Saturday 18 May 2013

Finding Gilbert

Image Lierutenant Johnson & Gilbert Desclos (far left) courtesy

As the American jeeps unloaded their rifles and ammunition from the trucks on Omaha Beach, Lieutenant Johnson eyes someone in the long grass.  The little boy waved and Johnson waved back.  "Comment t-appelles-tu?" the Navy man asked.  "Gilbert".  With that short exchange, a friendship was formed that would span decades.

Gilbert Desclos was an orphan who lived with a woman named Mrs. Bisson.  He loved watching the large Navy ships come and go from Omaha Beach.  In fact, it was hard for his caregiver to tear him away from the beach at the end of the day.

Donald Johnson was a lieutenant in the Seabees, a U.S. Navy Construction Battalion.  Homesick for his own children whom he hadn't seen for at least a year, it was a welcome treat for him to see this young boy with the kind smile.  By mid-day, Lieutenant Johnson invited Gilbert to lunch in his broken French.  

In the mess tent, Gilbert dined on roast beef, potatoes, carrots, peas, freshly baked bread and apple pie.  What a treat for a boy who was so accustomed to meagre portions.  Again, at suppertime, Johnson invited him to dine in the mess tent.  And again, Gilbert filled his tummy.  "A demain", said the American as he watched the French boy walk up the path to Mrs. Bisson's house.  

Photo courtesy

Soon, Lieutenant Johnson was giving the young orphan rides in his jeep to the beach. He would also give him piggy back rides.  Gilbert dined three times a day in the mess tent.  The duo became inseparable:  when Johnson was called to repair a collapsed bridge, Gilbert would waited patiently until he returned.  With each conversation between the two, Johnson's French improved as well as Gilbert's English.  Hello, goodbye and ice cream were added to his vocabulary as well as Lieutenant Johnson.  "L'homme americain" had grown very fond of "le garcon francais".  "Could he adopt him?" he asked.  The emphatic answer was "Non".  

One night, in October of 1944, Lieutenant Johnson boarded a ship for America with Gilbert in tow.  Within an hour, a storm raged on the sea and the ship was forced to stay docked until it passed over.  Just before they planned to leave, French gendarmes boarded the ship and insisted on taking the boy with them.  "Non!" he wailed, tugging on the lieutenant's thick wool Navy coat.  But the decision had been made; he was to return to Mrs. Bisson.  

Image courtesy

The next day his caregiver put him in a French orphanage where he would remain for years.  Thankfully, in his teens, a kind woman unofficially adopted him.  As an adult, Gilbert joined the military, found a job, married and had one daughter.  But he never forgot the kind faced American who had showed him unconditional love.  He told his family that he had a family in America who would come and find him one day.  

Donald Johnson returned to California where he too had a daughter, named Diane.  He would tell her about Omaha Beach, the French countryside, the great Navy ships and a little boy named Gilbert.  When he talked of Gilbert, his eyes would shine.  The year his daughter married, he returned to France to find the boy but to no avail.  He thought it was not to be.  

Donald Johnson passed away in 1991 but his daughter never forgot about his memories and about the little boy.  In 1993, Diane travelled to Omaha Beach to write about the 50th anniversary of D-Day the following year.  As she stood on the cliffs, tears rolled down her cheeks:  she wished that she had asked her Dad more questions about his D-Day experience.    


Image of Omaha Beach on D-Day plus 1 courtesy

She wrote an article for a California newspaper mentioning Gilbert Desclos, thinking it might take years to find him.The press attache for France, stationed in San Francisco, read the article.  "Why not search for him?" he asked.  "The French don't move around like Americans," he explained.  So, when Diane returned to France to accept a military medal on her father's behalf in 1994, she placed an ad in the local newspaper.  The following day, Gilbert read the article and wrote a letter to the woman's home address.  While Diane toured Europe with her daughter, her sister faxed her a copy of the letter from Gilbert.  On the last day of her trip, she read the letter and phoned M. Desclos, eager to connect.

Within hours they met at a sidewalk cafe in Caen.  Gilbert had the kind smile that her father had described.  He actually looked like her father.  As the Frenchman and the American woman talked, they sipped on apple brandy made in the French countryside.  Gilbert explained what had happened to him in the intervening years.  After a warm felt hug, they promised to meet again soon.

In 1997, Gilbert and his wife flew to America, a dream come true.  They met with 40 members of the Johnson family.  Diane made more trips to France.  In fact, she planned her last trip in 2009, but found out four days before her departure that Gilbert had passed away from liver cancer.  She was able to attend the funeral, however.  At a chapel in the Normandy village, the daughter placed a photo of the seven year old Gilbert with the American lieutenant on Omaha Beach, on his coffin which was draped with the tri-colour flag.  It had taken fifty years, but the inseparable pair was finally reunited.  

Source:  "Finding Gilbert" by Diane Covington, Reader's Digest, June 2009.

Author Diane Covington courtesy


  1. My girlfriend and I just happened to be in Normany on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. We woke up in a little B&B on the beach and discovered the whole town was celebrating and the hotel was full of US and British vets. We joined the parade and celebration in town, and one of the first people we met was a Frenchman, dressed in a US military jacket three sizes too small, and a US cap and helmet. He was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning, and had apparently been in such a hurry shaving that morning that he left a big patch under his nose. With his unrestrained excitment, dress, and hurried grooming, he looked a bit comical, but when we were able to understand what he was telling us, the vision of him changed. He as an orphan boy when the invasion happened and an American(s) adopted him, fed him, looked after him and befriended him when he apparently had no one else. The anniversary of D-Day to him was indeed like Christmas morning. He would not stop hugging and shaking every vets hand. We weren't vets, and were not even born then, but he hugged us too, and we basked in his love of everything American because of the kindness of our troops, in the middle of war, so many years ago.

    1. What a heartwarming story, Phil! What are the odds?Thanks for sharing!