US researcher introduces NB Acadian soldiers in WW2 podcast
Jason Theriot has been researching the experiences of French-speaking World War II soldiers from his home state of Louisiana for two decades.
The Houston-based attorney and historian said these soldiers had a unique wartime experience that was very different from other US soldiers.
“It started with the companies of the Louisiana National Guard that were sent to North Africa in 1942 … a whole battalion of four companies, 99 percent of those men grew up speaking French as their primary language,” Theriot said in a phone interview from Texas.
“Many of them didn’t even know English when they enlisted in the National Guard in 1940.
And when they landed in North Africa, they were specifically placed by the military in positions where their language skills could be used.”
The region consisted of several French colonies and being able to speak the language was incredibly valuable.
Known to US troops as “the French,” Theriot said that since Louisiana banned speaking French in 1921, Cajuns were in a position to which they were not accustomed.
“They would have been ashamed to call themselves Cajuns in the 1920s,” he said.
“We know that from newspaper articles, from letters, from, you know, from literature. But the term “Frenchie” was the name given to the Cajuns by military commanders and their comrades. “Frenchie” was a term of endearment. “
Their importance grew during the invasions of France and Belgium, and Theriot set out to track down as many surviving Cajun soldiers as possible to preserve their stories.
Theriot’s focus has expanded from southern Louisiana over the past year, in part due to a conversation with Noella De Maina, who works for the Canadian consulate in Dallas.
“She said, ‘Jason, can you find an Acadian WWII veteran in Acadia, have him interviewed, or better yet, take him to the WWII Museum in New Orleans with some of your Cajun WWII veterans, and let’s have a big symposium, a big commemoration.’”
Theriot found Alphonse Vautour von Shediac, who was 102 years old. Vautour served with the North Shore Regiment and went ashore on D-Day in a Bren gun carrier, a small armored vehicle armed with machine guns.
Vautour agreed to be interviewed, but he did not attend the ceremony in Louisiana last April as he died just a month before the event.
Theriot, flying from Louisiana to Texas after the event, said plans were underway to visit more Acadian veterans.
“Noella said, ‘Jason, what do you want to do next?’ he recalled. “I said, ‘Send me to the Acadie. Let’s see if I can find some Acadians.'”
Last October, he traveled to the Maritimes with the help of the consulate and CODOFIL, the organization in Louisiana that promotes immersion in France in the state.
He met with two veterans at Moncton Veterans’ Health Centre, Roger Babineau and Camille Leblanc, and a Nova Scotian, Charlie Muise, from Yarmouth.
These conversations will become an episode of Theriot’s podcast, French people, to be published on its website this weekend.
Theriot said the Acadian veterans had similar experiences to their Cajun counterparts.
“A lot of the Acadians didn’t even learn English until they entered military service, and that was, you know, that’s a fascinating resemblance to the experience of the Louisiana National Guard unit,” he said.
And he said there was plenty of evidence that those who could speak both languages were used by the military in France and uniquely in England.
“When the Canadian forces were stationed there, if you will, there was a policy to transfer bilingual Acadians to Quebec units to help them help the Francophones communicate [with] the English.”
Camille Leblanc, who served in the Navy aboard a corvette, told Theriot that it was important for the Acadian soldiers to mingle with their English-speaking counterparts and wear the same uniform.
Theriot believes the experience likely helped fuel the push to preserve Acadian heritage in the 1960s, as was the case in Louisiana.
“[The Cajuns] recognized for the first time the value of their language and heritage. And when they came home from the war — it took a couple of years, you know, life got in the way — but in the 1960s, they started realizing that the language was slipping, and through political action and action on the to mitigate this loss and start creating conditions for the preservation of this language,” he said.
Theriot’s efforts to keep these stories alive come as the number of veterans alive dwindles to just a few.
About 24,000 French-speaking Acadians served during World War II, but Ron Gaudet of the Dieppe Military Veterans’ Association told CBC News earlier this year that he only knew of three surviving Acadian veterans in the province.
Theriot hopes their stories can help cement ties between the Acadians here and the Cajuns in Louisiana.
“A big part of what this project was about is recognizing those connections, documenting them, and then bringing them out to share with the public to show how close we — we are Cajuns — are to our Acadian cousins.” are culturally close and how these relationships and bonds can and must be developed for future generations.”