Frenchman honouring lost heroes of World War Two
Jacky Emery reveals his mission to remember fallen... one family at a time
Jacky Emery has spent the last 17 years researching the stories of airmen and soldiers from Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Poland and the UK killed in his home department of Sarthe and organising memorial ceremonies for them.
So far, the 63-year-old has traced the stories of more than 130 airmen and organised around 15 ceremonies.
He also takes photographs of the graves of Canadian servicemen to contribute to a website so relatives know where their grandfather, father or uncle is buried.
Mr Emery has been to every D-Day ceremony in Normandy since 1994 to thank veterans. It is his way, he says, of paying tribute to the servicemen he calls the Pères de mon Liberté.
Why did you start doing this?
I went to the 50th D-Day anniversary on the Normandy beaches in 1994, and for the first time I met and talked to veterans, which made me really want to do something to thank those people who had lost their lives saving France.
Our family has a small holiday house at Pornic, Loire-Atlantique, not far from one of the English cemeteries for the more than 5,000 people who lost their lives when the ocean liner Lancastria was sunk by the Germans in 1940.
There are around 300 graves at Pornic for the British, but also Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians and I thought of the families who were further away than the UK and could not easily come to visit the tombs of their uncles, fathers or grandfathers.
So I tried to trace those families. This was before the internet, so it was difficult, and I had to contact embassies – who often did not reply – and put adverts into newspapers. But eventually I traced five families: two from Canada, two from Australia and one from New Zealand and I wrote to them, promising to lay flowers on the relevant graves once a year.
In 2002, I found out about a website which wanted to collect photographs of the graves of Canadians buried in France so their descendants could know where they were buried, and see the grave, even if they could not make the long journey.
The website sent a list of Canadians buried in the Sarthe. I went to one small village to take the photograph of an airman’s grave and invited two journalists to explain what and why I was doing this.
Then something happened that I really did not expect. People who read the article contacted me, because they knew the story of that airman and they were able to give me more facts.
From then on I just kept on uncovering more stories, mostly about the aircraft that were shot down over Sarthe, but not only those. I discovered there were eighty graves of overseas servicemen in Le Mans cemetery and started researching those. The arrival of the internet made it easier.
How do you organise the memorial services?
Once I find out enough details to know as accurately as possible the site where an aircraft was shot down, I go and see the mayor of that commune and ask if we can organise a ceremony together and perhaps name a street after the person, or put up a plaque in their memory. Not all the mayors have wanted to do so, but I have organised about 15 now.
What is the reaction from the families who are invited to come to the ceremonies?
First, they are surprised and then eager to learn more about the incident that killed their relation. Sometimes they are totally unaware of what happened. It can often be difficult because it is very emotional.
Often they don’t speak French and I don’t speak very good English, but they understand, even without all the right words.
Most are keen to come, but for many it is impossible because they are elderly, it is a long way and it can be very expensive. Some years ago, though, I held a ceremony for a Canadian airman and 32 made the journey.
Mayors now get in touch with me sometimes, to organise a ceremony.
Twice I have done so in memory of American soldiers who liberated a village, and once there was a ceremony at the site of the temporary cemetery where American soldiers were buried, before they were taken to one of the main US burial grounds.
Do you have more stories to research?
It will never be finished. About 45 planes were shot down in the Sarthe, and only yesterday two witnesses took me to the place where they saw one of them come down.
My greatest regret is that I didn’t start earlier, as witnesses are getting older.
The people I met yesterday are 84 and 87 years old. Next year, I am planning a ceremony with the Le Mans Town Hall dedicated to the British planes which fell on the town.
Their crews are buried in the city cemetery, but there has never been any other recognition for them.
Are there other people like you?
A few, and we share information.
How much of your time do you spend doing this?
It could easily take up all my time. Before I worked as a designer for an American car company and had less free time.
I have been retired for eight years, but I have to be careful, because there are still lots of other things I have to do in my life. But I do as much as I can while witnesses are still alive, as I feel time is running out.
For me, it is my way of honouring those people. Through my research I “enter” into the lives of those men who died to give us our freedom.
I get to know their families. I have met widows who have lost their husbands, orphans who lost their fathers, children who never met their grandfather.
I believe we have a great debt to pay to those who sacrificed themselves for our country. And that is why we must never forget them. My gratitude is eternal.
What ceremonies mean to relatives of war dead
What do the ceremonies mean to the relations?
In May 2019, there was a ceremony to remember seven British airmen, who were shot down at Saint-Denis-d’Orques, on May 8 1944.
Mr Emery managed to contact four families, but only members of one family were able to come: a nephew, niece and great-niece of airman William Russell, who was 35 when he was killed in action 75 years ago.
His niece, Rose Murphy (above, with great-niece Katya Foreman and nephew Tim O’Connor) said she was overwhelmed by the welcome from the mayor, councillors, villagers and Mr Emery: “He is truly a one off who had been contacting us for a few years, determined to arrange what turned out to be a formidable homage to Uncle Bill and his crew, and once there we were able to really think about him and all the crew.
“We were very moved by the depth of feeling shown by the villagers for all the families affected by the loss of such young brave lives, in order to help liberate France. This came across in a sincere and deeply affecting way.
“It is so important for the younger generation to know what happened.
“When he gave his speech, he broke down more than once, showing how deeply he feels about