He didn't open the first email. He thought it was spam, some memorabilia about World War II. The subject line said: "USCG in Normandy."
Kirk Vail, 60, is a plumber, like his dad. He knew his dad had been stationed at St. Petersburg's Coast Guard station, and that he had turned 26 the day his cutter joined the D-day invasion — 70 years ago today.
But that was about it.
The second email arrived two days later, on March 11. This one had an attachment, "Picture taken in 1944." Kirk clicked open a black and white photo of a young man in a sailor shirt with dark, wavy hair, intense eyes and a Clark Gable moustache. Kirk had never seen the picture, but right away he recognized his dad.
"It was crazy, seeing an image of him from his time at war, which I knew nothing about," said Kirk. "This old Frenchman had kept my dad's photo framed on his wall for 70 years."
With the help of the Frenchman and his friend, and after three months of research, Kirk has learned about a life he never knew his dad had — about an almost forgotten fleet of little wooden boats with climbing nets and blood-soaked hulls. He figured out why his dad sang French folk songs.
And why he never ate crabs.
• • •
Ralph Pershing Vail was born June 6, 1918, on his family's farm in Oklahoma. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work during the Depression. When he was 22, he traveled to St. Louis to enlist in the Coast Guard. "I don't think he'd ever even been on a boat," Kirk said.
It was the fall of 1940. Germany had invaded France a few months earlier. But the war was still far from America; bombs would not destroy Pearl Harbor for more than a year.
According to Ralph Vail's service papers, he was assigned to several ships before he was sent to the Bayboro station in St. Petersburg, where he worked on buoy tenders.
His dad got hurt on duty and wound up in the old hospital at Mound Park, near what is now Bayfront. There, Kirk said, his father fell in love with his beautiful young nurse, Jane. They married in 1943, after U.S. troops deployed to Britain. She was pregnant by early 1944 when he was sent overseas.
Ralph Vail and the other Coast Guardsmen in "the Matchbox Fleet" didn't know where they were headed. Or what they were about to have to do.
• • •
The Frenchman was a boy when German soldiers dug bunkers into the field where his family's cows grazed. Andre Krieg's parents ran an inn and restaurant in Le Trait, a shipbuilding town on the Seine about 37 miles from the coast.
Andre, now 83, remembers German planes destroying the local electrical plant, and later Allied bombs leveling his neighbors' homes.
"Forty citizens of Le Trait were killed by bombings," wrote Francois Verdier, the friend who translates for Andre. "His father had been arrested by Germans and spent time in jail."
During the D-day invasion, Andre was 13. He was scared and excited, he told his friend seven decades later, anxious for the Allies to liberate his town. "Le Trait was free two months after D-day," wrote Francois.
That's when the Coast Guard moved in.
Cutters were assigned to patrol the shores of Normandy and to keep the rivers safe for ships transporting supplies inland to the advancing troops.
Kirk's dad's boat docked at a pier a short walk from Andre's parents' inn. "It was still the war, but life was quiet and the Coast Guardsmen had enough time to enjoy life in this part of France," Francois wrote. The 13 sailors "were at Andre's home every day, they had beds in the hotel, they ate with the family in the big kitchen of the restaurant — where the table was large enough for 20. They couldn't pay as the parents of Andre would never accept it. They loved the Coast Guardsmen."
Andre's father took the Americans deer hunting. His mother taught the boat's cook to make blanquette de veau, a creamy veal stew. His older brother, who spoke English, took the sailors dancing. "They enjoyed cognac a lot!" wrote Francois.
One time, Andre remembers, Ralph borrowed his father's car to come pick him up from boarding school, where he had gotten into trouble. Another time, Ralph surprised the boy with a picnic after classes. Ralph taught him to play baseball, showed him how to fix the boat's engines. Andre said, "Ralph was the nicest guy I ever met."
While the Coast Guardsmen appreciated sleeping in real beds, the boy loved sleeping aboard their boat even more. "During the night sometimes he was authorized to operate the headlight," Francois wrote.
In 1945, when the war was over and the Coast Guard crew returned home, Andre was devastated. Ralph gave him a baseball glove and bat, and some photos of the American sailors with their French family. Andre framed his favorite and hung it on his bedroom wall.
"These are the happy memories of his youth," wrote Francois. "They saved his life, they protected him, they brought back freedom and happiness."
Andre went on to raise a family and run a debris removal company in Le Trait. He moved that Coast Guard photo with him to his office, where it still hangs. Several months ago, his friend Francois — a World War II buff — asked him about it. Andre told him about Ralph and they decided to track him down.
Ralph died of liver cancer in 1980, at age 61. But Kirk's plumbing website mentions that his dad was in the Coast Guard during the war. That's how the Frenchman found him: Googling. He started sending Kirk photos of his dad and his crew: of them on board their cutter, posing in their dress blues; of them smiling with French girls; of them in front of the inn, their arms around Andre and his parents.
"It must have been nice, after all that horror, to be taken in by a family that appreciated you," said Kirk. "It must have felt so good to be with kids who treated you like heroes."
The most valuable photo showed the 83-foot cutter with a skull and crossbones painted on the side. And a number: 6.
Armed with that, Kirk began to trace his dad's duties on D-day.
A few weeks before the invasion, Coast Guard historians said, Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill told President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that he wished the Allies had a dedicated rescue force to pull injured soldiers from the English Channel.
"But we do!" the Coast Guard website says Roosevelt said. "The Coast Guard!"
Coast Guardsmen like Kirk's dad had been patrolling the American shores for years, tending signals, clearing channels, searching for submarines. In early 1944, said Coast Guard historian Scott Price, 60 cutters from along the East Coast were assembled to form a fleet of floating ambulances. Workers removed their depth-charges, affixed "scramble nets" to the sides, and stowed huge first-aid kits beneath the bunks.
The 840 members of Rescue Flotilla 1 landed in Poole, England, across the channel from Normandy, France, only weeks before the invasion. They trained to tie ropes around themselves and jump into the water and pull the wounded from the waves. Some of the Coast Guardsmen couldn't swim; few had been trained in medical triage.
The cutters were small and fast, able to skirt between landing craft and hospital ships. The wooden boats each carried 1,900 gallons of gasoline. Hence the name: "the Matchbox Fleet."
On the eve of the invasion, according to the U.S. Naval Institute, Coast Guard Reserve Lt. Raymond M. Rosenbloom briefed the men of the flotilla, "We're going to have to be callous. That's going to be the hardest part of our job," he told the men. "When we get a load we're going to have to back away, no matter how many men are in the water. Don't feel sorry for a boy even if he has a broken leg and is screaming to be pulled aboard. As soon as we've unloaded one batch of boys on a larger ship, we'll go right back for another."
"We were supposed to follow the landing barges and anchor offshore," said Jack Hamlin, 93 of Springfield, Mo., who served on USCG-23. "They told us to stay out of the ships' way. And to leave the dead bodies behind."
At 5:30 a.m., Hamlin remembered, he and the other rescue crews headed out from England in the dark, amid a fleet of 7,000 ships. "One guy called down from his landing craft, 'Hey, what are you boys doing in those row boats?' "
Waves swelled to 5 feet, sweeping over the cutters' decks, chilling the crew. Some men spent the 90-mile trip heaving into bags labeled, "Vomit." As dawn brightened the rough water, sailors saw aircraft massing above. Tracer shells arced overhead. Ships exploded all around.
A few miles off the French coast, the flotilla split in half — 30 boats accompanied American ships to Utah and Omaha beaches, the rest followed British and Canadian craft to beaches named Sword, Juno and Gold.
Ralph's boat was sent to Gold, about 20 miles east of Omaha, with a British escort sloop called HMS Hind. As on other beaches, the sloping shores were littered with mines and submerged obstacles, wooden stakes and metal poles. While 25,000 British soldiers poured ashore, USCG-6 stayed a mile or more at sea, enduring machine gun, mortar and artillery fire, watching for survivors in the frothy seas.
But the Royal Navy officers weren't quite sure how to use the cutters. "And that caused some confusion on D-day," said Price, the Coast Guard historian. An officer aboard Ralph's boat reported, "HMS Hind did not know we were supposed to be with her, and we nearly had our boats fired upon by the escorts."
Crews worked all night, jumping into the 48-degree water to haul out soldiers whose ships had sunk and airmen who had been shot down. The men's waterlogged packs were so heavy that it often took two Coast Guardsmen to load each soldier.
"Most of the wounded had broken legs, split heads, sprained backs and smashed ankles," said the Coast Guard's website. "Many cried out for medication."
The cutters were designed to hold 20 men. But during the height of battle, some crammed 140 men aboard. They ferried their patients offshore to hospital ships and came back for more.
There is no official record of how many wounded men Kirk's dad and his crew saved. By the end of D-day, the cutters had rescued 400 people. The rest of the 10,500 casualties were left floating in the water to be retrieved later, or wash ashore.
And be eaten by crabs.
• • •
All spring, emails have been flying across the Atlantic — puzzle pieces filling in the past.
Kirk and his brother Jan, who lives in San Francisco, now have dozens of photos of their dad during the war.
And Andre has answers about what happened to his hero.
"It's given me a whole new appreciation for what my dad did," said Kirk. "Knowing what he held inside all those years makes me sad. Maybe if he had talked about it, it would have set him free."
"It has been like opening a 70-year time capsule and finding our father inside," Jan emailed. "Perhaps it was his wartime experiences on D-day that caused his silence. But these other stories have sounded as if they were … as pleasant as wartime stories could be."
Every year, Francois said, he and Andre visit the landing beaches and put flowers on the graves of the American soldiers. In the most recent email, May 26, Francois said he had just returned from helping prepare the U.S. National Cemetery near Omaha Beach for President Barack Obama's visit.
The men would like to meet one day. "To be able to walk where my father walked during WWII, with someone who actually knew him, would be a lifelong dream," wrote Jan.
Andre and Francois suggested a visit in September, on the anniversary of Le Trait's liberation. They both have restored World War II Jeeps they would like to show the Americans. And they want to take them to the village museum, to see their dad's baseball glove.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.