Family of American GI welcomed to French town he helped to liberate

Catherine Whalen Purdy discovered the story of her uncle’s wartime service in Hauts-de-France after stumbling across his name in a novel by a local historical fiction writer

1 September 2021
An image of Robert Whalen's nephews and nieces, holding an American flag in front of the monument dedicated to him. This sits next to an image of Whalen himself

Members of GI Robert Whalen's (pictured right) family attend commemoration of his death in Vailly-sur-Aisne Pic: Catherine Whalen Purdy

By Emma Morgan

An American family has visited the northern French town of Vailly-sur-Aisne (Hauts-de-France) to attend a ceremony commemorating the service of their ancestor, a GI who was killed during the liberation of the town in World War Two. 

Catherine Whalen Purdy had been searching for traces of her lost uncle Robert Whalen – her father’s brother – since 2009, knowing only that he had died on August 29, 1944, a few months after first landing on a Normandy beach.

“I’m an only child and my dad died when I was 21,” she told The Connexion. “He came from a really big family and I grew up with lots of cousins, but when he died that connection faded. 

“But I continued to feel this weird link to Robert because my dad had told me so much about him. Everything suggested that he had died just like a lot of other young men during the war, and that there was no story to be told. But I still felt like I needed to find out what had happened. 

“When my son turned 20, I couldn’t help but see the parallels with Robert; all the things that he missed in life, like falling in love and having a family. Whatever his path in life would have been, I wanted to make up in some way for what he had lost.”

A plaque commemorating the service of Robert Whalen in Vailly-sur-Aisne Pic: Catherine Whalen Purdy

It was in November 2020 that Ms Whalen Purdy discovered a novel, Chemins d’absence (‘Trails of Absence’), written by local author and history enthusiast, Pierre Commeine.

When he was a child, Mr Commeine’s father had told him stories about the war, including that of an American soldier, Robert Whalen, who was killed during the liberation of the Vailly-sur-Aisne, and who was commemorated on a monument in the town.

“He was on the Vailly bridge,” he told Franceinfo. “A German tank spotted him and shot at him. He died at the steering wheel of his jeep.”

Mr Commeine added that he had been “moved” by this detail, which he decided to include in his 2018 novel. 

Other than the moment of his death, Mr Commeine had been unable to find any other details of GI Whalen’s story, either from the American embassy or from the US Army.

By the time Mr Commeine’s novel was published, Ms Whalen Purdy had all but given up hope of finding out what had happened to her uncle in 1944, her previous searches having offered no link to Vailly-sur-Aisne.

However, she decided to try one more time, and this time came across Mr Commeine’s book, discovering also that her uncle’s service was commemorated every year in Vailly-sur-Aisne on the anniversary of his death. 

“It popped right up and I saw pictures from the 75th anniversary of the liberation,” Ms Whalen Purdy said. “I thought: ‘This cannot be the same Robert Whalen. Why would my family not know about this?’”

After doing further research, she contacted Mr Commeine through Facebook to identify if the Robert Whalen referenced in his book was definitely her uncle. 

“Even though I never met him, he was so loved by my father and his sisters that I have tried to keep his memory alive in one way or another,” Ms Whalen Purdy told him.

“Pierre replied almost immediately and we were going back and forth between French and English, catching up with all the information that we had,” she told The Connexion

Members of Ms Whalen Purdy's family with Pierre Commeine (third from right) and holding a picture of Ms Whalen Purdy herself, who says that she was "there in spirit and on paper!" Pic: Catherine Whalen Purdy

Ms Whalen Purdy then ordered 28 copies of Mr Commeine’s book,: one for every member of her family! 

After speaking with Mr Commeine, she was also contacted by an older resident of Vailly-sur-Aisne, who was a small child during the liberation and remembered seeing her uncle’s body being looked after in the town hall, which “was nice to know,” she added.

“However, for me, the biggest missing piece of the puzzle still remained; how had my grandparents not known what had happened?” Ms Whalen Purdy said. 

“And then a young man called Alliance contacted me out of the blue because he had found something really amazing. He was renovating a mansion somewhere in Paris, and found these old documents. 

“One of them was an envelope addressed to my grandparents and returned to sender because they had moved.

“Inside the envelope was an invitation to see the monument in Vailly-sur-Aisne, dating from 1953. There were photographs of Robert’s jeep and of the monument being erected with American colonels present.”

Alliance (right) shows Vailly-sur-Aisne mayor Arnaud Battefort (left) the documents that he found in Paris. Pic: Catherine Whalen Purdy

A special commemoration for the town of Vailly-sur-Aisne 

Every year, the people of Vailly-sur-Aisne take part in an event commemorating the liberation of their town, complete with historic films, an exhibition and a reconstructed GI camp. 

GI Whalen being the only American soldier who fell in the town, the mairie also makes sure to remember him, saying via Facebook that his sacrifice “embodies the [spirit of] the liberation for those who came before us and those who will come after.”

This year, 77 years after his death, members of GI Whalen’s family were able to fly over to attend the ceremony. 

Vailly-sur-Aisne mayor, Arnaud Battefort, leading one of the commemorative events over the weekend. Pic: Catherine Whalen Purdy

“I feel somewhat overwhelmed, and very touched to see the extent to which this town pays homage to my uncle,” relative Theresa Brock told Franceinfo as she stood before GI Whalen’s monument on August 29. “We’re lost for words.”

Ms Whalen Purdy was unable to visit Vailly-sur-Aisne this year, but said: “I am so grateful that my cousins were able to make that journey and be present.

“I can’t get over what the people of Vailly-sur-Aisne – and especially the mayor Arnaud Battefort – did for my family while they were there. They took them in with open arms and treated them so well.” 

Even though she was not at the commemoration this year, Ms Whalen Purdy says she feels “like I’ve made some good friends in France. They knew I couldn’t be there and were sending me photos and keeping me up to date with what was happening.”

“Alliance was also at the ceremony, with the old documents,” which Ms Whalen Purdy now hopes will be kept safe in Vailly-sur-Aisne, so that “there can be something that completes the story there.

“I’m definitely going to visit next year. Even if Covid restrictions are still around, I am going and I’m going to bring my son and daughter. Pierre and his wife have invited us to stay with them and he has sent letters and books to my daughter, who speaks French quite well. It’s so nice that we are friends now.”

Robert J. Whalen, aged about 18. Pic: Catherine Whalen Purdy

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