A tiny piece of metal buried for almost 70 years near the beaches of Normandy found its way to New Orleans on Veterans Day as a series of coincidental, if not providential, events culminated at the National World War II Museum.
The story began in July 2012 as my office prepared for a ten day economic development and tourism mission to Belgium and France. Included in our plans was a visit to Caen, the site of the Memorial de Caen Museum, as well as a day at the American Cemetery where 9,386 American soldiers are buried.
Simultaneously, a young Frenchman named Laurent Meslier was searching for hidden treasures with his metal detector on a farm not far from Omaha Beach. He discovered a dog tag, beneath six inches or so of dirt, belonging to an American soldier named John Mack from Centreville, Louisiana. Instead of keeping it, discarding it or putting it up for sale on
E-Bay, Monsieur Meslier decided that it should be safeguarded for posterity. He went online and located a website for the Council for Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL). Representatives of CODOFIL were set to join our delegation in Belgium and France where a series of Accords were to be signed, renewing longstanding education and economic ties with Louisiana. Joseph Dunn, the organization’s executive director, immediately contacted Cathy Berry, my chief of staff, who embarked on an arduous search spanning two continents to delve into John Mack’s role in the war and to determine the whereabouts of John Mack or his family.
Drafted into the Army in 1942, John Mack was a native of St. Mary Parish who worked on Moriah Plantation for W. Prescott Foster, the uncle of former Louisiana Governor Mike Foster. Upon entering the service, he was trained as a truck driver and was part of the invasion force that descended upon France after the initial landing on D-Day. He was a member of the Army Motor Transport Service that was code-named the Red Ball Express. The service was established in August 1944 and consisted of trucks that carried supplies following the invasion as troops advanced into Europe. The Red Ball Express was so named because the trucks were marked with a red disk. It was predominantly (and almost exclusively) comprised of African American soldiers who endured hazardous driving conditions but managed to deliver more than 500,000 tons of ammunition, food, essentials and sometimes wounded or dead soldiers from St. Lo to Paris. This was the largest logistical operation ever attempted and, according to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, established the life line for American troops during this critical phase in the European Theater. Napoleon once observed that “an Army travels on its stomach” and a great American General noted that “good logistics alone can’t win a war but bad logistics alone can lose it.” John Mack and his colleagues from the Red Ball Express provided the good logistics that assisted in winning the war.
After being honorably discharged, John Mack returned to St. Mary Parish and worked for Governor Mike Foster, then a young sharecropping farmer. Governor Foster remembers John as a hard worker who seldom talked about his wartime experiences but often wore military fatigues to work. He died in 1975 but his surviving relatives eventually were located. The initial contact was John’s great nephew, Morris Mack, whose wife Janet still works for a member of the Foster family. Three of John’s daughters, Brenda Mack, Barbara Mack and Cathy Mack, as well as another daughter, Sandra Mack who lives out of state, soon were identified.
On October 20, 2012, Laurent Meslier presented the dog tag to me at a ceremony at Memorial de Caen. It was returned to America for enshrinement in the National World War II Museum.
Shortly after the story became public, we were contacted by Vanessa Pourciau, who wanted to introduce us to her father, Russell Sorapuru, one of the relatively few surviving members of the Red Ball Express. Adding an interesting twist to this story, Russell Sorapuru, prior to the war, worked for Andrew Jackson Higgins at Higgins Industries, which manufactured the landing crafts that enabled our soldiers to storm the beaches of Normandy. General Eisenhower called Higgins “the man who won the war for us.”
On Veterans Day, the Louisiana Bicentennial Commission sponsored perhaps the largest military parade in Louisiana’s 200-year history. Its chairman is Lt. General Russel L. Honoré (Ret.) who gained national fame after being designated commander of the Joint Task Force Katrina and who told a reporter not to get “stuck on stupid” when questioned about the federal government’s response to the storm. The parade featured the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, which has played at every presidential inauguration since 1961, as well as military bands from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. The parade was inspired by a similar parade held in New Orleans on the Centennial of Statehood in 1912. John Mack’s dog tag was carried from the reviewing stand at Jackson Square to the National World War II Museum by George Jones, the President of the Buffalo Soldier Association.
The story of the Buffalo Soldiers adds yet another interesting wrinkle to this saga. Shortly after the Civil War, legislation was adopted to create six African American Army units, whose members ultimately became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. One of these units was the 9th Regiment of the U.S. Calvary established in September 1866 in what was then a suburb of New Orleans known as Greenville, in the area now known as Audubon Park. The regiment served with distinction during the Indian and Spanish-American Wars and during the westward expansion of America. The Buffalo Soldiers were so named by the Plains Indians because of the color of their skin, the texture of their hair and their fierce fighting ability. They were led in the Spanish-American War by General John J. Pershing, resulting in the General being given his nickname, “Black Jack.” The Buffalo Soldiers are a proud, but little-known chapter in American military history. Mr. Jones symbolically represented all black soldiers in carrying John Mack’s dog tag for placement in the National World War II Museum. With tears in his eyes, he presented the dog tag to Dr. Nick Mueller, the President of the museum.
Adding still another ironic twist to this beautiful and patriotic New Orleans day was the presence of Helen Patton, the granddaughter of General George S. Patton, who spent time in Louisiana inspecting the wartime training of millions of American soldiers at Fort Polk near the Kisatchie Forest which provided a fitting landscape to prepare for the European Theater.
And so, in the presence of General Patton’s granddaughter; four generations of Mack family members; one of John Mack’s fellow soldiers in the Red Ball Express; the President of the Buffalo Soldiers Association and General Honoré, who never would have reached his rank during the periods of segregation that preceded his service, the dog tag of a heretofore unrecognized African-American soldier buried for decades near the bloody beaches of Normandy reached its final resting place at the National World War II Museum. That tiny piece of metal came home on a day when Louisiana commemorated its bicentennial and saluted its veterans, including some not always remembered as part of the greatest generation.