(Editor’s Note: This article was written by Loretta Fulton in August 2001 after a trip to Belgium to write about the making of a documentary on Abilenian Bill Grosvenor, who had to ditch his plane in the Belgian soil in November 1943 and escape the Nazis who were chasing him. While there, Loretta visited the grave of her uncle, Paul Hunt, who was killed during the war. Since then, both Alma Fulton and Bill Grosvenor have died.)
By LORETTA FULTON
The cedar chest in a room in my grandmother’s house was special in a way that was different from everything else in the house, all special to the grandkids.
Even as children, we understood that something important and dear was inside. We were allowed to open the chest and even touch the tightly folded flag and the blue satin pillow slip, with gold fringe, U.S. Army, and the “Mother” poem printed on it. But we knew the contents of the box were things set apart, held sacred, and were to be treated with great care and respect.
We never looked at the contents of the box as a temptation, something to explore when our grandmother wasn’t looking. We knew from the sorrow in her eyes that the flag and everything else in the box was too dear to her to treat with anything but respect.
We grew up hearing about the young man who had entered the Army in August 1942. His name was Paul Gibson Hunt, born Aug. 5, 1924, in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He grew up on a farm in Ryan in southern Oklahoma, the youngest of 10 children.
A sister, Alma, was my mother. All my life I heard about my brave Uncle Paul and how he had joined the Army in August 1942, just after turning 18 and barely out of high school. I knew about the letters he wrote to his siblings and parents, describing in meticulous detail what he was going through in training and how much he loved Army life. I heard about how he was a gunner on a B-17 that was shot down in a bombing raid over Kiel, Germany, on June 13, 1943. Paul was dead when he hit the ground. At first his body was buried on German soil and then moved for permanent burial in the Ardennes American Cemetery in Liege in southeastern Belgium.
As I grew up and read all of Paul’s letters, I knew that someday I would visit his gravesite. That opportunity came in July 2001. At age 54, I was finally going to Belgium to touch the white cross that marked the grave of the man whose memory was enshrined in the cedar box.
The Abilene Reporter-News sent me to Belgium to report on the making of a documentary about Abilenian Bill Grosvenor. On Nov. 30, 1943, Grosvenor had to ditch his P-47 Thunderbolt in Belgium. He was aided in his escape by the Belgian Resistance, later captured and imprisoned, only to escape the infamous Nazi Ghost Train as it transported 1,500 Allied pilots and political prisoners to a concentration camp.
The trip to Belgium included excavation of the plane, still remarkably intact after 58 years, and a garden reception hosted by former members of the Resistance. When I was informed of the details of the trip, in the company of a bona fide World War II hero, I knew that was what I had been waiting for. What better circumstances for the long-awaited pilgrimage?
I set aside Friday July 20, three days into our Belgian trip, as the day to travel to the Ardennes cemetery. Our travel party was staying in the small village of Bornem, just north of Brussels in the western, Flemish-speaking part of Belgium.
I had to travel to Liege in the southeastern, French-speaking section of the country. I took a train from Bornem to Liege, not speaking either language, and somehow made it even with having to change trains en route. I took a cab for the 12-mile trip from the Liege train station to the cemetery.
It was pouring rain and my cab driver spoke only French, making the trip more of an adventure than I had anticipated. Once there, we were the only visitors on a chilly, wet, dreary day. The attendant on duty spoke French. After 54 years, I wasn’t going to let a deluge and two men whose language I couldn’t speak deter me. I showed the attendant the name and gravesite location and he gave me a packet of information.
We walked across the massive cemetery, the home of 5,000 graves, while the cab driver waited in the car. The attendant held an umbrella over me, and we walked past row after row of gravesites, each marked by a white marble cross, Star of David, or perhaps another symbol, all standing ramrod straight in precision military lines, just like the soldiers buried beneath them once had.
As we approached Section D and turned the corner, I sensed it coming. I was soon going to stand on the hallowed ground where my Uncle Paul was buried. I had touched his name engraved on markers in the Ryan, Oklahoma, cemetery near his parents’ graves and on other memorial markers given in his honor. Now, I was going to touch the final resting place of the uncle I had revered since childhood.
In a driving rain, I stepped away from the attendant and his protective umbrella. He stood behind me and used gestures and broken English to let me know we would stay as long as I wanted.
Before we left I pulled a copy of a photo from my raincoat. The original, signed by Paul, sat by my mother’s bed. She was a month shy of 13 when Paul was born and doted on her baby brother, as did the other children in the family.
When I made the trip to Belgium, she was two months shy of 90. She asked me to give Paul a message from his big sister.
“Tell Paul I love him and still miss him,” was her request.
I touched the photo to his name on the cross and recited the message. The attendant didn’t understand the words, but the gesture and tears needed no translation. We walked back to the visitor’s center and I thanked him.
My journey that began with peeking into a treasured cedar chest now was complete. When I got home I gave my mother the copy of the photo that had touched Paul’s grave. She held it close and then placed it beside the original.
“I still miss him,” she said.