Sixty years after his death, a daughter remembers her father's sacrifice
Tracy B. Cieniewicz, Hartselle Enquirer
A box of World War II memorabilia and a wristwatch have connected a Hartselle women to a group of special Americans and an extraordinary woman in France.
Linda Guyton has no memories of her father, Hartwell Riley Howington, who died in WWII at the age of 26, just 17 months after she was born. However, Guyton said her childhood as a "war orphan" was never sad or underprivileged.
"Mama was a very positive person," Guyton recalled. "She was always smiling and laughing. We lived with my grandparents and they all saw to it that I had a very happy childhood. Maybe that was why I never asked questions as a child–I was too busy having good times to think about sad times."
Guyton and her mother lived with her grandparents in their Pensacola, Fla. country home until she was in the eighth grade. It was then her mother met and married WWII veteran Adam Lewis, who moved Guyton and her mother to their own home in the city.
Guyton remembers her stepfather as a wonderful man who showed great respect for her father's memory, as well as his family.
"Mama loved him so much and so did I," Guyton said.
When Guyton was 16, her new family increased with the addition of a baby sister, and then another when she was 18.
"Even with the tremendous age difference between my sisters and me, we have always been very close," Guyton said. "I cooked the Thanksgiving turkey each year until they made their own families and was even there for the births of their children."
When Guyton's sisters were in junior high school, their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She lived until Guyton's sisters were 16 and 18, the same ages Guyton was when they were born. Guyton was now married and had started her own family.
"It was after her death that my step-dad gave me a box containing war memorabilia belonging to my father," Guyton explained. "That is when the questions really began, but it was too late to get the answers from my mother."
Piecing the puzzle
Guyton was overwhelmed when she first began to look through her father's belongings. She remembers being amazed at how many letters, newspaper clippings, photographs and other personal effects were at her fingertips.
"At this point in my life I had a husband and two young daughters," Guyton recalled. "And, probably for the first time ever, I began to realize what sacrifices both of my parents had made. My father had been killed at age 26 and my mother had been left a widow with a little girl at age 24. Until this time, I don't think I had ever really been aware of the trauma and sadness that had been a part of Mama's life."
However, after just losing the only parent she had known, Guyton was not ready to deal with the mysteries in the box.
"So, I returned my focus to my husband and daughters and life went on."
Gradually over the years, Guyton began to pull items from the box and study them. She found correspondence between her parents and read about their plans to buy a house. Then she discovered many letters returned to her mother stamped "Missing In Action."
"It amazed me to see how faithfully she wrote for over a year, not knowing if he was dead or alive," Guyton said. "Even those letters were still optimistic."
She also found her father's Bible, where he kept a log of each of the nine missions he flew with the 44th Bomb Group, a partial list of his crew members' names and address es, his Air Force wings, a Purple Heart medal and a tattered wristwatch.
Guyton slowly pieced the puzzle of her father's death together and determined he was killed Jan. 21, 1944 in France when his plane was shot by German forces. He parachuted from the disabled plane but did not survive the landing.
"Over the years I would occasionally take out this box and eventually I did read all the letters," Guyton explained. "I learned that a young French girl, Gilberte Daumal, had witnessed the plane crash and had found my father's watch on the ground after the Germans carried his body away. She retrieved the watch and made it her destiny to someday return the watch to the family of the young soldier, Hartwell Riley Howington."
An unknown French girl
Daumal obtained the addresses of Howington's surviving crewmembers who escaped being taken as German prisoners of war and were hidden by the French Underground. A crewman responded and gave the 22-year-old French lady the names and addresses of Howington's brother and wife. She wrote the following letter to Howington's brother on Aug. 6, 1944:
I am an unknown French girl, but you will understand the reason why I dare write to you. I think you have heard the death of your brother Lt. Howington Hartwell. I am very sorry to revive your pain and I am deeply moved to tell you a sad story so difficult for me to translate in English.
On the 21st day of January 1944, at three o' clock in the afternoon a big airplane fallen touched by antiaircraft near my small village somewhere in France. I perceived several paratroopers in the sky, then with many people I went and saw the remains of the airplane which burnt. Suddenly a French man called us, he had uncovered a paratrooper.
I was very afraid to approach near him, I did not want to see his face because I am a girl of feelings. People told me that he was not wounded but his limbs broken by the downfall, the blood flowed by his ears, nose and mouth.
A man who was working in the fields said to me to have seen him who struggled in the air because his parachute did not open. German soldiers were there, they put his papers and perhaps jewels but I can not assure you. I stayed aloof and I saw something which shone on the ground. Quickly I looked, it was a wristwatch there were some drops of blood outside and inside. I kept it in my hand preciously I did not want that Germans took it.
I tried to know his address but I have been forbidden to approach. I just learn his name and birthday but I swore to myself to send this dear souvenir to Howington's family. At that time I did not know how much difficult it would be with these insufficient information!
The day after I went again at the airplane, one or two airmen who could not jump out were ground and burnt. Germans put their remains into a small coffin. Lt. Howington was too in a large coffin, soldiers carried him in a truck, his body passed in front of me. I crossed myself and the tragedy finished.
He was buried in the cemetery of Poix at 10 kilometers from my village and I knew his grave very well where I went often to bring flowers and pray for him and his family so far. Now I am very sad because his grave is not there, American authority has taken away all bodies and transported them in a village in a other district in order to make a military cemetery, but I know the name of this new place.
During the occupation I could not make inquiries I was waiting for the liberation. I learnt that a French woman of French Forces Inside had lodged four American paratroopers who were in the same airplane.
Lastly I went and saw her she gave me four civilian addresses so I wrote on the 18th of April in the same time I wrote to the American Embassy in Paris which replied very quickly and could not give Howington's family's address. I was beginning to despair when the 13th of last July, I received a lovely letter from one of Howington's comrades Charles Blackley. He indicated to me two addresses yours and Mrs. Howington's. I choiced yours because I suppose but I am not sure if his wife knows this bad news. Please show her this letter if you like and tell me how and by which way I can send the wristwatch as soon as possible.
Destiny has confided a mission to me and it is nearly finished. Please excuse my bad English but you must understand how difficult it is to write a so long letter.
Give my regards to Mrs. Howington.
Guyton said her uncle responded and told Daumal she was no longer an "unknown French girl," but rather a friend to his American family.
"Gilberte completed her mission when she returned my dad's watch to my mother by registered mail," Guyton said. "The watch had been a gift from her and his mother to him on the day he was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force. Giberte had returned a very precious gift to the giver."
Daumal and Guyton's mother corresponded for many years, and the widowed Howington even sent Daumal fabric for her wedding gown when she heard of the shortage of materials in France.
For reasons unknown to Guyton, the letters ended and the story of Daumal and the wristwatch went untold for decades.
Sharing her heritage
By exploring the box of memorabilia, Guyton also discovered more than half of her father's crew had survived the crash. She began to dream of one day finding some of the crewmen or Daumal, but 25 years passed and only a few feeble attempts were made.
However, Guyton's dream began to take form last year with the help of her son-in-law.
"One day Seth began to ask me questions that I couldn't answer about my dad's military service," Guyton explained. "He said he wanted to pass that heritage down to the next generation. So I got out the box and Seth got on the internet and found three possible phone numbers for me."
Guyton made the calls and left messages, but each call went unanswered for months. Until one day when the widow of Earl Boggs, a crewman on Howington's plane, called and led Guyton to the widow of another survivor, Archie Barlow, and gave her the number of Charles Barkley, the crewman who helped Daumal return Howington's wristwatch to his family.
"There is no way to describe the feeling that came over me when I first heard the voice of this man who not only knew my father, but was also with him when he died," Guyton said. "One of the first things he said to me was, 'You know your father was a hero, don' t you?'"
Barkley directed Guyton to more contacts, which ultimately led to her finding Daumal, the "unknown French girl" who had been so kind her family, and developing a close friendship through correspondence.
"And this brought the answers and closure for me, as well as the opportunity for me to express my appreciation to this remarkable lady for her kind and heroic deeds of so long ago," Guyton explained. "Through very sad circumstances she and my mother had developed a friendship almost 60 years ago. Now this friendship has been renewed between this young woman, who is now 82 years old, and the little girl, who is now 62 years old."
Guyton has also continued to stay in touch with those associated with the 44th Bomb Group and her father's last mission. She said she is thankful for each person who helped her uncover her father's legacy, which will be shared with her family for generations to come.
"I would encourage kids to get to know a veteran and hear their stories," Guyton urged. "I wish people of all ages would take the time to remember all the men and women who have fought in all the wars, served our country and given so much to all of us. It's an exceptionally rewarding experience."