Ralph E. Johnson
Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army Air Forces
Shot down over France, February 24th, 1944
Burial place unknown for over 60 years
Three angels looked down from the side of a tall chapel that seemed to reach into the clouds and hold up the sky. A spot of shimmering sun broke through the gray and briefly kissed their wings, dropping silver dust onto their granite gowns. Their trumpets called the fallen to rest, and me to St. Avold, France where I would, after a two-year search, finally bring answers to my family. Where had my Uncle Ralph been laid to rest after being shot from the sky by German planes on a gray February morning in 1944? His brothers and sisters, mother and father, only knew that he gave his life in battle. I had to see the space and touch his name.
I looked up, and it was as if the largest cathedral on earth had turned inside out. Row upon row of white crosses lined the hundreds of acres that gently rose and fell to a soft valley of sacred silence.
Small cement benches dotted the outdoor cathedral, and I was glad. My knees were weak. I wanted to think about my Uncle Ralph, the one I knew from pictures and stories told to me from my mother’s knee. I felt like I had missed something very special.
I wanted to see what I saw in my mother’s eyes when she described the two of them selling carrots from the garden to earn a dime to get into the matinee to see Tom Quick or Hopalong Cassidy.
I sat for a moment and looked across the valley of marble markers. Cross upon cross, marble on grass, they glistened with the oncoming winter and sparkled when a bit of sun broke through the gray. A Star of David altered the rhythm of the crosses every once in a while, like a well-placed crescendo in a sonata.
11,000 soldiers lie in eternal slumber in the acres of marble and grass the stretched before me. I shuddered as I stood and I knew it wasn’t from the cold. I thought I would be able to walk right up to Uncle Ralph’s grave. I knew it was in area K, the row number was 18 and the grave number 26. But there was such symmetry here, such regal sameness. I couldn’t find the row. I couldn’t find his name. Appropriately, no signs pointed the way.
I wandered, looking, counting, walking, freezing, frantically searching for my family name. I could no longer control the shaking in my hands. One white cross after the other met my eyes. Up one row and down another, I searched among the men who fought and died for their country. Men of all nationalities lie here. Different from one another, yet united in this sacred outdoor cathedral.
After hours of searching, with shoes filled with sleet, my eyes fell on the name I had wanted to touch all my life, Ralph E. Johnson. My heart was in my throat, my breath ragged and wet with tears. Could there be another Ralph E. Johnson? No. The numbers from his I.D. were the same. It was him.
I kneeled in the freezing grass, the cold wet working its way into my skin, and touched his name, felt the freezing letters on my fingertips. I kept touching the cross, yet wondered if I should. Had anyone touched it before now?
I just kept reading the same words, Staff Sergeant Ralph E. Johnson, died on February 24th 1944. I could see him, sense him. I had his face memorized from the boxes and albums filled with pictures that I sort through nearly every time I visit Mom.
I knew his spirit, and sense of humor by the stories I had coaxed out of Mom. But now I really felt him. He felt tall and kind. I wanted to talk to him, to learn about his life, his short life before it was taken from him before he became an angel.
He lay with thousands of America’s most giving children. I touched his name again and prayed that he felt comfort here, among his comrades. I prayed in thanks that I had found him, that I could tell him how much his family cares that he lived. I could tell my family where he now lay.
I pulled out my camera, to record this sacred place, and as I clicked the shutter, recording Uncle Ralph’s name, a single leaf flew to the cross I came to see and touch. It flitted for a moment on one side of the cross and then fell, to become part of the earth, to continue the life cycle.
Stiff with cold, I rose, kissed my fingers, traced his name and promised to be back. Walking to the front gate, I looked up to Gabriel on the front of the chapel, standing guard over these innocent souls. The tears again caught in my throat and spilled down my face. I turned to look back over this monument to courage.
I half expected the angel Gabriel to tell me it would all be okay. I wondered how many families had prayed for exactly the same thing. I felt like a missing piece of history could now take its place in our family.