Linda Orlando of Bellefonte, Del., whose father, Leon Truitt, carried her baby shoes with him during the D-Day invasion, holds the recently returned silver sweetheart bracelet her mother gave her father when he left to serve in World War II. Around her are other artifacts of her father's life and wartime service. (Robert Craig / The News Journal)
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BELLEFONTE, DEL. — Sixty-nine years ago, 160,000 Allied troops endured a rough English Channel crossing and a deadly German crossfire to crawl into Normandy and begin reversing the tide of World War II. Some 4,414 Allied soldiers, including 2,499 Americans, were killed, according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation — more U.S. troops lost than in 11½ years of war in Afghanistan.
This story begins a couple months later, when a soldier from Delaware who had joined a D-day invasion unit was shot and wounded. He brought home a sniper’s jewelry — and lost a piece of his own, which lay in the dirt in Brittany, France, for 68 years.
The 115th Infantry Regiment came ashore near Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, on bloody Omaha Beach, late on the morning of June 6, 1944. By July 27, it was fighting in western Brittany, southwest of Normandy, trying to take the port and enable the delivery of much-needed Allied supplies. A month later, the fierce fight for Brest continued.
Technician 5th Grade Leon Truitt of Prices Corner found himself in a field with his company, pinned down by sniper fire. Across a road, a woman, apparently a local Nazi sympathizer who was not in the German army, was firing at them from the attic of a cottage. She killed several soldiers, then spotted Truitt and fired, wounding him.
Truitt fired back, killing her. Truitt took the woman’s rosary, a brooch and her black apron, and stuffed them in his backpack, where he carried his daughter Linda’s little white baby shoes. She would turn 1 the following day, Aug. 28.
At some point — it’s not clear whether it was during the firefight — a brushed-silver “sweetheart” bracelet his wife, Grace, had given him to wear had broken off his wrist. Truitt, a mess sergeant pressed into infantry duty, was treated, healed and rejoined his unit through the end of the war. He was discharged as a staff sergeant on Oct. 17, 1945, and returned home to Delaware.
Leon, the youngest of 12 kids, and Grace had two more daughters — Robin and Cindy. “Very tenderhearted man, very good-hearted,” recalled Linda, whose married name is Orlando. “Very protective of his family, his children.” Like many war veterans, he didn’t talk much about his combat experience. But at least once, he did talk about the day he was shot.
“I think that troubled him,” Linda said. “It was one thing to shoot a man. When my father was brought up, you were protective of women. I think that bothered him, to some extent, to know he killed this woman. But in war, you have to do some things you don’t wish to do.”
Grace died in 1980; Leon followed a year later.
About 10 months ago, his granddaughter, Lisa Nicholson of Brandywine Hundred, received a call at work from her husband: a young woman had called who was trying to find Nicholson’s mother, Linda. “This sounds crazy, but I have a friend who lives in Normandy, and he likes to do metal detection,” the woman, Daphne Domingo of Washington, D.C., told a skeptical Nicholson. “He found a bracelet that we believe was your grandfather’s.”
Domingo’s French friend, Kevin Muzellec, had found the bracelet in western Brittany, where the 115th had been fighting. It had taken the pair a year of research to find Nicholson. They didn’t want anything for their labors. They simply wanted to return the bracelet.
The photo Domingo emailed was intriguing. On one side of the bracelet, which had about an inch of chain remaining on one end, “LEON TRUITT” was inscribed, along with his service number. On the other side it read “GRACE TO LEON.”
Nicholson remained suspicious. She went to the National Archives’ website and plugged in the number. Her grandfather’s name popped up. She did a Web search for Domingo and verified that she really existed. Nicholson was convinced.
It was six days before Linda’s 69th birthday. Nicholson had the bracelet sent, and planned a surprise party.
“Joyeux Anniversaire!!!” Muzellec wrote on his side of the birthday card he and Domingo sent along with the bracelet.
Linda, a longtime Bellefonte resident whose husband, Guy, died in 2007, was thrilled. Yet her reaction was mixed.
“It kind of made me sad,” said Linda. “My dad and mother aren’t here to say, ‘Hey look, Dad, we’ve got this back, this piece of history.’ “ But, she said, “A blessing for me to hold it in my hand. It just really … it was very powerful to be connected to what happened.”
“For me, it was like the greatest thing I could give her,” said Nicholson. “I was like, thank God she’s here to see this. … And Daphne and Kevin, they were amazing to just say, we want your family to have this.”
“It was a wonderful gift,” Linda said.
Europe remains awash in artifacts and relics from World War II. “You might find things just walking down the road,” said Tom Czekanski, director of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, calling it “not uncommon.”
The museum recently received a U.S. class ring that a German guard had taken away from an incarcerated soldier at a prison camp. When the camp was liberated, Czekanski said, another soldier recognized what it was and took it from him. He tracked down the family and returned it.
“It’s always neat when it happens,” he said. “Most things found don’t have a name on them.”