CHAMPAIGN — With Veterans Day approaching, Champaign police Sgt. Tom Frost is delving into his family’s military past.
His family has always told stories of his great-uncle, Robert Gifford, who lived in Robinson and whose commanding officer was the actor Jimmy Stewart. In 1943, while navigating a bomber over occupied France, he was shot down and died later that day.
But he did not die alone.
Frost’s family has details about the final hours of his great-uncle’s life, thanks to a French nun who cared for him at a hospital in Vouziers, France.
“At some point over his death, the nun had corresponded with what would be my great-grandmother,” Frost said. “Obviously, the letter is in French.”
Frost’s great-grandmother, Mr. Gifford’s mother, had that letter translated after she received it in 1946. More recently, Frost had it translated again to make sure it had been done correctly the first time.
The results paint a picture of a caring, courageous nun named Sister Marie Valentine, and a brave soldier who stirred the sympathy of a town.
“Your son arrived at the hospital December 30th, at 7:30 in the evening with another soldier, Aguilar,” the letter read. “Aguilar had three wounds that I dressed right away. With all my heart I can say to you that it gave me pleasure to see an Allied soldier.”
Mr. Gifford was in poor shape when he arrived at the hospital. His plane had been shot down about 10 a.m., and he did not reach the hospital until the evening. He had bled white, the letter said, and his arm was broken and mangled. There wasn’t much skin left.
The German interpreter standing at his bedside was not sympathetic. Having already argued with the nun about giving Aguilar a tetanus shot, the German reacted harshly when Mr. Gifford asked — in French — for water.
“Your son having said ‘water’ (a boire) the interpreter almost leaped on him, saying ‘he knows French,’” the nun wrote. “I replied, ‘My heavens, he knows how to ask for a drink in French, like I do in German.’ From there, a violent discussion took place with him, and it’s a wonder I wasn’t arrested, but I wasn’t afraid to talk back to them, you know. I busied myself with Robert, giving him something to drink, calling the doctor, and then the priest, seeing that he was very bad.”
The priest arrived and spoke English with Mr. Gifford before he was ushered in to surgery.
“But he was too weak,” the letter said.
The nun stayed with him all night and asked about his family. She told him that, if she could, she would tell his mother about his final hours.
Much of what Robert was saying was unintelligible. The nun was able, however, to decipher a word at the end.
“Toward one o’clock, before he died he said ‘mother,’” she wrote. “I assure you that I was deeply moved by that, for I thought how far off he was from the one he called.”
After his death, a German officer thanked the nun for how she cared for Mr. Gifford. Aguilar left the hospital in tears. Mr. Gifford was buried with two other soldiers. A large group of people later gathered at the graves.
“The young people had taken up a collection to buy wreaths and flowers for the graves, and it was beautiful to see the sympathy of everyone in Vouziers for these brave men,” the nun wrote.
Frost said he finds the nun’s story compelling.
“I think that letter really just paints a portrait of how the French people were so happy to see the Allied troops coming in,” Frost said. “You hear these stories about them standing up to these (German) soldiers.”
Frost said he has never been able to visit the grave of his great-uncle, whose body is still buried in France. He has, however, sent flowers to the grave.
Decorating military graves is something he used to do as a young child with his family in Crawford County.
“It’s always been instilled in me that there’s always been a very strong military history in my family,” Frost said.