WESTFIELD – Many remember D-Day as a turning point in World War II, but a local family has an interesting sidelight to the story.
On June 5, 1944 when Sgt. Robert Todd from Westfield found out he was going to be a father, he could not have known his life would soon turn into a tragic story. Todd was called into battle on one of the greatest days in our history – June 6, 1944.
Todd and 17 other paratroopers as well as four crew were aboard a C-47 airplane, and all lost their lives as the plane was shot down by enemy fire, crashing into an open field in Magneville, France on June 6. The paratroopers had been sent in advance of the amphibious landings on the beaches of Normandy, France.
The Invasion of Normandy was the largest use of airborne troops up to that time, according to a D-Day website, www.army.mil/d-day. Soldiers marched along a 50-mile stretch of French Coastline to fight Nazis on the beaches.
Stella Sheath had met Todd when he was stationed in England. Todd dated Stella for several months, but she never knew about Todd’s death. She assumed he had gotten cold feet about her pregnancy and abandoned her. Their son, David Sheath, was born and raised in London, England. Stella was so heartbroken and bitter about Todd she never married or had any more children.
David didn’t know anything about his father until his mother’s death in 2002. She left a letter telling him his father was Sgt. Robert Todd from Westfield N.Y. David contacted the war department, and found out his father died on D-Day only a couple months before he was born. However, he couldn’t find any Todds left in Westfield. Ten years later, he contacted the Westfield historian who directed David to the Lancasters.
Bonnie Lancaster is the niece of Todd; she and her husband Richard Lancaster met David in 2012, when he spent a couple weeks in Westfield getting to know his father’s side of the family.
Bonnie said none of them had a chance to know Todd, and the one person who could have told David about his father was her mother.
“If my mother would have known about David she would have gotten on a plane that day, and gone to England to see him,” she said. “My mother was absolutely devastated when she heard of her big brother’s death. She would have loved to have known David.”
For the 70th Anniversary of D-Day the Lancasters, and Bonnie’s sister, Valerie Macer planned a 23-day trip to England and France. They began on May 29 in London, England and headed out to Magneville on June 5. Bonnie said the best part of the whole trip was going to the town where her uncle was shot down.
“It was a big ceremony for us. The Mayor (Maurice Duchemins) met us in the center of the town. He walked us to the memorial, and when we arrived there there were about 30 people there to greet us. The town’s people sang the French National Anthem to us, and the mayor had prepared a speech for us,” she said. “The kids put flowers on the monument for us. Back at the town hall we met Alfred, age 87, and through an interpreter we heard his story.”
“Alfred was 17 years old when my uncle’s plane was shot down. Alfred and his brother heard the crash and went to see. They saw the airplane was on fire, and returned in the morning to gather the bodies with their school teacher Marcell Quenault, now 92-years-old,” Bonnie continued. “They gathered the bodies, wrapped them in parachutes, and took them to the church and buried them so the Germans couldn’t get to them.”
On June 6 Bonnie, Richard, Valerie, and David went to Normandy to take part in the memorial commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
When the American cemetery at Normandy was dedicated, a search for Americans killed and buried in surrounding towns was instituted and subsequently the bodies of Todd and the other paratroopers who died in the plane crash were moved from Magneville to the American cemetery in Normandy.
“They (the French) take care of all the monuments in the cemetery,” Bonnie said. “They are really grateful the Americans got rid of the Nazis.”
A guide named Andrew Lewis takes care of the graves in the American cemetery in Normandy, France.
“He takes people to find the cross they are looking for,” Richard said. “You would wander around all day looking for it and never find it.”
During the special ceremony David was allowed to sit in the VIP section.
“He shook hands with President Obama,” Richard said. “There was seating for 10,000 people and many were standing. There was a television screen as big as a wall put up for people to see the President of France speak. We got sand from Omaha Beach and brought stones and other things back from the crash.”
“Robert’s family was absolutely devastated by his death,” Bonnie said. “We don’t know for sure why his body was not brought back to Westfield.”
“There is a cross in the Westfield cemetery with Todd’s name on it,” Richard said. “We placed some of the stones and sand there.”
After a long time of not knowing who his father was, David found out his father was a hero in one of the greatest battles in history, and he now has a recently-discovered family in Westfield.
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