha Beach.

There was no grass, no trees, just thousands of wooden white crosses with the names and serial numbers of the American dead.

The following month, Brakebill's utility detachment moved to the French city of Rennes, the capital of Brittany, to support the 94th Infantry Division. His unit was also assigned to rebuild the city's infrastructure.

That's when fate stepped in.

In November 1944, his unit was replacing the bombed-out roof on a building near the city's railway station. Brakebill and members of his crew watched as a French family struggled nearby to pull a piano up two stories and then through French doors on a second-floor apartment building.

Brakebill quickly rounded up several of the soldiers. They hoisted the piano into the apartment and returned to work on the roof.

But Brakebill hung back. He had spotted a beautiful young woman in the apartment as her family watched the soldiers complete the job.

They were the Guillards-- mother, father, grandmother and Anthelmette, the daughter.

Over the next weeks Brakebill got to know the family and Anthelmette while working on the roof.

She was a pharmacy student at the University of Rennes. Her family had fled the port of Lorient when the Germans invaded so that she could continue her education.

As their friendship developed, Brakebill began putting the brakes on the roof project so that he might get to know Anthelmette better.

"I didn't want the roof job to be completed," he said.

With his Army base only about three miles distant from Anthelmette's home, Brakebill had been able to visit weekly or send letters to Anthelmette. She responded with letters or notes.

The two also began to take long walks in the Thabor Gardens in Rennes. They sat at a bench along the garden's brick wall. It was their special place.

"She loved to walk in the gardens," Brakebill said. "There were bomb shelters everywhere in the gardens at that time."

You have to remember, Brakebill said, that it was wartime.

"You didn't know if you were going to be alive tomorrow. I was 20 (he turned 20 in October 1944) and she was 21," Brakebill said. …

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