For many, the weekend commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings recall glory and valor. But for Francoise Piloy and others like her, the anniversary of D-Day inspires a mix of pride and pain over their role in history: part of a generation born to "lost fathers," mostly African-American GI's who simply disappeared after the war.
It was 1944 when Piloy’s mother, Simone Gautier, met a polite, well-spoken GI. He had brought his laundry over to their house in Caen, a small town in Normandy. Pvt. Jim Guice, from Ohio, spoke no French and Gautier, little English — but despite the language gaps, they fell in love.
Guice sent letters to Gautier as his unit moved onto Paris, then Belgium and finally, Germany, writing in pigeon English so she’d understand.
"Me love Simone," reads one of the undated letters. Another contained a proposal: "Me speak you me marry."
The soldier later wrote warmly to express his joy about becoming a father.
"Darling, you speak your baby from me — very good for me, for you, 1 baby," the letter said.
That baby was Piloy. Now 68, she has spent years wondering why, after arranging through an Army chaplain for her mother to apply for a marriage license, Guice never returned to Normandy for the wedding.
Piloy's mother waited two or three years for Guice to come back, raising their child in the meantime and scraping by as a seamstress.
Desperate for answers about her missing fiancé, Gautier then wrote to the War Department in Washington. A letter from the Adjutant General, dated April 17, 1946, informed her that one Pvt. James W. Guice had been discharged from the service.
"I grew up thinking I would never see him again."
It was Army policy not to furnish home addresses of former soldiers, the adjutant general’s letter said, adding that any correspondence would be forwarded to Guice's last known address.
Month's later, Gautier's letter to her love was returned to sender, unclaimed.
"My mother told me he disappeared," recalled Piloy, speaking to NBC News from her home in Caen. "Thinking he was dead, I never questioned it further. I grew up thinking I would never see him again."
Until, that is, she stumbled upon an article about the work of Alice Mills, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Caen and local expert on black GI’s during the Normandy invasion.
Mills has spent years digging up clues on the 1,700 or so African-American soldiers who reached the beaches but whose stories were airbrushed out of the then-segregated U.S. Army's archives.
In her book, "Black GI's — Normandy 1944," Mills explains why she chose such a mission.
"When I arrived at the University (of Caen) in 1994, the city was displaying huge photographs commemorating the 50th anniversary of the (Normandy) Landing. Not a single black GI was represented in them."
Cahier du Temps
Cover of Alice Mills' book about black soldiers at Normandy
She was able to record the accounts of dozens of local eyewitnesses who detailed the courage and kindness of black GI’s, but "in the collective imagination of French citizens born after the war, the liberating hero was exclusively white," Mills explained.
She began receiving requests from African-American families searching for any information about lost loved ones who had fought in Normandy. Occasionally, French citizens of mixed race — like Piloy — reached out.
Through her research, a pattern has emerged, according to Mills.
"My impression is that as soon as the U.S. authorities were aware of biracial couples wanting to marry or Norman girls getting pregnant, the black soldier was quickly sent away," she said.
While marriage between GI’s and French women was common — at least 6,000 such unions took place in France and the U.S., according to Mills — it would have been incredibly difficult at the end of the war for a mixed-race couple like Piloy’s parents.
This was, after all, the America of 1945 that Guice and his young French fiancée would call home. It would be two years before Jackie Robinson broke through baseball’s racial barrier — and longer before broader American society’s attitudes toward race began to change.
The unwelcome reality of race relations in America was not lost on the women in Normandy who had fallen for GIs across the pond, according to Mills.
"One young woman from Normandy was supposed to go to America to marry her black fiancé," Mills said. "She was pregnant. But when she heard and read what their child would have to face in America as a black person, she decided to stay in France."
Mills says she's still looking for Piloy's father, and may be close to a breakthrough: Just this week, confirming his date of birth — 1908 — and a wartime residence in Franklin, Ohio, through a laborious cross-checking of her files.
But no clear answer has emerged as to why Piloy's father disappeared after the war. The mystery is not unique — other French children of "lost fathers" have even formed a support group, holding out hope for answers to their questions.
Courtesy of Francoise Pilloy
Francoise Pilloy with her two granddaughters at a recent b'day party in Caen
Despite being bullied as a child because she was black, Francoise says she is lucky: her mother went on to marry a "good" French man who loved her as his own daughter and she herself is a proud grandmother.
Still, Piloy said she would go to her grave more peacefully if she could hold just one photo of Guice — but stressed that she has a happy life and thinks kindly of the African-American father she’s never known.
"I admire that he left his family and offered his young life to save a country he didn't even know," she explained. "I'm proud of this hero’s blood that runs through my veins."
First published June 7 2014, 9:53 AM