In 1944, Alma Bishop received a heart-wrenching letter from the US Army — like so many other mothers in WWII — informing her of her son’s death. Although the family knew he perished in France, the letter did not specify where, why or how. It is this unknown that inspired a young boy in 1957 to embark on a life-long journey to solve the mystery behind his uncle’s death.
Billie Lee Bishop moved to Winters from Oklahoma with his family in the 1930s. After being commissioned by the US Army in August 1944, he was shipped to France to be a mechanic. He was killed a few months later on Oct 15.
In 1946, Billie James Bishop was born and named after his uncle. When Bishop was 11, he discovered the man he derived his namesake from was a soldier and vowed to unravel the mystery shrouding his death.
“In 1957, I came to understand I was named after my uncle. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to learn French someday. I’m going to go to France someday. I’m going to walk the countryside and find the cemetery my uncle is buried,’” Bishop said explaining the inspiration behind his journey. “That realization is what started this whole thing. My uncle is dead in France and I’m going to find him.”
By 2012, Bishop retired, became fluent in French and traveled overseas to fulfill his promise. This modern-day nomad landed with a vague idea of where his uncle could be buried and began walking and talking with the small-town locals near Omaha Beach. In the following days, Bishop befriended Christophe and Magali Angue. After telling them his story, the family agreed to help Bishop in his enterprise.
“Christophe and I meshed and as they got to know my story, they decided to help me and started searching around for a newspaper to publish a story about an American who’d come in search of his uncle,” Bishop explained. “They put out an ad campaign and then a French historian called them and said, ‘Yes, I have information in my files on a Billie Lee Bishop and have the morning report of the troop movement.’”
That led to the discovery of which town Bishop’s uncle had died. Bishop said he unfortunately had to return to the U.S., but planned on returning to France in 2017. When he did, he went straight back to the Angue’s bed and breakfast and began three months of extensive research while making more contacts to assist him.
“In the town with the morning report that said where Billie died, I met a very kind person at the local library who introduced me to this author who was born in 1946, my birth year,” Bishop said about the help he received from author Michel Giard. “He had contacts at the newspaper, the police station, everywhere. Eventually, he got the information in writing that showed on Oct. 15, 1944, there was an anti-personnel mine explosion with a vehicle. Two soldiers went to the hospital and one soldier died. The soldier that died was my uncle. Nobody I know could have done the investigation like him, and he simply wanted to know for me.”
After 77 years — and heaps of help from the French — Bishop discovered his uncle was killed on Sunday, Oct. 15, 1944. The 19-year-old was in a vehicle that hopped a mine near the Chauvin Bridge in Treauville, France where he was killed. Billie Lee was then buried on Oct. 16 in the American cemetery of Sainte-Mere Eglise Provisional Cemetery No. 2.
After receiving permission from Alma Bishop allowing her son to rest in France, the U.S. Army then moved Billie Lee to his final resting place in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, France in the Calvados region.
Since Bishop’s initial trip in 2012, the French who helped the Winters resident have adopted Billie Lee’s site at the Normandy Memorial through the association “The Flowers of Memory.” There will also be a memorial service to honor the American soldier on Oct. 15 in Treauville, France at the war monument.
Without the help of his new life-long friends in France, Bishop may never have discovered what really happened to his uncle. Not only does the assistance Bishop received from the French stand as a testament to the culture’s kindness, it also showed the respect and honor the country has for the Americans who gave their lives in WWII.
After 77 years, Bishop was able to complete this journey. By simply following his dream and never giving up, this kid from Winters embodied steadfast resolve that led to a cathartic resolution.