Sherie Moore of Hamlet always wondered what her father died for in World War II. She was 9-years-old when her father, Mitchell Freeman, a B-17 bomber pilot, was shot down off the coast of Holland in 1943.
Several weeks ago, Moore prepared to head to Texas to see her granddaughter being born. The weekend before she left, she received a message on her answering machine. Before deleting the soft-spoken voice she played the message again and listened closely.
“I knew your father in the war,” said the voice. “I was with him the night before he died.”
The voice on the machine was that of Francis Manniello, a 94-year-old World War II veteran. He had found Moore’s cousin’s request for information on the Internet. Moore’s cousin Eric Freeman had been searching for answers for Moore for quite some time and had nearly given up when he was contacted by Manniello or “Manny” as he asked to be called. Freeman put him in touch with Moore.
Moore returned Manny’s call, and they spoke for a long time.
Manny met her father in England.
“Your dad was one of the finest men I ever knew,” said Manny to Moore. “The night before his last mission we were in the officer’s club during mail call. He received a letter from his wife.”
“He said a picture of me fell out,” said Moore. “Manny said my father picked up the picture of the little blonde girl and said, ‘Hey guys, look here, this is my baby girl and she’s going flying with me tomorrow,’ and he put the picture in his breast pocket. He said, ‘This is what I’m fighting for. You ought to be home making beautiful babies so you have something to fight for.’ Manny said, ‘I have thought of you so often through the years and wondered what happened to that little blonde girl.’”
Moore said she asked Manny where he lived and if it would be possible to meet him. Manny lived in New Braunsfels, Texas, just 20 miles from where Moore was headed to see her daughter.
Moore visited Manny twice. The first time she went to see him, he was in the hospital.
“He had tears in his eyes, even after all these years,” said Moore. “And when I walked into the room, he was expecting me. He smiled. ‘Finally,’ he said. I went to pieces. Manny said my father died for something he believed in and that to me is the height of heroism.”
Moore explained that the B-17 bombers flew between Germany and England, over Holland. Often, Germans shot them down off the coast of Holland, and the people of a remote village there collected the bodies and buried them in their village cemetery. Her father was placed in a grave with two other men, and eventually all three were transported to a grave in St. Louis. Years before Moore met Manny, she had a strange experience. One of her sons had a girlfriend whose parents had come to town. Moore had them over for dinner and while enjoying their company noticed the mother had a strange accent. Moore asked where she was from, and the mother said she came from a small village in Holland surely no one knew of, but Moore pressed her to share the name. It was the same village her father had been buried in, and the mother of the girl was 9-years-old at the time, just like Moore.
Moore said it made a lasting impression on her to find a woman at her dinner table that was a little girl like her when her father’s plane went down. The woman recounted the terrifying war, and said how much the Nazis and bombing had scared her. Moore thought it ironic that she was safe at home while a girl the same age was in the midst of war, where her father had been.
“I was safe here in North Carolina because my daddy was fighting for me,” said Moore.
Moore recalled the night her father left for war. After extensive training to be a pilot — which included taking her up in airplanes a few times — she, her father and mother rode in a train full of soldiers for three days and rented a small room. Her father headed out the door in the early morning, while her mother was still asleep.
“I was laying on a pallet,” she said. “He stopped and saluted me, didn’t say a word.”
For years, her parents wrote letters back and forth to each other. She still has all the letters her father wrote, which she keeps in a large Rubbermaid container. Moore’s mother remarried later, and Moore went through a series of ups and downs.
“Life’s been difficult, inspiring and hard but my faith kept me going,” said Moore. “Meeting Manny was the icing on the cake. It’s so hard to put into words. When Manny hugged me, it was like my daddy’s arms were around me … I’m so proud to have that heritage. It’s always meant so much to me. If I hadn’t met Manny, God bless his soul, I would never have learned that.”
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.