As a child growing up in Normandy, where the memory of the Allied landings on June 6, 1944 — D-Day — is everywhere in the form of cemeteries, memorials, and museums, Mathieu Delamotte developed a keen interest in the events that saw the region play a major role in the liberation of Europe from the grip of Nazi Germany.
“The town where I was born was 75 percent destroyed by the bombardments of June 1944,” Delamotte, 41, said via email of his hometown of Valognes. “We can still guess the ravages of war. I spend a lot of time listening to the elders tell me their memories, and I am constantly searching for objects and relics from this period.”
Delamotte works at the Azeville Battery museum, once a heavily fortified German artillery position about 3 miles from the English Channel that was part of the Nazis’ vaunted “Atlantic Wall.” Its guns rained fire on Utah Beach, one of two American landing zones for three days following the initial invasion, until the battery was captured.
Last summer, Delamotte, who has acquired what he described as a “small museum” of World War II artifacts that he keeps in his home, purchased a U.S. Army life vest — known among G.I.s as “a Mae West” — from a man, whose father, a farmer in the nearby village of Picauville, had collected World War II surplus gear after the war.
With their towns and villages effectively reduced to rubble by the fierce fighting that continued for about two months after D-Day, French citizens picked through the supplies left behind and made use of what they could and traded the rest, Delamotte said. Some pieces of equipment became keepsakes, stored in attics or closets, only to be discarded, sold to collectors, or given to museums when their owners died, he said.
When Delamotte examined his latest acquisition, his interest was piqued when he found the name John Soah stenciled on it. A little gumshoe work later, and he discovered Soah hailed from the Sag Harbor area.
Earlier this fall, he reached out to The Sag Harbor Express, hoping to learn more about the man who left his life jacket behind.
Soah, who died in 1994, worked for years with the Southampton Town Highway Department, where he retired as deputy highway superintendent after a stint as shop foreman.
Brian Gilbride, who worked with Soah, said his family had originally lived near Anchor Road in Noyac, but that he had later moved to a house at North Sea and Sandy Hollow roads in North Sea.
He said even though he chatted with Soah nearly every day, he never discussed his wartime experiences. Albert “A.J.” Labrozzi of Sag Harbor also worked with Soah at the highway department. He described him as friendly, but said he had never once mentioned the war.
According to an item in the September 27, 1945, edition of The Sag Harbor Express, Soah, who had attained the rank of sergeant, returned in September 1945 after two-and-a-half years overseas.
The article noted Soah had been the guest of honor at a welcome-home party hosted by his mother, Mrs. John Soah of Noyac, with entertainment provided by “Hugo Grimm and his accordion.”
Along with a list of decorations, which included a Purple Heart for having been wounded, an ETO Ribbon with six battle stars, and a Presidential Citation, the article said that Soah, who had been assigned to the 17th Airborne Division, had received an honorable discharge.
Back in France, Delamotte said something did not add up. The 17th Airborne Division had not taken part in D-Day, he said, but had landed troops in Holland in September 1944. The 82nd and 101st were the only airborne divisions to take part in the Normandy invasion, he said.
Was it possible that Soah had been transferred from one division to another? Or that his life jacket had somehow made its way from Holland to France? While the latter is unlikely, it is possible Soah was transferred to the 17th Airborne when he was shipped home after the war.
Meanwhile, after contacting The Express, Delamotte tracked down one of Soah’s daughters, Patricia Murphy, who now lives outside New Orleans.
Reached by telephone this week, Murphy said she had ignored Delamotte’s letter because she assumed it was a scam.
But Murphy said her father had, in fact, served in the 82nd Airborne during his time in Europe and had told her he had parachuted into France on D-Day.
“He said jumping out of planes was the scariest thing he ever did,” she said. But Murphy said her father, like so many other men from his generation, rarely talked about the war. “He said there was nothing good about it,” she said.
Delamotte said this was not his first attempt to reconnect with Americans who served in World War II. In 2017, while using a metal detector near a farm field, he found a bracelet that had been given to John Hill, an American G.I., by his mother. Delamotte was able to track down Hill, who was living in Syracuse, to return the piece.
Although Soah is no longer alive, Delamotte said he would still like to connect with his surviving children. Although Murphy said she was not interested, she said her sister, Joann Callahan, who lives in Stamford, Connecticut, might be. Callahan did not return numerous calls this week.
“What interests me the most is being able to study an object, thanks to a name, a number, a testimony, and succeed in retracing part of its history,” Delamotte said. “It’s a way for me to pay tribute to all these people who have suffered, to all these people who lost their lives, who lost loved ones … during this war —this war that took place on the land where I have always lived.”