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Barrow resident remembers husband who was killed soon after D-Day, 70 years ago

POSTED: June 8, 2014 12:00 p.m.
Bonny Harper/Barrow County News

Barrow resident Helen McDaniel holds the picture of her husband, James McDaniel, who died during the D-Day campaign in France during World War II, an event which began 70 years ago last Friday.

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Once, a little over 70 years ago, a girl fell in love with a soldier.

They spent 10 days together as a married couple before he left for the war. But in the D-Day invasion in 1944, her soldier was killed.

The soldier, 22-year-old James Brunell McDaniel, was from Crawford, and the girl, 17-year-old Helen Fagan, was from Winder. Their relationship spanned about a year, from dating, to marriage, to James’ death.

His widow would not lay eyes on his grave until nearly 54 years later on a 1998 trip to France with three close friends for that purpose.

It's been seven decades, but Helen, now 88 years old, still remembers her time with James—though it was only about a year altogether, and most of that was spent physically apart.

The pair of Georgians seemed to hit it off instantly. They had known of each other as children, so Helen began talking to James when he was on a short leave and visiting his aunt, who lived next door to Helen.

"I remember one thing," Helen said. "He had the prettiest white teeth. Brown hair, brown eyes and pretty white teeth."

But James had to leave to return to service in the Army, a pattern with which Helen would become very familiar over the next months.

"Then he started writing to me," Helen said. "That was in 1943, because I was still in school."

Helen, born July 7, 1925, turned 18 that summer after graduating from high school, and she transitioned from working at a five-and-dime to working at a drug store. All the while, she and James wrote each other in between short leaves he was permitted to take every now and then.

"When we were dating, he'd be home on leave and he'd come to see me, and my sister said that I would sit there and sleep while she and him were sitting there talking," Helen said, laughing. "She used to tell me that all the time."

Helen didn't sleep away too much of her time when James was visiting, though, because those days were very few.

"We didn't have too many days (physically) together when we were going together, because he was in service all that time," Helen said.

Regardless, Helen was always "thrilled to death" when James was able to visit, and toward the end of the year, James asked Helen's father for her hand.

"I remember the night that he asked my dad," Helen said. "I remember Daddy saying he (James) came to him and told him he wanted to marry me. Daddy just asked that he be good to me, and said that if he didn't think that he could be good to me, that I would always have a home there with my mother and daddy. But they always thought the world of him; they always liked him."

And so it was that on Nov. 2, 1943, when James was once again home on a brief furlough, Helen's sister and a boy she was seeing at the time took Helen and James to the home of Rev. Ben Wilkins, the pastor of what was then Second Baptist Church and is now East Side Baptist in Winder. The two were married that Tuesday night.

They spent the first night of their marriage at the home of Helen's family in Winder and then spent the next days with James' family in Crawford before he had to leave to go back to camp in Fort Jackson, SC.

Aside from those first few days as a married couple, Helen, who continued to live with her parents in the interim, remembers two weekends that James was able to come back home before he finally shipped out for the war late that December.

"One time he came on a Saturday night and had to leave the next morning," Helen said. "We lived on the highway at that time, and he went down there and was thumbing a ride to go back to Athens and get the bus back to Fort Jackson."

The next time Helen saw her husband was at Christmas. He sent Helen a telegram that he was coming home, so she rode with James' father back to Crawford on that Friday afternoon and spent the night there prior to James' arrival the next day.

However, James did not arrive during the day as Helen anticipated. He had taken the bus into Athens and had requested that the driver wake him up when they reached Athens. The driver did not wake him, and when he finally opened his eyes, he was in Atlanta. He then took the train back to Athens in a storm.

"It was raining when he came that night," Helen said. "I remember him coming in that night, and he was soaking wet."

After the initial delay, their time together that Christmas visit was shortened even more when the Army lessened the length of his furlough from three nights to two. He spent both nights with Helen at his parents' house, and then got back on the bus in Athens to return to Fort Jackson.

"And that was the last time I saw him," Helen said. "All the time, put together, that we were together when we were married was 10 days."

When James shipped out to France for the war, he and Helen did not stop writing each other.

"I would look for the postman every day," Helen said. "I remember the postman's name—Aubrey. And I'd sit there and wait for Aubrey to come every day."

James also sent Helen a package on behalf of one of his fellow servicemen, Bill Koch, asking her to send it to the Koch's parents in Pennsylvania. This action would prove useful for Helen later on in finding answers to her questions.

Helen still has a box of the letters James sent her, and a poem he wrote and sent her from France hangs in a frame above her mantle, along with a yellowed photograph of him in his uniform.

The poem, entitled "Towering Faith," tells of his sorrow at being away from her, and describes her beauty, comparing her to the stars, the trees and the sea. The final stanza reads:

 

"But forever you'll be waiting

With all the love we knew

Until the storm is over

And I come home to you"

 

Little did James know when he wrote those words, just how long Helen would indeed have to wait.

One June night in 1944, Helen stayed at her grandmother's house, and the next morning, her father and a neighbor came and delivered a telegram to her—the telegram from the war department, stating that her husband, James Brunell McDaniel, had been killed on June 17.

In her grief, Helen sought information. She wrote back to Koch's parents in Pennsylvania, asking them to send her their son's current address and informing them what she had been told about her husband. They wrote back saying they did not think their son could have been with James that day, because they had received a telegram saying their son had been wounded on June 10, four days after the D-Day invasion on Normandy Beach. Nevertheless, they gave her the address to a hospital in England, and she wrote Koch there.

Koch wrote her back in August of 1944, saying that the war department had made a mistake on the date of her husband's death, because James, who Koch called "Mac," had died the morning of June 10, before Koch was wounded. The soldiers had been in a ditch behind a hedgerow when the Germans had sent over a heavy barrage of artillery.

"Mac was killed almost instantly," Koch's letter said. "He never knew what happened."

Her questions answered, Helen continued to live with her parents. She later learned from Koch's parents that Koch had rejoined the outfit in Belgium and was killed that October.

Helen never remarried, because "the right one just never did come along," she said. She held many jobs over her lifetime, the last one being a clerk for the Barrow County Board of Commissioners for 17 years before she retired in 1994.

Four years after her retirement, former Winder mayor and state representative John Mobley, a dear friend of Helen since his childhood, held a fundraiser to take Helen to France to see her husband's grave. Thus, in May of 1998, Mobley and his wife Shirley, as well as another childhood friend Colleen Williams, accompanied then-72-year-old Helen to France, where she finally visited her husband's grave in a military cemetery at St. Laurent, just a month shy of 54 years after his death.

There is also a marker in honor of James Brunell McDaniel at Barrow Memorial Gardens on Atlanta Highway.

Though it has been 70 years since the D-Day invasion on Normandy Beach, those who gave their lives have not been forgotten. More than 60 million lives were lost in World War II, 420,000 of which were American. Each life was its own story. The story of James Brunell McDaniel and Helen, his young bride, is just one of them.

 

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