COLLEVILLE SUR MER, France -- Cpl. Joshua Bettis, an outbound clerk in distribution management office at Henderson Hall became interested in the military after watching the movie Saving Private Ryan when he was around the age of 12. He was particularly captivated by the opening scenes showing the massive invasion of United States troops on the beaches of Normandy, France, June 6, 1944.
“I would watch the opening scene over and over again,” said Bettis, a Jacksonville, Illinois native.
One day when visiting his great-grandfather, Bettis talked about how much he enjoyed the movie and had also started reading military history by Stephen Ambrose. His great-grandfather mentioned that his brother in-law was a soldier in World War II who was killed in the invasion of D-Day.
“I was shocked to find out I had somebody who was there, killed in the invasion and buried in Normandy,” said Bettis. “No one had talked about him as time went on and the subject was only brought up after watching the movie.”
Bettis started researching and talked with his great-grandfather, learning his relative’s name was Alfred H. Carlton, and according to Bettis, no one had ever visited his grave at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville sur Mer, France.
Papers and letters about Bettis’ great-great-uncle were kept by his family and passed down to his mother who gave them to Bettis. The papers included a letter sent during July 1944 to inform his family Carlton was critically wounded. Then a letter came in September 1944 from the War Department’s adjacent general informing Carlton’s next of kin of his death on June 7, 1944.
“It was really surreal to me holding something his mother held when she found out that her son had been killed,” said Bettis. “I can only imagine how she must have felt. It was like holding a piece of history.”
Bettis serves as the vice president of the Headquarters and Service Battalion, Headquarters Marine Corps, Henderson Hall Single Marine Program. During a meeting, the idea of Marines from the battalion going on a professional military education trip to Belleau, France was mentioned, initially Bettis didn’t know the trip would include Normandy.
“My great-grandfather had told me if I ever had the chance to make it there, I should take the opportunity,” said Bettis. “When this trip came up, I felt my time had come.”
The trip took place May 23-27, 2016 with more than 70 Marines in attendance. On the third day, the Marines visited landing sights of the D-Day invasion and the Normandy American Cemetery.
“Cpl. Bettis talked to me after formation to see if he could visit his family member’s grave,” said Master Sgt. Scott Hart, administration chief at Plans, Policy, and Operations and the staff noncommissioned officer in-charge of the PME trip. “I spoke with the guide for our trip, Mr. Ray Shearer, and he contacted the cemetery staff.”
At the cemetery, Bettis was escorted by the cemetery staff to his relative’s gravesite.
“Visiting the grave was unreal; it didn’t feel real,” said Bettis. “It was unreal to be there in person and gave me a sense of closure even though I never knew this gentleman. It’s like my family’s blood is on that beach.”
At the request of his mother, Bettis placed the only photo of Alfred Carlton on the grave and knelt touching the white Lasa marble Latin cross. The cross reads “Alfred H. Carlton PFC 116 INF 29 DIV Illinois June 7, 1944.”
The cemetery personnel provided new information to Bettis. He learned Carlton was likely in the first wave and wounded in action on the beach. The cemetery also provided a summary of action that provided information about Carlton’s awards and additional research information to possibly access more records, Carlton’s Purple Heart citation and locate his Purple Heart Medal.
“The cemetery personnel were able to paint a clearer picture,” said Bettis. “All the paperwork I had reflected he was a private, but he was a private first class.”
The cemetery also gave Bettis two flags, which were flown on Carlton’s grave on Memorial Day to keep. Bettis provided the papers and letters to the cemetery to scan for their records, so they can tell the story of Carlton to visitors.
Before Carlton went to initial training for the Army he had taken out a life insurance policy. After his death, Carlton’s family filed for the claim, which saved the family’s farm in Roodhouse, Illinois and preserved the family legacy.
“My family was very poor, no electricity in their home and barely had money to put food on the table,” said Bettis. “They were basically going under because of the great depression, and they couldn’t afford to bring my great-great-uncle’s body back. My family thought he should be buried with his friends.
“Through his sacrifice, I feel that he saved our family, so in a lot of ways I credit my existence to his sacrifice.”
Bettis says he wants to continue to find information and pass it on to future generations.
“I couldn’t have done this alone,” said Bettis. “It was the staff noncommissioned officers that made this happen and the personnel at the cemetery as well. My family is going to be ecstatic and thrilled with all the information I come back with.”