Guest Blogger Richard Lombardi shares his journey to discover his family’s history.
Growing up I often heard stories about my Grandfather’s brother who died during World War II. All I knew was that he – Uncle Toofy, as he was called – had been in the Air Force, and that his bomber had been shot down. According to the story, he had volunteered for his fateful mission to replace a man that was unwell. There is a photo of my Uncle Toofy at our family memorial in Victoria Lawn Cemetery. I naturally assumed that he was buried there, and for many years I never gave it much thought.
From 2003 to 2006 I taught elementary school in England. However on a summer trip home in 2005 I came across a photo at my Grandmother’s house. It was a photo of my Uncle Toofy. He was dressed in his Royal Canadian Air Force uniform. You can tell from his big, beaming smile that he took great pride in it. I began to ask my Grandmother about him and learned that my great uncle was not – as I had thought – buried in St. Catharines, but somewhere in France, and no one was quite sure where. I quickly went online and found my way to the Canadian Veterans Affairs website. Within minutes not only had I discovered the exact location of his grave, but I was actually staring at a photo of his tombstone. I was in complete disbelief at what was on the screen. No one in our family had ever seen his gravestone before and here it was. I quickly shared this information with the rest of our family, and told them all that I would be making a trip over the next year to visit the grave site.
I now wanted to know so much more about my Uncle Toofy’s military service. Luckily, I was heading to Ottawa so I contacted the National Archives and was informed that I could request my Great Uncle’s military records. I made the request, and upon visiting the archives I was handed a box and shown to a table. I was unprepared for what I was about to discover. I figured if I was lucky there might be few documents about his service record. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I opened the box, and slowly turned over the file folder cover. Transcripts of interviews, medical records, test scores, telegrams, his original military application… it was all right there. I began to write down as much information as I could. Then I came upon a page I will never forget. It was a telegram dated June 14, 1944, addressed to my Great Grandfather. It read as follows, “Regret to advise that your son R one five six nine four six warrant officer second class Adolphe Joseph Ricci is reported missing after air operations overseas June thirteenth.” It was surreal to be reading the exact telegram my great grandparents had read to learn about their son’s disappearance. I can’t imagine the pain and anguish they must have been immediately plunged into. I investigated further, and learned everything from the time, and location of the Halifax bomber’s departure, to the farmer’s field 6 km from Rouen, France that the plane had crashed into. There were seven of them onboard, and my great uncle was the only Canadian, the rest were from the Royal Air Force. This makes it possible that the story of him volunteering for the mission could indeed be true. According to the records it was his first and only mission as a navigator on a Halifax bomber.
If the telegram wasn’t emotional enough I then came upon my Great Uncle’s hand written will which was dated April 15, 1944. To see his hand writing was incredible; I was touching the same paper he once touched and instantly felt a connection to him. What could he have been thinking as he wrote those words? Was he afraid to die?
It wasn’t until March of 1945 that the military declared him to be deceased. My poor Great Grandparents spent nearly a year wondering if he was alive. During this time, I learned through letters that were kept in the file that my Great Grandfather requested the names and addresses of the other servicemen on board, but he was denied his request. A grieving father looking to share with those that could relate to his pain, and to learn if they had any information that he wasn’t being told. After the crash the Germans buried them in a communal grave, and somehow in the aftermath of the war their grave was discovered, and they were repatriated to a cemetery in Beauvais, France. A patch was found in the initial grave that had “RICCI” on it. Our family photo of the handsome young man in his uniform now had a story to accompany it. There was only thing left to do, I had to go to his grave site. But I would have to wait eight months before I was able to make the pilgrimage.
In early May of 2006 I had an opportunity to set out for the cemetery in Beauvais. As I took the ferry across the channel, I can remember feeling very emotional as I represented our entire family on this trip. Nearly sixty-two years had passed since he died and I felt honoured to be the first person to visit his final resting place. I picked up my rental car and headed for Beauvais. The drive gave me even more time to think about my Great Uncle and Great Grandparents who suffered so much. My Grandmother told me how my Great Grandfather was never the quite the same after his son’s death. He passed away “with a broken heart” in his fifties.
I knew the cemetery was somewhere in Beauvais but I didn’t have the exact location, or a great map! I drove into town and stopped in to pick up some flowers at a local shop. I don’t speak any French so asking directions to the war cemetery was quite the struggle. The man behind the counter gave me a small map and circled the cemetery for me. It was quite a way out of the city and when I finally got there I quickly realized it was a German soldier cemetery. It was strange, and I was a bit disappointed because I wanted the man at the flower shop to know I was a Canadian coming to pay my respects to one of our fallen heroes. I regrouped, grabbed the map and headed to the next cemetery – no soldier graves. By now the butterflies in my stomach were getting stronger and stronger. One more cemetery to try. As I approached the small iron gate I saw some Commonwealth tombstones, and my stomach dropped; I was finally in the right place. It was a small cemetery, as war cemeteries go, and there were a mix of Commonwealth and French graves. It was difficult not knowing where his grave was, it was emotional to walk each row looking for the distinctive RCAF emblem that adorns the top of all Canadian Air Force war graves in Commonwealth cemeteries. About half way through the cemetery were seven graves that sat side by each. At that moment I knew that my journey was about to come to an end. I scanned across the top of each grave and there it was, the RCAF mark. I looked down and read the name, A.J. Ricci. I gently approached the stone, knelt down on one knee and pressed my hand against it. I had made it. There I was, representing my Great Grandparents, Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, Mother, siblings, and cousins. Finally, after nearly 62 years a member of the Ricci family was reunited with our war hero.