What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Disconnected by war, family reunites through student history project

Decades after losing touch, family members from two different continents were reunited at the American Cemetery in Normandy, France, to honor a World War II soldier who was killed in action just after the D-Day invasion. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports on the educational program that brought them together.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Editor’s Note:

    The full name of the National History Day program that Josh Slayton was selected for is called Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Earlier this week, we showed you a national history program that teaches high school students about World War II and D-Day by having them follow the life of a U.S. service member from their own community to the American Cemetery in Normandy, France.

    Tonight, the NewsHour's April Brown has the story of how one of those students' research projects united families from two continents. It's part of our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Just a few months ago, Judy Shumaker of Meadville, Pennsylvania, had no idea she had French family members longing to connect.

  • JUDY SHUMAKER:

    I'm so happy.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Decades after losing touch, relations on both sides of the Atlantic met at the American Cemetery in Normandy to honor a World War II soldier killed in action just after the D-Day Invasion of June 6, 1944.

  • ANNOUNCER:

    Six o'clock, D-Day, landing time for the first beachhead boats.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Though he was born a Frenchman, Pierre Robinson died a sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was the adopted son of Shumaker's grandfather, John Robinson.

  • JUDY SHUMAKER:

    He was very quiet and very mannerly.

    I heard that grandpa loved him very much. He said that. I heard that he was killed and grandpa was very sad and never really got over that. I often wondered over the years if any members of the family on his side were still alive.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    There were. And they were interested in their American family.

  • GILLES GROSDOIT-ARTUR:

    I'm Pierre's second cousin. So, Pierre's mother, Blanche, was my grandmother's sister.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Gilles Grosdoit-Artur had been trying to reach out to Pierre's American family for years.

  • GILLES GROSDOIT-ARTUR:

    I had always heard about Pierre from my grandparents. I had always heard about my grand-uncle and my grand-aunt, lived in Meadville.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    But the families never connected until a Meadville-area high-school student, Josh Slayton, began looking into the soldier's life and death.

  • JOSH SLAYTON:

    Through all these months of research, you really do feel like you know this person.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    In March, before heading to France, The Meadville Tribune profiled Josh and his efforts to find out more about Pierre.

    And that led to meeting Judy Shumaker.

  • JUDY SHUMAKER:

    I went, yes, finally. Finally, somebody recognizes an ordinary man with an extraordinary story. APRIL BROWN: Pierre was born in France in 1914. His birth father would die just two years later, killed in action during World War I. His mother, Blanche, remarried in 1920, and her new husband was Judy Shumaker's grandfather, John Robinson, an American soldier still stationed in France after the war.

    Robinson adopted Pierre and moved to Pennsylvania, where Pierre would spend the rest of his childhood. In 1941, Pierre enlisted in the U.S. Army and, by 1944, Sergeant Robinson became one of thousands of soldiers taking part in Operation Overlord, the code name for the Allied invasion of France.

  • JOSH SLAYTON:

    This morning, we went to Omaha Beach, and that was really amazing, because that is the beach that he actually came in on, on June 6, 1944, D-Day.

    It was just really amazing to feel like we were there with Pierre.

  • ANNOUNCER:

    Through the cloud gaps, the airborne spearheads saw something of the invasion armada.

  • JOSH SLAYTON:

    You have seen all of the pictures, all of the ships and landings crafts all out in the channel. And just to see how much things have changed, but still you can just imagine how massive this invasion was.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Pierre had made it back to France, but would never again meet his French family. At his grave site, with the French and American families together after so many years, Josh delivered a eulogy to Pierre.

  • JOSH SLAYTON:

    Pierre survived the initial landing, but on the afternoon of June 7, 1944, the 3rd Battalion was facing strong opposition just below Vierville-sur-Mer. While out on patrol, Pierre was killed by a rifleman. In the reflective words of Pierre's adopted father, John Robinson, "I couldn't have had a better son if I had one of my own."

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Pierre's mother, Blanche, requested her son be buried in a permanent American cemetery in France, the one nearest to where he gave his life.

  • JUDY SHUMAKER:

    War can take away things that can never be given back. It can break families.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    The American and French families began to lose touch after Blanche's death three years later. Now they are finally reunited.

  • GILLES GROSDOIT-ARTUR:

    There is a sense that there's more to it than American students. It's kind of too beautiful to be true.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    These cousins are now in regular contact with each other, as well as Josh and John. And they all plan to keep in touch, making sure Pierre's story lives on.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm April Brown in Normandy, France.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest