A Hero Unknown


June 6, 1944, otherwise known as D-Day, marked the beginning of the Allied Invasion of Normandy and Operation Overlord. It became known as the largest, seaborne operation in US history signifying the campaign to liberate Europe and defeat Germany in WWII. Approximately 34,000 troops landed on Omaha Beach with the average range of the young men being 26 years old. At the conclusion of this day, an estimated 2,400 soldiers had paid the ultimate price for their country. Now, I have always had a fascination with US history and learning about what makes our country one of the greatest in the world. As miniscule as it may sound, this particular era has always held a keen interest of mine. I’ve invariably admired the resiliency of the American population during WWII, but even more so the strength and determination of the women who worked on the homefront. They did so while the men were overseas fighting and dying to secure our continued liberties while trying to give others the same gift. It just so happens that D-Day has had a special significance to me because 40 years to the day in 1984, I was born. That may not matter a whole lot to you reading this, but to me I can’t help but think about the fact that on the day I was given my first breath of life decades earlier countless many breathed their last. It wasn’t until I began dating my now husband, Aaron Davis Walden, that June 6th would come to matter even more.

I’m very much a believer in using family names when children are born. I know many people don’t share that same sentiment, but I surely have found an invaluable gift in it. For a person to mean so much to you that their name is passed down to your own flesh and blood should count for a lot. It definitely was a reality when I became the mother of five kids, which truth be told by the time number five arrived I had almost run out of monikers of the familial sort. We worked it out, though. I always loved my husband’s middle name, Davis, but for some reason we didn’t use it. When our first son was born, we named him Brinson Aaron, and when the last boy came along we took the route of keeping the same initials so as to utilize those monogrammed items of clothing because we didn’t want them to go to waste. Davis was always such a distinguished sounding name to me, and it just so happened to be the maiden name of Aaron’s grandmother, Mrs. Marjorie Davis Johnson, wife of WD. When Aaron and I began courting, I learned that not only had he never had the chance to know the man who he was named after, but no one in his family knew him, either. We’ve always been told that his great grandfather passed away on D-Day, June 6th, what eventually would be the date of my birth. I guess that’s why I have always felt drawn to this stranger of a man, a hero unknown. You see, Private Ernest Davis’s story isn’t so much out of the ordinary when it comes to young men of that time. He and Aaron’s great grandmother, Lola, had previously been divorced prior to his journey abroad. She remarried and moved to Savannah where Mrs. Marjorie would spend part of her childhood. Due to different circumstances after the separation, Mr. Davis found himself enlisting into the armed forces and subsequently was one of those young men who on that fateful day in June 1944, stormed Omaha Beach in the invasion of Normandy. We were always told that he lost his life on the very shores that he and other young men trampled upon in their aim of finding victory and freedom from Nazi Germany. The only remnants of the legacy of Mr. Davis that his family had been given were his purple heart, his service portrait, and his certificate of being awarded that most prestigious medal all which eventually were encased in a shadow box. It never failed that when we visited Grandma and Big Pa’s house throughout the last 24 years we would always peer at that shadow box knowing that its contents had not changed, but its possessions still tell such a story; an important one at that. Mrs. Marjorie never had the chance to see her father’s final resting place because upon his death he was buried in Normandy. The mystery surrounding this unknown hero was always one that his family wanted more insight about, yet the chances of ever knowing enough about the location and how to navigate it would escape us all until this last New Year’s Eve.

The Johnson family has been farmers in this county and surrounding areas for as long as I can remember. I’ve never not known of them being in such a profession. Their family roots run as deep as the crops they sow year after year. Farming brings many connections and friendships, several that last a lifetime. Back in the fall of 2023, Blake Johnson, grandson of Marjorie and WD and great grandson of Ernest Davis, was on a phone call with a fellow farmer and friend by the name of Steve Brownlee from Bulloch County. It was in the conversation that Mr. Brownlee revealed that he was visiting his wife’s family overseas, France to be exact. Adding to the comradery of the chat, Blake casually mentioned that his great grandfather had died on D-Day and was actually buried in France. This is where this story takes a turn, or we like to consider this a God wink in our neck of the woods. Steve went on to say that where they were visiting was approximately 40 miles away from the Normandy American Cemetery, the site where thousands of American soldiers were buried upon the devastation of D-Day. One soldier in particular that never made it home and who rested among those numbers was, you guessed it, Private Ernest Davis. To say that this discussion was one for the history books (no pun intended) was putting it lightly. This is when the Johnson family’s trajectory took a wild but profound detour. Steve Brownlee didn’t realize it then, but the gift he was about to give his friend and his friend’s extended family would be one that would be imprinted into the fiber of their very being.

Before hanging up, Blake heard Steve tell him that since they were so close to the cemetery and no one had ever seen Mr. Davis’s grave, he would gladly go and take pictures of his headstone for him. What started out as a day trip to snap a few pictures ended up being much more. Because Mr. Brownlee’s wife is French, she was granted privileges to set up what is called a sand ceremony. Mr. Brownlee, his wife, and a French trustee of the cemetery captured on video what can only be described as a moment that will be cherished by the Johnson family for generations to follow. Mr. Davis’s grave just so happens to be on the outer edge of one of the rows, Plot D Row 13 Grave 47 to be precise, that looks out onto the shores of Omaha Beach in an almost poignant scene. Nestled in her hand, the trustee recorded by Mr. Brownlee, held the shimmering sands taken from that very shoreline and spread them across the engraved name of Ernest Davis. What once was ordinary sediment taken from that most noteworthy beach seemed to gleam gold as it was pressed down into the etching of the cross that held this unknown hero’s name. The same was done on the back for the grave’s serial number. A French flag and an American flag were planted down in the bright, green grass paying homage to a fallen soldier. The death date read as June 30, 1944. This is where the story gets hazy because information on exactly the cause of Mr. Davis’s death is unknown at this point. We aren’t sure if he later succumbed to injuries sustained on D-Day, or if he miraculously survived this most horrifying situation and fell victim to another battle in France. Either way, seeing his name and his grave brought his soul to life for a matter of minutes. On December 31, 2023, Mr. Brownlee paid a visit to the Johnson family at their home church, El Bethel Baptist, in Twin City. It was then that he shared with the whole group the video that was recorded during his time in France. He asked Mr. WD, Mr. Davis’s son in-law, to step forward. At that moment, time paused. Holding out his weathered hand, Steve presented the 93 year old patriarch with the two flags that had been fixed at Davis’s grave as well as a small bag of sand taken from Omaha Beach. Amongst the folks, were Mr. Davis’s grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great, great grandchildren, quite a legacy left behind that this unknown hero never had the chance to see. For those of us not afforded the opportunity to know him, it was quite an emotional and powerful experience.

Fast forward to March of 2024, a coworker of mine by the name of Christian Novak was preparing to take a trip overseas as part of his Master’s in Military History curriculum through The Citadel Graduate College. He would be going to the very cemetery Mr. Brownlee had just visited and reported back to the Johnsons about. Before his departure, Novak asked if there was anything that he could take on behalf of the family before he visited. Without hesitation, I sent with him a most priceless gift unbeknownst to my husband’s family. In that quaint, quiet, and most revered, countryside burial ground, a little piece of rural Georgia was delivered with all intentions of it remaining there. Settled in a picture frame is a collage made precisely for Private Ernest Davis. Amongst the collection is a picture of his daughter, Marjorie Johnson, taken from the last family portraits that were made back in the fall of 2019. In it, she revels in a smile of old age that unfortunately time didn’t give to Davis. There is also a snapshot of her with husband WD along with Davis’s four, adult grandchildren well over the age that he was when he passed; Rosemary Hall and spouse Jerry of Dublin, Ann Walden and husband Andy of Twin City, Boyd Johnson and wife Sonya of Twin City, and Cathy Howell of Portal. There is also an individual shot of my husband, Aaron Davis Walden, the only great grandchild who bears this valiant soldier’s name. At the very bottom is a collective picture of his 9 great grandchildren and 22 great, great grandchildren. As wonderfully precious as this whole, full circle adventure has been, there’s also a twinge of bittersweetness. Grandma passed away in the summer of 2022 and was unable to see this come to fruition. If there’s one person that we would’ve liked to witness every bit of this remarkable tale, it would’ve been her. Because of our faith, we know that she has witnessed it all. After meeting Jesus, we feel sure her daddy was probably at the top of her list of those she couldn’t wait to reconnect with. Mr. Davis has not only reunited with his daughter, but he’s met his grandson in-law, Wayne Howell and two, beautiful great, great granddaughters, Annie and Ada Grace Walden.

Many times there are stories that take so many twists and turns in this thing called life. While they don’t make sense in the beginning or the middle, sometimes it’s not until the end that we see a bigger picture unfolding. This picture becomes intertwined with the stories of others, therefore making the journey to our final destination all the more beautiful along the way. On this D-Day and every one after it that follows, the Johnson family now has a peace that surpasses all understanding seeing our unknown hero come to life in a way that we could’ve never imagined. May all of those who lost their lives on that day never be forgotten, and may their legacy of love and sacrifice live on forever. We plan on Private Ernest Davis doing so as long as there is sand on Omaha Beach and the green grass grows on that sacred Normandy ground.