‘Notre Onias’: 70 years later, French villagers honor a Maine soldier’s singular sacrifice

Posted Aug. 30, 2014, at 5:30 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 03, 2014, at 11:52 a.m.

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BONNETABLE, France — Second Lt. Onias Martin drew his last breath on a narrow French country road flanked by farmland and pastures. A native of Madawaska, he returned to his ancestral homeland a freedom fighter and died a hero in 1944, French newspapers said at the time. The people here haven’t forgotten.

On Aug. 10, 70 years later, I stood on the road where my great-uncle Onias died. Beside me were 10 family members, including my grandfather and grandmother — memere and pepere. We gazed at a stone monument for a man whom only one of us, my grandfather Raynald Martin of Brewer, had known.

We were surrounded by about 300 people — residents of Bonnetable and surrounding villages, dignitaries, local politicians, U.S. embassy officials, military representatives — paying their respects and remembering his sacrifice.

Onias was the only American killed in a skirmish just outside the village of Bonnetable as the 5th Armored Infantry Division pushed its way, town by town, field by field, through the French countryside, during World War II. He was struck by a wayward shell fired from a French cannon that had been commandeered by two young German soldiers.

Onias Martin, one of 15 children born to Denis and Alphonsine Martin, was 25 years old when he was killed. A respected athlete, he aspired to play professional baseball. He was one of 21,000 Americans killed during Operation Overlord — a campaign that began with the invasion of beaches in Normandy and ended with the liberation of Paris — during the summer of 1944.

The Mainer died 5,000 miles from home, but in a way he still died in Maine. Bonnetable is in Sarthe, a French “department,” an administrative division. Historically, that area was included in the Maine Province, but the boundaries were redrawn and name changed after the French Revolution. Signs and references alluding to “Maine” can still be found all over these cities and villages. You can even find the University of Maine in Le Mans.

Residents erected a monument — a simple wooden cross topped with Onias’ helmet — in the spot where he fell. Years later, they raised money to build a larger, lasting stone monument: a pillar built around the original, which is protected within the walls.

We stood in front of the memorial on the anniversary of his death flanked by honor guards holding American, French and Acadian Flags. Taps played and tears flowed, and not just from our family members.

Locals took the microphone in hand in front of the monument to talk about how important Onias is to Bonnetable, a town of about 4,000 residents about two hours west of Paris. To this day, many in town call him “notre [our] Onias.” A Sherman tank, similar to the one Onias would have ridden on the day he died, sat on the road just outside the semicircle crowd.

When my grandfather took his turn at the microphone, he shed tears while speaking in French to the crowd about his brother and about how important Bonnetable had been to his family and its healing in the decades after Onias was killed. Denis and Alphonsine exchanged letters with town officials for years. Many of Onias’ brothers and sisters made the pilgrimage to Bonnetable to see the memorial and meet the people.

The gratitude and respect for a 70-year-old sacrifice is still palpable here. I can’t remember feeling more welcome, more appreciated in a place — and not because of anything I’ve done, but simply because I share some blood with a man who gave his life.

The entire countryside — from Normandy to Paris and everywhere in between — celebrated and mourned this summer. Each town appeared to host its own event, a dinner, parade or concert, commemorating its liberation day.

In Bonnetable, the annual liberation celebration is held at Camp Lt. Onias Martin, which is set up in a park just outside the town chateau — castles that served as royal residences and vacation spots for France’s elite can be found in many villages, even small ones.

There’s a culture of people there who take great pride in preserving military history, at the expense of great time, energy and money. Groups go to great lengths to restore WWII-era vehicles and acquire full military uniforms and other artifacts handled by soldiers during the war.

The camp was crawling with French citizens dressed in full U.S. military gear. Tents were set up, complete with cots, typewriters, office supplies, cameras and cooking implements.

Parked throughout the camp were a selection of American military vehicles, ranging from jeeps and command cars to halftracks and a Sherman tank. Later, nearly a dozen of those vehicles joined a convoy that later brought people to the ceremony at Onias’ memorial.

At the camp, I spoke with a group of three high school students — Alban Courant, 18, Raymond Bellencontre, 16, and Hugo Beaumont, 18 — dressed in 101st Airborne uniforms. They weren’t comfortable with their English. I chatted with them in my broken version of French.

They are active in military reenactments and events. They spent several weeks of their summer participating in various D-Day remembrances and liberation ceremonies throughout the region.

Why? To remember and respect the sacrifices of soldiers who fought to liberate their homes, they said. Their favorite course in school? History.

When they asked me what I did for a living, I told them I worked at a newspaper. For the rest of my visit, they called me “Peter Parker,” Spider-Man’s alter ego who worked as a freelance newspaper photographer.

Later in my visit, I spoke with a woman at the camp who said she was 5 years old when American tanks and jeeps traveled through the streets of Bonnetable shortly after Onias was killed. She told me, in French, she remembers the excitement of the day. She doesn’t remember many details, but the memory of a U.S. soldier kneeling down and handing her a chocolate bar has stuck throughout the years.

“I ate a lot of chocolate that week,” she said with a laugh.

She said the gratitude toward foreigners who made the ultimate sacrifice to free France and stymie the Nazi takeover has been passed from generation to generation in these towns.

One thing the Martin family took home after this trip was the generosity and openness of these people. During our visit, we toured surrounding villages in a convoy of restored jeeps, command cars and troop trucks. At each stop, townspeople came out to greet us and chat. Children, who heard the convoy approaching, ran to the sidewalk to wave as we passed.

In Terrehault, a town official allowed us inside an 11th-century church, just because we were there. In St. Aignan, the village our family stayed in during our visit, the mayor and owner of the chateau gave us a tour of the historic building and an overview of its significant renovations. We were told we were the first members of the public allowed inside in decades. A similar offer was extended in Courcival, where the proprietor of the 16th-century chateau offered us a tour.

When my grandfather thanked him, he waved his hand, saying, “It’s not you who should be saying thank you.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.