Letters of wartime love keep memories alive

  • Article by: FRED BROWN , Knoxville News Sentinel
  • Updated: December 27, 2013 - 11:49 PM

A box full of photos and love notes found its way back to WWII vet 69 years later.

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World War II veteran Charlie Brakebill visited the grave of Anthelmette Guillard Letourneux, who kept his love letters for decades.

Photo: Jack E. Williams • Special to the News Sentinel,

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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.

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