Finding Gilbert

While stationed in France during World War II, an American soldier took a seven-year-old orphan under his wing. Decades later, his daughter made it her mission to locate that boy.

By Diane Covington from Reader's Digest | June 2009

A New World
Gilbert Desclos sat in the tall grass on the cliff above Omaha Beach and shivered in the sea air. The sun rose over the trees as he hugged his bony knees tight to his chest and pulled his worn wool sweater around him.

Ever since the arrival of les Américains, his world had changed. Over­night, a military camp had sprung to life on the empty field just below his home in Normandy. For seven-year-old Gilbert, an orphan, it was a boy’s dream. His caretaker, Mrs. Bisson, had to drag him in at night.

Diane CovingtonPhotographed by Erik ButlerDiane Covington, the author, near her home in Nevada City, California, grew up hearing about Gilbert.
Now he watched, wide-eyed, as jeeps roared up the road and men in white caps scurried about, emptying trucks loaded with guns, ammunition, food, and giant duffel bags. He yawned as the smell of bacon, eggs, coffee, and toast wafted up from a massive tent. He tilted his small head back, breathing in the aromas. His stomach growled.

Donald K. Johnson, a lieutenant in the Seabees, the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalion, held a clipboard and checked off the morning’s accomplishments. The infirmary tent was complete; now the medics and doctors had a decent place to treat soldiers. The showers worked.

Johnson and his men had been busy since dawn, and it was now noon. He dismissed them, then took a moment and touched the breast pocket that held the photo of his wife and two young sons. It had been more than a year since he’d seen them.

When the lieutenant turned to go, he spied something in the tall grass on the hill. Was that a child? He waved. A small hand waved back. Johnson beckoned. There was a moment of hesitation, then the boy, barely taller than the grass, made his way down. Johnson knelt to look into the child’s thin face.

He tried out his high school French: “Comment t’appelles-tu?”

The boy’s sparkly blue eyes shone. “Gilbert,” he said.

Johnson shook his hand. This little guy looked like he could use a good meal, and the camp had more than enough food. In his halting French, he invited Gilbert to have lunch. When the boy nodded, Johnson lifted him onto his hip, as he might’ve done with one of his own sons, and headed for the mess tent.

Inside, dozens of young soldiers ate, talked, and clanged their cutlery. Gilbert’s eyes grew wide. Johnson piled two plates high with roast beef, potatoes, carrots and peas, freshly baked bread, and apple pie.

The men at the officers table smiled and made room for the two of them. Gilbert took small bites and, chewing slowly, ate everything on his plate. Johnson patted his head: “Très bien!” Gilbert smiled.

After lunch, Johnson held Gilbert’s hand, and they walked into the June sunlight. He knelt beside the boy and explained that he had to go back to work. Gilbert nodded and ran back up the path to the tall grass, turning around to wave.

At 1800 hours, as Johnson was again heading for the mess tent, he saw Gilbert sitting in the same spot. He motioned, and Gilbert ran to him.

Dinner was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits, and chocolate cake. Johnson again filled two plates, but Gilbert didn’t eat as much as he had at lunch; it was clear that the boy wasn’t used to so much food. But he sat close to Johnson and smiled his shy smile, taking big breaths between bites, as if willing himself to eat as much as he could.

After dinner, Johnson knelt close to Gilbert. “Bonsoir,” he said. “A demain,” till tomorrow. He watched the boy walk up the path and out of sight.

A New Friend
From that day on, Gilbert ate with Johnson, three meals a day, soon filling out from all the rich food. The other soldiers didn’t mind; in fact, the boy helped ease their homesickness. Gilbert giggled when Johnson carried him around on his shoulders and soon began riding along in the jeep down to the beach, where Johnson supervised the unloading of ships. When Johnson oversaw construction projects in the camp, Gilbert tagged along. If Johnson left camp with his crew to rebuild a road or a blown-out bridge, Gilbert waited for his return.

As the summer of 1944 passed, Johnson’s French improved, and Gilbert learned to say hello, goodbye, thank you, jeep, ship, and ice cream. He could also say Lieutenant Johnson.

In mid-October, when Johnson received orders to leave France, he drove to the local authorities in Caen to make some inquiries. He discovered that Gilbert had been abandoned at birth and had no living relatives. But when he asked if he could adopt him, the answer was firm: no.