It’s a sad story but one that need not end that way.
On the heels of my last column about connecting with the daughter of a World War II veteran who had served at the same time and place in the Pacific as my father, I received a phone call from local WWII veteran Blake Hughes.
“Do you have a few minutes?” he asked.
He had recently attended a function at the senior center, he said, in which a small group of WWII veterans had met with a middle school teacher and students and a few community members to share their war experiences with the younger generation. As part of the sharing, he had brought along an old album of black-and-white photographs of his time in Europe, including shots of both German and American troops.
And here’s where the problem arises – he inadvertently left the album behind and it has not been returned.
“Lots of my buddies are in that album,” he said, adding of their deaths in combat. “Some of them are still over there. The album means a lot to me.”
One of his buddies, for example, was cut in half by a land mine. “It was tough to lose him. He was in one of those snapshots.”
So, Hughes has now lost him twice.
Hughes, who is 95 and the longtime proprietor of the Newburyport Printmaker shop, landed on Omaha Beach in France one month after D-Day. A month later, he was with Patton’s Army as a combat engineer in the breakthrough into Germany and on into Czechoslovakia.
“The album has no value to anyone else,” he said. “It brings back memories to me. I could get along without it, but it’s nice to look at once in awhile. There’s no name in the album, but people who were there would know who it belongs to.”
“I’m not angry,” he continued, “but I’m disappointed. No hard feelings, but I’d be pleased to get it back to turn over to my children. It’s one of a kind.”
“You don’t have to do this,” he added, offering me an out from this writing assignment.
How could I not?
To one who was not there, such an album is a mere curiosity. To one who participated in the invasion, it is a profound slice of one’s life.
As a follow-up, I contacted Newburyport veterans affairs agent Kevin Hunt, who was not at the event itself but whose office is in the same building.
“Blake Hughes has an enormous Newburyport pedigree,” said Hunt. “He had the longtime print shop, so many of his pieces of work hang on walls all over the city. He’s a big part of our heritage. It’s a shame that such a thing could happen to his heritage.”
He promised to do a little investigating from his end but came up empty.
“It’s sad,” said Hunt, “but it may be lost for good.”
“I feel bad,” agreed fellow WWII veteran Robert “Boots” Chouinard, who was in attendance at the same event. “I’m sorry I can’t help him out. I like him very much. He’s a very talented person. I hope he gets the album back somehow.”
A telephone message and an email inquiry to the teacher in question brought no response.
So a cherished album sits out there somewhere in the hands of someone who has not the right to hold it – a case of stolen valor of sorts.
An album, even a single photograph, is a memory of a time that cannot be replicated.
A personal heritage – names, faces, events – is in peril, and time is running out.
It’s time for someone to do the right thing.
Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.