Denis Mailhot of Auburn has done extensive research on Elisee Dutil, the “uncle that I never met.” Dutil was killed in Germany during World War II. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Elisee Dutil sent postcards home to his family in Lewiston as often as he could during his nearly three years of service in Europe during World War II.

Written in cursive French, the postcards reveal the life of an American soldier on the front lines.

Dutil saw his first action in the North Africa campaign. His division took part in the invasion of Sicily. He was on the beachhead at Anzio, Italy. Once Rome was captured, he shifted to southern France and marched toward Germany.

Dutil, who was wounded on three separate occasions and received the Purple Heart with Gold Clusters, was fatally wounded at Zweibrucken, Germany, where Allied troops finally smashed past the famed Siegfried Line.

He died March 18, 1945, less than two months before Germany surrendered.

Denis Mailhot of Auburn believes that this is Elisee Dutil’s high school picture. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

His sister Leona (Dutil) Mailhot saved every postcard. She saved every photograph and every letter. She cut out and saved every newspaper clipping. She and other family members even saved every military document concerning the Dutil and Mailhot families, who lived next door to each other in the same apartment building at 141 and 143 Bartlett St. in Lewiston.

Denis Mailhot, Leona’s son and Elisee’s nephew, has compiled that vast treasure into two huge binders documenting the service records of his Dutil and Mailhot relatives from World War I, Word War II and ending with his service in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

“This is really precious,” Mailhot, a retired banker, said. “When I started assembling this stuff I had no idea how detailed it was.”

Much of the second binder focuses on his uncle Elisee Dutil. Born in Lewiston in 1919, Elisee was raised on Bartlett Street, attended St. Peter’s School, worked at Bates Manufacturing and worshiped up the street at SS Peter and Paul Parish, now the basilica. The Catholic church was an important part of his family’s life. He belonged to the church choir and a French male choral society.

At age 22 in 1942, he enlisted in the Army. One newspaper clipping shows Elisee with other recruits in front of the post office.

They would take the picture in front of the post office, then get on the bus and away they went,” Mailhot said. “The guys got on the bus and had no idea what’s going to happen for the next two to three years.”

Denis Mailhot of Auburn turns to a picture of his father, Wilfrid Mailhot Jr., while looking through albums that he put together of family that fought during the two World Wars. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

After training at Fort Meade in Maryland, Elisee arrived in England by ship in January 1943. He was soon deployed to North Africa. He was wounded the first time during the invasion of Sicily. He suffered a second wound in early 1944 during the Battle of Anzio on the coast of Italy.

While on the beachhead at Anzio, Elisee wrote a 40-line poem/prayer, “My Crucifix,” and dedicated it to the men in the foxholes.

Many years later, the Rev. Mike Koprowski, who was the Army chaplain for the Third Infantry Division, confirmed to Mailhot in a letter that he was in one of the foxholes on Anzio beach when Elisee wrote the poem. He added that the poem was later printed on a prayer card with Elisee’s name as author.

It was the existence of that poem and family’s strong Catholic upbringing that sparked Denis Mailhot’s passion to become an ordained deacon.

While in Italy, Elisee ran into his cousin and next-door neighbor Donat Mailhot. There are a couple of photos in the binder of that brief reunion.

Elisee Dutil, back center underneath the blue arrow, stood in front of the U.S. Post Office on Ash Street in Lewiston with other draftees before getting on the bus and heading into the U.S. Army on June 9, 1942. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Elisee then accompanied the Third Infantry Division to southern France to begin the final push into Germany. During a fierce battle after crossing the German border near Zweibrucken, shrapnel from an artillery shell struck near Elisee’s position, wounding him for a third time. He never recovered from those serious wounds.

Family lore says his mother, Odile, who had died in Lewiston a month earlier, had seen Elisee suffer enough.

“Because he was wounded three times,” Mailhot said, “it was always said that she came back to get her son.” 

Elisee was originally buried in France. A year later, his father, Alphonse, paid to have his body exhumed and sent back home to be buried at the family plot at St. Peter’s Cemetery. His name is included on the new granite stone placed in Veterans’ Memorial Park in Lewiston.

Denis Mailhot looks through the albums that document his family’s military history. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

In addition to Elisee’s story, told in letters, postcards, pictures and documents, the two binders compiled by Mailhot contain the history of his grandfathers, Wilfrid Mailhot and Alphonse Dutil, in World War I and their sons, including Elisee and Denis’ father, Wilfrid Mailhot Jr., who all fought in World War II.

All of the photos are documented and a series of photos show a pictorial history of Paris in the mid-1940s. The original documents include the actual letter informing his relatives of Elisee’s death.

“My mother died 12 years ago,” Mailhot said. “I dug out all the stuff that she had saved. That’s when I decided that this has to be recorded. I want my children and my grandchildren to go through this one day.”

The biggest challenge was deciphering the postcards, written in cursive French with lines squeezed together to fit as much as possible on them. Mailhot reached out to the University of Southern Maine Franco-American Collection in Lewiston and a French teacher at Edward Little High School.

“It was difficult. They were hard to read,” said Doris Belisle-Bonneau, a board member of the Franco collection. “When you read them aloud it was interesting picking up the phonetic expressions. The themes consisted of belonging and family. That kind of sadness of being so far away.”

Seth Goodwin and his French IV class at Edward Little High School in Auburn picked away at the project for a couple of months trying to translate the postcards and newspaper clippings from the Le Messenger, a French newspaper based in Lewiston. The 13 students worked in teams to decipher the various writings.

Elisee Dutil of Lewiston died on March 18, 1945. This symbol of recognition was sent to Dutil’s family by former Lewiston Mayor Alton Lessard. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The students, not much younger than Elisee was when he went to war, were touched by all that he went through overseas, “learning about the combat experience and the many tours that he did, putting his life on hold for his country,” Goodwin said.

The USM Franco-American Collection plans to digitize the two binders for their archives.

“What’s unique about this is the written language,” Belisle-Bonneau said. “The writing of these is atypical. It was a heartfelt effort to communicate. The people who received these cards could feel the angst and the loneliness.”

 

“My Crucifix”

By Elisee A. Dutil

A little crucifix,

As plain as it can be,

But only God in Heaven knows

How dear it is to me.

 

I have it always with me,

In every step I take;

At evening when I slumber,

At morning when I awake.

 

In bright or cloudy weather,

In sunshine or in rain:

In happiness or sorrow,

In pleasure or in pain.

 

It helps me in my struggles,

It reproves me when I sin;

Its look of gentle patience

Rebukes the strife within.

 

In days of pain and anguish,

The greatest Help I knew

Was to hold that little crucifix

Until I calmer grew;

 

And looking on that Figure,

Which hung in patience there,

I saw the dreadful torture

Which He, in Love, did bear.

 

His feet are nailed together,

His loving arms outspread,

And blood is dropping slowly down

From His thorn-crowned Head.

 

And how could I then murmur,

Or bitterly complain,

When love for me induced Him

To undergo such pain?

 

So when the time approaches

That I shall have to die,

I hope that little crucifix

Will close beside me lie;

 

That the Holy Name of Jesus

May be the last that I shall say,

And kissing that dear crucifix

My soul may pass away.

 

Message from the Division Commander

Maj. Gen. John W. O’Daniel

On this Memorial Day of 1945, the Third Division remembers you for the contribution you have made to America and all it stands for in the lost of your loved ones.

These things are hard to understand, but in a war such as this one where the gain to be had was so great and the destruction of the evil force so necessary, great sacrifice was inevitable.

We who are living know that the success of the Division and our own very existence is due mainly to those who unselfishly gave their lives in battle. This realization will be with us always.

Now that the German Army is destroyed, you can well feel proud that through your great contribution, our nation may live as intended, in freedom and goodness.

As Division Commander of the Third Division, I speak from the bottom of my heart for all of us when I say be of good cheer and be ever proud that his sacrifice makes it possible for our country to be great and free forever.


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