BANGOR, Maine — Three centuries after his family crossed the Atlantic looking for a new life in a New France, 2nd Lt. Onias Martin was tasked with pushing Nazi forces out of the homeland of his ancestors.
On August 10, 1944, the Madawaska native sat atop a tank — part of the 5th armored infantry division — as it rolled around a bend in the road, near the tiny village of Bonnetable and into the sights of an anti-tank gun.
German forces had fled the area surrounding the village, knowing the Americans were coming. A pair of German soldiers, just teenagers, had been left behind to cover the retreat. They had manned a captured French cannon and turned it on the approaching Allied column.
Seeing the gun, Onias jumped off the tank. The tank and gun fired almost simultaneously, but the tank round struck first, shifting the aim of the gun. The shell hit Onias, killing him instantly. He was 25 years old.
One of the young Germans was killed and the other captured.
Onias’ body was left on the side of the road that night, according to Bonnetable newspaper reports. The next day, when the body was retrieved, the newspaper reported that one of the villagers had laid flowers around the body overnight.
The villagers built a crude memorial, including a cross and a piece of the destroyed anti-tank gun, near the spot where Onias was killed. Later, it was replaced by the stone monument that stands there today.
The caretaker of that memorial, Frederic Gaignard, 37, his wife, Veronique, 41, and daughters Alexine, 7, and Zoe, 5, are visiting Maine this week to learn more about Onias, see where he came from and meet his family.
Much of the conversation has been in French, which is still spoken by many of the elder Martins and a few members of the younger generations.
“In France, we never forget about the sacrifice the USA and G.I.s made for our liberation,” Gaignard said Saturday during a barbeque with members of the Martin family at the Essex Street home of Normand Martin, one of Onias’ brothers.
Gaignard said the respect and reverence for the soldiers who helped free France has been passed down by the older generation.
Gaignard volunteered to start caring for the memorial five or six years ago because the Bonnetable men who took care of the site previously were getting older. Gaignard said he felt compelled to take up the effort to keep Onias’ memory alive 68 years after his death.
Onias and the young German were the only casualties of WWII in Bonnetable.
Onias was one of thousands of Americans killed during the liberation of France. But for the people of Bonnetable, there was something unique and endearing about this Acadian-American.
His name was French. He looked like a Frenchman. He shared their language despite the fact that his family left the country hundreds of years before. He came from a place in the United States called “Maine,” which shares its name with the traditional French province in which Bonnetable is located.
The village wanted to know everything about Onias, this long-lost Frenchman. The doctor, the local newspaper editor, the priest, town leaders all sent letters in the years after the war to members of the Martin family.
To this day, the Martins and the people of Bonnetable have close ties. Nearly 70 years later, letters are still being exchanged. Onias’ brothers and other family members have made several trips to the village over the years to visit the monument and swap stories with the people of Bonnetable.
Bonnetable still hosts an annual event on the date of Onias’ death called Lt. Onias Martin Camp, during which as many as 70 reenactors from the area set up a G.I. camp complete with tents, WWII-era uniforms and a convoy of about 50 U.S. military vehicles, according to Gaignard. There’s also a road in Bonnetable named after Onias.
In Bonnetable, the American is known as “our Onias.”
This is Gaignard’s first visit to Maine. On Sunday, the Gaignards and members of the Martin family are driving from Bangor to Madawaska, where they will tour the home Onias grew up in and visit his gravesite.
Madawaska will host a ceremony to welcome the Gaignards and celebrate Onias on Tuesday, July 24. The event will start at 11 a.m. with a series of speakers at the Martin family plot in St. Thomas Aquinas Cemetery.
Speakers will include Fr. Jacques LaPointe, Town Manager Christina Therrien, Maine Rep. Charles Theriault, Frederic Gaignard and Raynald Martin. The Knights of Columbus and American Legion also will participate.
A lunch will follow the ceremony. Photographs, articles and letters will be on display in the basement of St. Thomas Church. There also will be public tours of the Martin house, a national historic site, on St. Catherine Street. Members of the public are invited.
During Saturday’s barbecue in Bangor, Gaignard showed Onias’ brother, Raynald Martin of Brewer, a jar of dirt.
Gaignard explained that the jar held soil from the ground around Onias’ memorial in Bonnetable and Gaignard asked to spread the soil at Onias’ gravesite in Madawaska.
A tear rolled down Raynald’s cheek.
Editor’s note: Nick McCrea, the author of this article, is grandson to Raynald Martin and great-nephew to Onias Martin.