As the number of living World War II veterans continues to dwindle, the importance of documenting their stories is more important than ever.
In 1945, a twenty-year old army veteran of World War II returned to Rhode Island following a stint as a cook, serving under General Patton. He eventually married, built a house in Johnston, and raised seven children.
Federico “Fred” Paolucci, was born in 1925, the son of Italian immigrants. He was the only son and he and his five sisters grew up in North Providence. Fred would have a variety of jobs, including working at Brown & Sharpe, at a fireworks factory, and for the Johnston School Department.
Later in life, Paolucci was well known for his sign art, homemade and hand-lettered folk art-style signs commenting on anything and everything he found interesting in the news of the day. After his retirement from the Johnston schools where he worked at several schools in the maintenance department, he found a hobby. Often using recycled items, he created his sign art in his garage, often while listening to talk radio. The signs were displayed in his yard and on the facade of his garage.
An ocean away from Johnston, Rhode Island, in Tourlaville, France, Jean-Paul Corbet was going through some family photos last year, scanning them.
Among them, he ran across a black and white photo of an American GI in uniform. On the back was a name and address written in pencil: Federico Paolucci, 32 Forest Street, Box 77, Centerdale, Rhode Island, USA. [Centredale is a village in northwest North Providence, on the Johnston line.]
“[It] represented a handsome dark GI, a proud soldier taking the pose,” Corbet said in an interview published in a French newspaper. Paolucci was 19 years old at the time.
Curious, he asked his mother, Renee, about the man in the photo.
She told him that Federico was one of the young American soldiers who came to the aid of his grandparents – Paule and Gustave Valognes – and their five children (his mother Renee, Jacqueline, Therese, Paulette and Louis) in 1944.
“When I was young, my grandparents told me their own story and how they have felt the German occupation, the exodus, the liberation,” said Corbet in an email interview from France in January.
“They were simple people, the existential issue for them was live [sic] during this lean time and survive during the exodus. After the 6th of June, they were civilians on the battle field under the belligerent’s crossfire,” he said of their hunger and constant fear – they were lucky to to be alive. Corbet noted that his wife’s family wasn’t so lucky. “My wife’s dad lost his mother and two young sisters,” he said of the loss of life – 37,000 allies and 20,000 civilians.
The family had been evacuated from their home for two months, and upon their return, Renee and her younger sister Jacqueline were underweight and sick. Both were treated in the American camp. Jacqueline was five years old at the time, and reminded the soldiers of Shirley Temple, recalled Renee. “She became in a way a mascot of the camp,” she told Corbet, recalling that the Americans even organized a Christmas party in December 1944. Among the soldiers the sisters met was Federico Paolucci, a cook at the camp.
Corbet went online to find out what had become of Paolucci, and soon found a memorial for him created by his daughter Vivian (Paolucci) Doyon at a genealogy site called Find-A-Grave. He was saddened to learn that Paolucci had died in 2008. He became determined to return the photo, and contacted Doyon, who now lives in Kernersville, North Carolina.
After corresponding by email in November, he sent Doyon the photo of her dad – which had been “sitting in a box for 74 years” as a Christmas present, enclosing it in a Christmas card.
Doyon, who said her father did not speak much of his World War II service, was thrilled.
“This means a lot to me. This story makes me see my dad through the eyes of another, who has seen him through his mom’s and grandma’s stories,” she said. Already interested in the family genealogy, she is now researching more about her father’s military history.
“It blew my mind that this man knew more about my dad in that time period than I did,” she told a local news reporter. She hopes to one day meet Corbet in person.
Corbet, too, is also interested to hear from other soldiers who were stationed at the camp in Tourlaville, France after the occupation ended.
He is quick to point out the fact that after seventy years, his new friendship with Doyon and her family is symbolic of the friendship between the American GIs and the liberated French people, a friendship that continues to this day.
“Every year in Normandy is commemorated the D-Day. More than a duty of memory, it is a recognition, indestructible, eternal – especially for the inhabitants who lived the operation Overlord. We must see this popular fervor, this immense burst of gratitude, these moments of intense emotion, the tears of the pampered and adored veterans idolized and elevated to the ranks of heroes. Our liberators of yesterday are now our very old friends. They have become, without knowing it, icons, true ex-votos of the friendship between our two nations,” Corbet noted, recalling the story on Feb. 6.
“‘The most true friendship between noble souls is that which has for its knot the respectable link of benefits and recognition’,” he said, quoting Francois-Rodolphe Weiss.
An account of Corbet’s story appeared in a French newspaper and also on a local television news channel in North Carolina.