Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6859 in Portland, Maine, has tons of relics from the battlefield, such as combat-captured bayonets, German flags, and a Japanese sword that sit silently inside the lounge, behind tables, in a lighted display case by the seldom-used front door. Recently, somebody donated a foot-thick scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from World War II, pasted edge-to-edge on both sides of each yellowed page.
Then, one day in 2014, a man named Joel Demers, a Post Commander, stumbled upon these artifacts. As he was looking through them, he unwittingly embarked on a quest to solve a mystery that would take six years to unravel. The story ends in a long-lost Purple Heart being reunited with its rightful owners, but it’s what happened up until that moment that needs to be told.
(Note: This story summarizes the one Troy R. Bennett posted on Bangor Daily News.)
What Demers didn’t realize when he found the Purple Heart was that a particular family had spent decades searching for it. Along the way, Demers helped the remaining members of the soldier’s family honor and remember a man they knew was a hero and still grieved for. The thing is, they got to meet him.
The hero’s name was Royce Gibson, and he was one of the 156,000 soldiers who stormed the beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in Normandy, France. It was a day as momentous as it was tragic, which essentially started the Allied liberation of Europe. Gibson died just three days later, near the town of St. Mère Eglise, during a bayonet charge.
It was after his last, full measure of devotion on that foggy morning that Gibson earned his Purple Heart. Over the next seven decades, the medal, for whatever reason, went missing only to be found and lost again before ultimately making its way back home. So, what happened to the Purple Heart, and how did it end up in Portland’s VFW hall lounge?
The story of how Gibson’s medal ended up there is an unlikely one. And, as in every good story, it involves chance and coincidence. Some may say there must have been a higher power at work. Whatever you chose to believe, it’s a story worth telling. More so, it’s a story that needs to be told.
It all started when Joel Demers, a retired Marine from Buxton, noticed a stuffed, frayed manila envelope in the display case at the VFW hall about six years ago. It stood out to him since it didn’t seem to fit in with all the other war souvenirs. So, he decided to have a look inside.
Inside, Demers found a Purple Heart, a number of photographs, a few letters, and a key that belonged to a safety deposit box in London. Gibson’s name was written all over the papers and was even engraved on the back of the medal. Demers understood at that moment that he had his hands on something deeply meaningful. He also knew what he needed to do.
Demers knew that he needed to find Gibson’s family and give them the envelope with all of its precious contents. “Somebody just stuffed it in the case,” Demers said. “It was just sitting there, collecting dust on a shelf. I thought the family — somewhere — might cherish this stuff. He basically died on D-Day. That’s pretty pronounced in a family history.”
Demers started by asking around the VFW post, but nobody had ever heard of Gibson, nor did they have any idea as to how his things got into the display case. So, Demers did what anyone in this day and age does if they need to look for someone: He went online.
Demers read the letter in the envelope and did some Internet sleuthing, and he finally was able to find a portrait of Gibson. He could now put a face to the name. It was a start. The rest of Gibson’s story was filled in later by his relatives and by additional research. Demers learned that Gibson was born in North Tarrytown, New York (now known as Sleepy Hollow), in 1918.
Gibson was the captain of his high school football team as well as senior class president. Photos of his high school years show a young man with a wide smile and shiny brown hair. Gibson graduated in 1939 from Maine Central Institute prep-school in Pittsfield.
After graduating, Gibson joined an ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Course) program while he was at college in Maryland. He continued to play more football and was, again, president – this time of his fraternity. His life was moving fast. In May 1942, Gibson was commissioned as an Army officer.
That October, Gibson married a woman named Virginia Davidson. But the war was in full swing, meaning the two newlyweds didn’t have much time to be together. By January 1944, Gibson found himself in England with the 4th Infantry Division’s 12th Regiment. The infantry then saw its first action of the war when it spearheaded the assault landing on Utah Beach on June 6, 1994: D-Day.
Six months after landing in England, Gibson was a part of one of the biggest and most noteworthy events of World War II. Along with 23,000 other men, he roared up Utah beach. It was in an area defended by two battalions of the 919th Grenadier Regiment. Their landing craft was pushed south by strong currents, and they found themselves about 2,000 yards from their intended landing zone.
The assistant commander of the 4th Infantry Division, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was the first senior officer ashore, and he decided to “start the war from right here.” He ordered further landings to be re-routed. The 4th Infantry Division didn’t meet all of their D-Day objectives at Utah Beach, which is partly because they arrived too far to the south.
Their goal was to secure the port at Cherbourg. The landing itself was relatively easy, but the inland fight was anything but. Of the 21,000 troops that landed that day, “only” 197 of them died. Gibson did not lose his life on D-Day, alongside the thousands who did. He managed to pull through with his men. But it would only be a matter of hours until he would become yet another casualty of the war.
Two days later, on June 8, the 12th Infantry lost 300 men. According to the official after-action report, Gibson had been commanding Company F, a section of the second battalion, on June 9 – the day he lost his life.
Company F had managed to push the Germans back through three fields that morning. They even rescued three paratroopers on the way who had been taken, prisoner. Gibson and his men continued to battle uphill and through a swamp. It was then that they saw the enemy, waiting, deep in a trench.
“Company F charged in and dug them out with bayonets,” the report read. “No less than 25 Germans died on the bayonet points. But during this fight, an enemy machine gun opened fire from the left flank.” Gibson was killed in that hail of bullets. It was near the town of St. Mère Eglise. He was only 25 years old.
Later that year, Gibson’s parents received two letters in the mail, from Europe, about their son. Both letters were in the manila envelope that Demers discovered decades later. In one of the letters, Maj. K.E. Lay wrote: “I knew Lt. Gibson fairly well… I have heard other officers speak of him and they always spoke highly of his work. They spoke of his bravery, courage, and leadership.”
Another letter was from a childhood friend of Gibson’s, Gerald Hutchings, who was in the Navy at the time. Hutchings wrote about how he found Gibson’s grave in France that summer, which was near the location where he was killed in action.
“It’s a pretty place,” Hutchings wrote. “The colors are always flying, and a sentry is always on watch… I placed the flowers and held Royce’s dog tag in my hand and said a prayer, as you would have, had you been there.” By August, Gibson’s parents finally received official word from the War Department that their son had earned the Purple Heart medal.
The honorable award was first created by George Washington back in 1782 as a service medal. By 1932, the United States government started awarding them to the soldiers and sailors who were either injured or killed in combat. So far, over 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been handed out. Gibson received one of them.
“Nothing the War Department can do or say will in any sense repair the loss of your loved one,” the letter from the government read. It was also in the envelope Demers found. “He has gone, however, in honor and the goodly company of patriots.” In 1948, Gibson’s body was reburied in his hometown.
Gibson had a brother named Archibald, who was a captain in the tank corps. Unlike his brother, Archibald survived the war. Sometime after it ended, he moved to York Harbor. Although it hasn’t been confirmed, it’s believed that he brought Gibson’s papers and Purple Heart with him. Archibald passed away in 1980, with no heirs, and so the medal vanished for 20 years.
Two decades later, in 2000, York Harbor restaurateur and designer Denise Rubin found the Purple Heart at an auction preview in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The reason Rubin was even there was because she was looking for antique decor for her eatery, On the Marsh.
“There was this cardboard box,” she described. “I walked over and rifled through it… and there was this Purple Heart.” Rubin was no stranger to war, nor to such an honorable medal. As she held the medal in her hand, her mind turned to her own father, a WWII veteran who is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Her father earned his own Purple Heart after having fought in Italy.
Rubin knew just how special the medal was and how much her father’s Purple Heart meant to her family. That’s why her heart broke as she held the one that belonged to Gibson. She couldn’t believe that such a medal would be left abandoned, orphaned, so to speak. Rubin imagined it ending up on a flea market table… or worse.
Similarly to how Demers reacted, Rubin knew she had to get the medal into her hands to return it to its rightful owners and essentially save it. Considering it was an auction, she was going to have to make her bid and hope for the best. In the end, winning the medal turned out to be easy.
Winning the medal was easy, seeing as nobody wanted it, which in a way, is as understandable as it is tragic. “I bought the whole box for two dollars,” Rubin said. “I just welled up and cried. I thought there was a whole story, somewhere. Who was he? But I had no way to get it to his family.”
Rubin did her due diligence. She checked with veterans organizations all around southern Maine as well as seacoast New Hampshire. Nobody knew who Gibson was. By the end of 2003, Rubin decided she would donate the Purple Heart to a war medal display at the VFW Hall in Dover, New Hampshire.
That post in New Hampshire ended up closing in 2006. And so the medal, once again, disappeared. How it showed up in Portland, eight years later, is unknown. But the important thing is that it did. After some research online, Demers eventually found Gibson’s family. He found them through the website. Find a Grave.
Once Demers started looking online in 2014, someone named Sean Barr added an entry for Gibson on the website. Barr, from North White Plains in New York, is a distant relative of Gibson’s. He later said he was shocked when he received and read an email from Demers in August that year. “I initially thought it was a hoax,” Barr said.
“I thought he was trying to get money out of me.” But then Demers showed him the photographs and the actual Purple Heart during a video call they arranged a few weeks later. Barr wasn’t just stunned; he was happy. Demers agreed to send all of it to him in the mail. “Not only did he not scam me,” Barr said. “He wouldn’t even take money for the postage.”
The package arrived a few days later, and when it did, Barr called his distant cousin Dan Drag who was living in New Jersey. He knew that Drag would want the medal. Why? Because Drag’s wife had given birth to their son two months earlier. They named the boy Royce, after Gibson.
“We Facetimed, and he showed me the medal,” Drag explained. “I got more than a little emotional.” Although the family hero had died two generations earlier, Gibson has always held a special place in Drag’s heart and life. In fact, he knew about the Purple Heart and had been searching for it for years.
Drag said that he grew up hearing stories about Gibson from his grandmother. His grandmother’s mother and sister had died when she was just 10 years old. She was thus raised as an orphan by her aunts who lived next door to Gibson. The young man was older than she and became something of a guardian figure in her life.
Drag described Gibson as “tall, handsome, and captain of everything.” He’d introduce her to his friends and tell them she was special and they should take care of her. “He was somebody I tried to live up to. I’d think, ‘What would Royce do?’” Gibson’s death was extremely hard on Drag’s grandmother, who never got over it.
She would still cry when talking about him, even in her final years. There wasn’t much left for her to remember him by, other than a bullet casing she picked up from off the ground after the 21-gun salute fired over his reburial ceremony. When she passed away, the brass casing was given to Drag. It was the only thing he had of Gibson’s.
“It’s all I ever had to give my son,” Drag said. “Until now. He was named after a man who was very important to my family — someone who took care of people.” For decades, Drag searched for any information he could find about Gibson. In 2005, he went to France to see Utah Beach. There, he walked the sands where Gibson fought that day in 1944.
When Drag watched the 2010 WWII documentary Mother of Normandy: The Story of Simone Renaud, Drag even managed to catch a glimpse of Gibson’s name painted on a graveyard cross. He saw it in a vintage photograph that was taken in France.
It was all very important to him – to see the spot Gibson had fought in. But what Drag really wanted to was to find the Purple Heart – the medal that symbolized what Gibson had done and what he had lost. Drag knew it was out there somewhere. He flipped over countless medals at various memorabilia shows, looking for that specific name. He trolled online auction sites but found nothing.
And now, by some special force of nature, he had it. And Rubin, the woman who found the medal 20 years ago, doesn’t think the Purple Heart made its way to baby Royce just by chance alone. “I feel like we’ve completed the cycle,” she said.
“There was definitely a force at work here. It was meant to get back.” Drag found himself agreeing with Rubin. “It’s weird, it’s eerie,” Drag admitted. “But in a good way.” Demers, the man responsible for getting the medal back home, is really just glad that Gibson’s memory, like a torch, is still burning in the family. “It’s awesome,” Demers said. “This guy served and gave his life. It seems like he was — and is — very loved.”
I told you that this story needed to be told! Now, if you found this touching and feel like shedding perhaps another tear, you should read the next one. It’s another true story about high school sweethearts who were torn apart… only to be reunited decades later…