John Dunaway has spent a lifetime wanting to know more about one of his heroes.
He has followed him through his thoughts, his dreams, his prayers and his travels, fitting him together like pieces of an old puzzle.
His name was Robert Myers Matteson. But, to John, he was Uncle Bob. He died six months before John was born, one of 407,316 servicemen and women killed in World War II, the deadliest military conflict in history.
“Uncle Bob has been revered by the family — by his brother, by his sisters, nieces and nephews,’’ said John’s wife, Trish Dunaway. “When you talk about Uncle Bob … he was a hero.’’
In a sense, he still is larger than life. His iconic photograph covers an entire wall inside the entrance to the National World War II Museum.
The photo of the paratrooper boarding a military plane in Great Britain in preparation for D-Day was a publicity shot. It also appeared on the cover of the Army Times. The identity never has been verified, but John can claim with some degree of certainty it is his Uncle Bob.
“One of his buddies (after Matteson died ) visited with my grandparents,’’ John said. “He said there is a lot of disagreement about who that is, but he said we know it’s Bob because we knew how he packed his stuff, and you could see it. He said in this photo you could tell it was not him actually getting in (the plane) because they were so loaded down, they had to have somebody push them into it.’’
Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied Forces undertook the largest seaborne invasion in history, combining land and air attacks of Nazi-occupied France and beginning the final massive push to liberate the rest of Europe.
John is a retired professor of French and Interdisciplinary Studies at Mercer University, where he taught full-time for 44 years. He and family members have made a half-dozen trips to Normandy, where more than 2 million visitors are expected for Thursday’s anniversary remembrance.
The Dunaway family will be traveling to France, too, but will be in Paris that day. They will head to Belgium, where Matteson is buried at the Henri-Chapelle American Military Cemetery, near Trimester-Clermont. He was killed in the Battle of the Bulge six months after D-Day.
Dunaway’s son, Michael, a filmmaker, will accompany the family on the trip. He was given Matteson’s jump boots, and he is working on a documentary film entitled “The Boots That Saved Us.’’
On a trip to Normandy two years ago, John and Trish witnessed the D-Day re-enactment for the first time. Matteson was the 82nd Airborne as part of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regime. They were among the first paratroopers who trained at Fort Benning with the 82nd Airborne.
Their objective was to secure the bridge on the Merderet River. He was one of about 15,000 paratroopers who landed at Sainte-Mere-Eglise after midnight on June 6, 1944. He is mentioned in the book, “Night Drop: The American Airborne Invasion of Normandy” by S.L.A. Marshall, an Army combat historian and the author of more than 30 books on warfare.
Trish said the depictions of parachutes in the stained-glass windows at the Notre Dame De la Paix in Sainte-Mere-Eglise “look like angels coming down.”
Matteson was the oldest brother of John’s mother, Katie “Kit” Dunaway, who died in November at age 95. Their father, Benjamin, was a Methodist minister on the North Georgia circuit and an Army ambulance driver in Europe during World War I.
Matteson briefly attended Young Harris College. He never married and had aspirations of becoming a physician. He enlisted in the Marines and took a job as a traveling salesman until the U.S. entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
He was a veteran of almost the entire war in the European Theatre — from North Africa to Sicily and Italy, where he earned a Bronze Star and was given a battlefield commission. After the D-Day invasion, he took part in the liberation of Europe through Holland and Belgium.
Matteson’s family received its final letter from him in December 1944. His words were upbeat. He even talked about possibly being home for Christmas. But he and the others were rushed back to the front, poorly equipped and ill-prepared for the harsh winter.
He was killed on January 3.
It broke his family’s heart.
“Mama always regretted he wasn’t buried here so she could visit his grave,’’ John said. “But Granny and Grandpa said they wanted him with his buddies.’’
The Henri-Chapell American Cemetery and Memorial, where “Uncle Bob” was laid to rest among 7,987 graves of the war dead. The tiny crosses stretch across an immaculate 57 acres. Many of the soldiers interred there died in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle of the war involving U.S. troops and the second-deadliest battle in American history.
Families are assisted in locating the graves of their loved ones. American and Belgian flags are placed in the ground, and taps is played.
A small bucket of sand is carried along, where it is rubbed into the name inscription to make it more visible.
The sand is from the beach at Normandy.
“It’s kind of like the beginning … and the end,’’ John said. “A lot of these guys were in D-Day.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.