One man’s story from the historic invasion
Dick Freed said he had some idea of what another family must be going through somewhere in the United States not knowing about a loved one missing during a war.
“A lot of this started because I lost an uncle, Bernard Cafferty, in France during World War I; I could feel how their family felt,” he said.
Freed, 85, said he could recall how his mother felt as well when she just didn’t know for sure what had happened to her brother killed in a far off place during a chaotic time.
“There was just a lot of sadness,” he said.
Freed said he had volunteered for service during the war, but was turned down because of a childhood injury to his foot. Because so many men had been entering the other branches there was a lack of merchant seamen, so Freed joined up when an opportunity arose.
He was working in the Walsh-Kaiser Shipyard when he found out about an outgoing ship that needed a couple of crewmen. His brother Frank knew the captain and asked him about taking on his brother on as a hand. The captain said yes and off he went. The process took no time at all, and the next thing Freed knew he was sailing away from home.
“It was ‘Hey Alice I’m leaving,’ I packed a bag and off I went,” he said. “I didn’t even have a passport or anything, just a driver’s license, even the draft board said I couldn’t go, but they wanted to sail immediately,” he said. Two days later he was in New York City with a ship taking on cargo and about to head for Europe.
So when Freed, now a merchant marine working during the D-Day invasion in June 1944, came across a man in the waves and pulled him on board, it had an effect on him that would last for many years beyond World War II.
“They told us not to bother with the bodies in the water because we had to get the (material) off the ship,” Freed said.
“I didn’t know this fella; he just happened to be one of those who had his preserver on so we pulled him out,” Freed said.
“We thought the guy was alive; his body was pink,” he said. For that reason they thought he might still be alive, Freed said, and there was hope for this man.
“Some of them you could tell immediately,” he said, that they were already dead.
The liberty ship had a medical team on board and Freed said they hoped the young man could be helped.
As it turned out, he could not.
He was dead.
Freed said the man, “J. McKeon” by his lifejacket, had his dog tags on and that was how he got his full name.
Joseph W. McKeon was the name of the man he would never get to know and could not forget.
“He looked like a kid I knew in high school; they looked alike,” Freed said.
Some months later when he made it back to the United States, Freed would learn that the high school classmate he thought the man looked like had also been killed in a different part of Europe.
Freed said he tried without success to find the man’s family just so he could tell them what happened. At the time his information was too limited to pinpoint where McKeon had come from.
McKeon’s body was transferred from the liberty ship to the U.S. Coast Guard. “They didn’t take him ashore (to Normandy); his body was taken to England and buried until after the war when it was buried in Normandy,” Freed said.
It was the grave, in the Normandy American Cemetery, Plot C, Row 1, that Freed would travel to France to see four times following the war.
On a trip back to the Normandy site with wife, Alice, they went back to the cemetery, “A guide showed us the grave,” he said.
The guide asked him if he noticed anything strange and he said he did not.
The guide pointed out the grave marker next to Joseph McKeon’s bore the same last name; although not marked as such, since two brothers had been lost from the same family.
Freed said he would later find out the McKeon family later lost another son during the Korean War. “That family lost three children,” Freed said, pausing, his voice choked with emotion.
“I tried to contact them some years before but ran into a lot of red tape,” he said.
“Graves registration, they weren’t much help, they told me, ‘write a letter and we’ll call the family,’” Freed said.
A letter was sent, but he never heard anything back.
It seemed he might never track down the man’s family until a return trip years later with his son John and John’s wife, Linda, and their children Amanda and John.
Freed said they had returned with family members to show them the site in hopes they might gain a better understanding of the war and what happened.
On this trip they flew over Normandy in a chartered airplane.
“On the way back we all agreed I should do something,” he said.
With renewed purpose, Freed decided to give making contact one more shot.
This time, he enlisted the help of his son Walter, who at the time was speaker of the Vermont House. Time passed, possibly two or three months, before Freed said he heard back about a possible location of the family, Worcester, Mass.
Freed was once again advised to write a letter, but instead of writing he did some reading – in the phone book.
With a location, the final missing link, he got to work.
“There were eight or nine families named McKeon in the Worcester area – instead of doing that (writing), I got on the phone started calling them,” he said.
“It was a couple of weeks before I got any answers,” he said. Freed said he made a number of calls and left messages explaining who he was and why he was calling. He told the short version of his story.
“And I told them just like I’m talking to you,” he said.
Frank McKeon, the nephew of the man he pulled from the waves was the one who called, “He was bowled over because I left the message that I knew what happened to him (Joseph),” Freed said.
Freed said the McKeon family was never given an idea what happened; the Navy just said he drowned.
The family members who remained were relieved to hear exactly what had happened, he said. The family had apparently lost track of the fact that two brothers were buried at Normandy side by side as well.
Eventually Freed said Joseph McKeon’s nephews Frank and James came to Granville and met with him and talked. They still exchange Christmas cards.
Freed said his successful quest to contact the family of a man he did not know has become part of the lore of Normandy.
The Dutch tour guide who shows tourists around the massive gravesite now tells them of how he happened to be there and played a part in making the connection between Freed and the family he had sought for so many years.