Frenchman tends local soldier's grave in Normandy
By Philip Sayblack
Sunday, February 12, 2017
A labor of love started by a French citizen five years ago has led him to Rocky Mount in his search for an American serviceman's family.
Jean-Vincent du Lac de Fugeres has been tending Pvt. John T. Lee's grave at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, since 2012. Born in Rocky Mount in 1924 to John and Annie Lee, John T. Lee was one of 10 children that the couple had.
Lee was part of the Allied invasion on Normandy on June 6, 1944. Though he survived the D-Day invasion, he was killed in action a month later. It is believed he was killed while taking part in the Allied Forces' Cobra Operation.
The Cobra Operation was conducted from July 25 to July 31, 1944. It involved American forces breaking through German lines as British and Canadian forces distracted the Germans so Allied forces could push deeper into France.
While de Fugeres and his family have been tending Lee's grave for five years, he said the inspiration for the annual tribute came 20 years ago.
"I was in an exchange student program at UNC-Wilmington in 1997," de Fugeres said. "This is why I started to love North Carolina. It's why I started taking care of John T. Lee's grave, as he was from North Carolina."
Kevin Millard, a longtime friend of de Fugeres, agreed.
"Jean-Vincent loved North Carolina so much that he wanted to adopt a grave of an American serviceman from North Carolina at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial," Millard said.
He added de Fugeres "has always been appreciative of the men who liberated France."
That appreciation and desire to honor the memory of the men who liberated his nation led him and his children to search for a grave at the cemetery by picking the first North Carolinian serviceman's grave that they found. That grave happened to be that of John T. Lee.
Ever since finding the grave, de Fugeres has been working to find Lee's family so he can thank them for Lee's service. Jimmy Bulluck, Lee's newphew, appreciated de Fugere's dedication.
"I'm a veteran, too," Bulluck said. "I appreciate that he would care so much. It makes me proud that he cares that much. It makes me feel really good."
Bulluck’s sister — and Lee’s niece — Sylvia Fisher agreed.
“It’s very nice that he would do that,” Fisher said. “I am very grateful that he would do that.”
Fisher said she didn’t know her uncle well but did remember he was quiet and introverted. She said Lee was drafted into the Army — but didn’t remember when he was drafted.
She said the first thing she would do if she met de Fugeres is thank him for what he has been doing, and added she was open to meeting him if he made the trip to Rocky Mount.
Bulluck stressed that while he didn’t know Lee very well, that does not lessen the importance of keeping alive his memory or those of others who served.
"Remembering what they did is real important," Bulluck said. "A lot of these people, we never met."
"It is very important that people remember what those men did," Millard said. "Older people are generally the only ones who understand the importance of those sacrifices — so it's great to see someone younger reminding people of what that generation did."
Bulluck said he is open to meeting de Fugeres if the chance arises. And de Fugeres said he is hopeful he can visit Rocky Mount in the not-too-distant future to meet Bulluck and thank him for Lee’s service.