Amid crisis, an American soldier finds the love of his life
CORNELIUS – At another time, their story might have been thought a fairytale.
A young French girl meets a young American boy, and though at first they can’t even talk to each other, they grow old together.
But when Jeanne Martin, of Cornelius, met her late husband, Robert Downs, he was a military police officer in the European Theater of World War II.
Robert’s division – the 509th Military Police – was sent to Denain, in northern France, to help keep order.
“We all went to see all the Americans troops – tanks and cannons and all kinds of soldiers,” Jeanne recalled recently.
“There were so many people from my hometown that must have been there. My friends and I were standing there, and I don’t know but he came to us. I couldn’t speak any English, and he couldn’t speak any French… and he came to talk to us with his dictionary.”
After only two weeks in Jeanne’s hometown of Denain, Robert’s unit moved on to Belgium and, eventually, to Germany.
The two wrote letters to stay in contact.
During the war, when she was 18 or 19, she worked at a Red Cross shelter in her hometown.
“It was awful,” she said. “We would pick up the little children. The dead were all over the place. Blood was all over the place. We went to a hospital (that had been bombed), and I passed out.”
While she was working in Denain, Robert was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. “We were scared to death when they said the Germans are coming back,” she said with a sigh. “But they didn’t make it.”
Jeanne’s grandson Jon Spencer, who lives in Cornelius, has heard stories like these since he was little, and her stories inspired him to study history.
“The Battle of the Bulge was basically a counter-offensive, where Hitler used all his heavy tanks to make a bulge in the offensive line to punch through. What really killed the offensive was that he didn’t have enough fuel to do it,” Spencer said.
“But what’s significant with my grandmother and grandfather was that his unit was pulled out of Denain to back up troops who were pulling out. So he had to leave my grandmother,” he said.
With part of her country still occupied by Germany and other parts serving as a passageway for the Allies, Jeanne lived in fear. Denain was a dangerous place. The Red Cross stood near a factory, a prime target for German bombs.
The Nazis’ whirring buzz bombs were often audible.
“The buzz bomb was a V-1 rocket that would launch from a track,” Spencer said. “It had a wing on it, and just before it crashed, you’d hear a buzzing sound.”
“We used to be afraid of them because you’d never know where the thing was going to land,” Jeanne said.
Despite the separation, Robert and Jeanne continued their correspondence, with some help. “I had a translator, and he had a translator.”
“Just before Christmas in 1945, I received a letter (asking) if I wanted to meet him in Fecamp,” she said. The two met at the beach town in northern France.
“We went to the railroad station, and he took his dictionary, and word by word he asked me if I wanted to marry him. Naturally, I was startled, in a way, but – ‘Yes,’” she laughed, “‘yes!’”
Robert returned to the U.S. in 1945, but Jeanne wasn’t able to join him until 1947 because of immigration restrictions.
“There was not much to prepare,” Jeanne said. “I just packed my bag, and that was it. My older brother, he told me, ‘You go, you go.’ Oh, I felt bad to leave him, but it was destiny.”
Jeanne left in February and arrived in London four days later. Winter weather made travel difficult.
“I didn’t speak any English, and on top of that, I was alone.”
But after two weeks, Jeanne arrived at Robert’s home in Connecticut.
“He had to post a $500 bond, in case it didn’t work out, that would pay for my ticket back to France,” Jeanne said. “But we were married for 51 years.”
Jeanne and Robert had two children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Robert died in 1998.
After living in the Northeast for much of her life, Jeanne moved to North Carolina about three years ago.
A few years ago, Jeanne got a call from a man she didn’t know, asking to speak to Robert. When the man found out that Robert had died, he told her “When he first saw you, you know, (Robert) said, ‘That girl, I’m going to marry her.’”
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