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Back from the battlefield

Last modified: 1/29/2012 12:00:00 AM
Francis LaClair reacted with eyebrows rising and questions flying. Who is Thierry Maquet? Why is he writing me from Belgium? How does he know my father, Nelson J. LaClair? How in the world - or in Europe - did he find me? Is this a hoax?

Thankfully, Francis LaClair, who turned 91 yesterday, can use the internet. He corresponded with the mystery man, who gives tours of French battlefields from nearly 100 years ago. He discovered that his father's dog tag from World War I, found in the leaves and green moss of France, will be mailed home to Penacook.

The tag has been overseas since 1918, the last year of the war. Maquet wrote a letter to the Penacook American Legion, and the letter was forwarded to LaClair.

"This man must have done a lot of research to find the Legion," LaClair said.

The dog tag will be on its way to Concord, Penacook and Boscawen, where the surviving LaClair children now live. Francis, who moved recently to a bungalow at Havenwood-Heritage Heights, is the oldest of 10 kids and one of five left who can appreciate the find.

Maquet wrote in an email sent yesterday that he found the tag

next to some shrapnel last September, while leading a tour. He thought that meant the soldier it belonged to had died.

"I looked in the U.S. military cemeteries in the region. No," Maquet wrote. "An American met on the internet sent me the story of the 103rd Infantry Regiment and I found that Nelson J. LaClair had not died in the war."

The tag, Maquet wrote, will be in the mail soon. Whenever it gets here, the surviving three sons and two daughters will see a round piece of aluminum the size of a half dollar. LaClair has the photos to prove it, emailed to him by Maquet.

They'll see their father's middle initial, "J," and last name, "LACLAIR," clearly inscribed, and the "ON" from the end of his first name - Nelson.

The "P" in private is missing, but the "VT" is there, as is "DEPT" and "INF." Flip it over, and you'll see "2888," the elder LaClair's identification number in the National Guard.

"The only thing I can think of is I remember he told me once about waking up and realizing he was in the trenches," LaClair said. "The only thing I can think of was a concussion from a shell, and it might have knocked him off and the dog tag off. He never mentioned that he lost something."

The French and Americans lost nearly 200,000 men in the 1918 Battle of the Argonne Forest, the final Allied offensive before the armistice ended the war in November of that year. More than 100,000 Germans died.

Meanwhile, a kid from Penacook in his late teens survived the war and left behind the piece all soldiers wear around their necks, in case they are killed in battle.

Nelson LaClair, who died in the early 1990s at age 93, returned to Penacook, got married, had a big family and opened his own construction businesses, building houses and repairing roofs.

Francis LaClair, born in 1921, worked at the Penacook theater downtown, where the box office still faces Village Street. Perks included seeing Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz for free.

He married twice (both women have since passed) and fathered four kids with his first wife, Jean Marie, whose brilliant blue eyes and red hair are shown in a framed photo LaClair eagerly retrieves.

He fought the Japanese during World War II, worked for his father in construction and always called Penacook home, before his recent move to Havenwood.

He's fit, a slender man with a full head of white hair who walks two miles a day and drives. He looks at least 10 years younger than his age.

His knees seem fine as he kneels in his bedroom for 15 minutes, making copies for a guest, copies of the letter written by the man from Belgium and the dog tag photos and research that Maquet did to confirm Nelson LaClair's hometown.

One photo shows Maquet squatting in front of an unexploded shell, about 3 feet long, presumably in the area where he found the dog tag.

LaClair says the experience of being reunited with something so personal and historic is "unreal."

He also says he wasn't particularly close to his father. Not really.

"Like you see some of the kids who did sports with their fathers and went hiking or riding a bike, he never was that type of father," LaClair said. "We didn't have a very friendly relationship."

Annette Cleveland, who retired at the age of 80 three years ago after working 32 years managing the hot lunch program at Penacook Elementary School, had a better relationship with her dad. She called him Papa.

"I cried last night thinking I was going to hold something that was on my father so many years ago," Cleveland said.

Both siblings describe a man who mellowed in his later years, who began to appreciate the hard work he had put into raising a family and building a business.

He's been dead for nearly 20 years, but his youth is coming back to Penacook, where he grew up.

Wrote Maquet, "I'm really excited to find the children of this soldier."

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)


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