It was 1944. Charlie Brakebill was 19, Anthelmette Guillard was 21. All of Europe was taxed by the war. A couple of kids, one American and one French, fell in love anyway — even though it couldn’t last.
And after 60 years, all of the letters and photographs that he sent to her were found last summer 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, Tenn., man a bundle and a note by Anthelmette that read, “Charlie’s Letters.”
“Unbelievable,” is how Brakebill described the moment.
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 October 1944, four months after the bloody D-Day landings by Allied forces, 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 a roof 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 into a second-floor apartment.
Brakebill quickly rounded up several of the soldiers. They hoisted the piano into the apartment and returned to work.
But Brakebill hung back. He had spotted a beautiful young woman in the apartment as her family watched the soldiers.
They were the Guillards — mother, father, grandmother and Anthelmette, the daughter.
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.
With his Army base only about three miles from Anthelmette’s home, Brakebill was 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.
“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.
When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Brakebill learned that his unit was to ship out to America to prepare for the invasion of Japan.
And if he survived the Japan invasion, he would have to return to the University of Tennessee to finish his degree.
Brakebill never had to go to the Pacific, however, because the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, ending the conflict.
War ends, lives begin
The now-World War II veteran went back to the university and graduated in 1948. He married “the love of my life,” Joyce Droke of Memphis.
That same year, Anthelmette married a pharmacist like herself, and the couple eventually opened three pharmacies in Normandy.
Brakebill and Joyce had two children, a boy and a girl; Anthelmette also had a boy and a girl. Brakebill and his wife had seven grandchildren; Anthelmette had six.
Joyce Brakebill died in 2010. Unbeknown to Charlie, Anthelmette had died in 2007.
Brakebill worked his way through the ranks at the university, retiring in 1996 as vice president of development and alumni affairs.
As she would later tell Brakebill, Anthelmette’s daughter grew up hearing “stories about Charlie. My father even suggested that my mother try to find out what had happened to him.”
Charlie, too, had sometimes wondered: What ever became of Anthelmette?
One of Brakebill’s longtime friends, Jack E. Williams, had become interested in the story. He became especially intrigued after meeting a woman at a luncheon of the Alliance Francaise-Knoxville, which promotes awareness of the French culture. She suggested that they contact her aunt, a retired journalist living near Paris, for help in tracking down Anthelmette.
It was the aunt who found an obituary for Anthelmette, who died in 2007 at the age of 84.
“That was closure for me,” Brakebill said.
However, Padovani, Anthelmette’s daughter, contacted Williams through the aunt, and, eventually, she encouraged Williams and Brakebill to come to Normandy.
It was in September that Williams and Brakebill decided to make the journey to visit Anthelmette’s grave at Sarzeau, France.
Padovani took them to Thabor Park, where she’d found what she believed to be where Charlie and Anthelmette met for the last time — Brakebill did not tell Anthelmette that day, June 11, 1945, that he would be shipping out.
Padovani then took the men to Anthelmette’s grave, where Charlie spent a few moments alone and left a small arrangement of rosebuds.
Brought together — and separated — by war, both Charlie and Anthelmette had gone on with their lives with one lasting connection: Charlie’s letters.