U.S. Army Pfc. Bryce Levar Fountain got ready to parachute from the military airplane on June 6, 1944.
As he had been trained to do during the two years since he had enlisted, the 22-year-old from Eureka waited until the plane, under attack and surrounded by fog, flew over the beaches at Normandy, France. Then he followed orders to jump.
It was the first mission of his military career — and the last.
More than 2,500 U.S. soldiers, including Fountain, were among about 4,000 Allied troops who lost their lives in that mission, known everywhere as D-Day, which has been described as the largest amphibious military invasion in history. D-Day helped turn back the German occupation of France, leading to the end of World War II in 1945.
Now, almost 80 years later, a Marin high school student and his teacher have unearthed the details of Fountain’s unheralded courage during the D-Day campaign — and preserved them forever in the historical archives at the cemetery where he is buried.
The student, Alex Uhrlaub of San Anselmo, delivered a eulogy late last month at Fountain’s gravesite at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.
“What has given the sacrifice of the many individual, intricate and profound lives and characters like that of Bryce value?” said Uhrlaub, 17. “I believe it is freedom.”
Uhrlaub, a senior at San Domenico School in San Anselmo, and his social justice teacher Katherine Hagee spent more than six months researching unsung heroes like Fountain and the events of D-Day under a special program run by the Albert H. Small Normandy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Working remotely for more than five months and later in person in Washington, D.C., the team combed through materials of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. They also were given access to original military documents that detailed the events of D-Day, including the movements of soldiers like Fountain.
“Really, it’s about truly understanding the cost of freedom — that’s what the institute is all about,” said Hagee, 54, of San Rafael. “It’s about every person’s life that was lost, from any country, in any war.”
Uhrlaub and Hagee were one of 15 student-teacher teams selected for this year’s program out of more than 70 teams that applied from around the country. Each team focused on a soldier who died at D-Day but who has never been recognized or acknowledged by peers, survivors or family. The students were asked to find a soldier from the same general area as where they live.
The Small institute also had already logged a partial record of Fountain’s family history. He was the youngest of seven children born and raised in Arcata, another Humboldt County town. The family moved to Eureka when he was about 14 and he enrolled at Eureka High School.
Only one immediate family member was alive when Uhrlaub and Hagee conducted their research. They did find some biographical notes on Fountain in an ancestry website. The person who posted the notes — and the remaining family member — chose to stay anonymous, Uhrlaub said.
While Fountain’s family biography was challenging, the real meat of Uhrlaub’s and Hagee’s research was an even bigger mystery. That was about what happened to Fountain on D-Day and how he died.
The team got a lot of information from military records and original documents, but a breakthrough came during a weeklong trip to France in late June with other institute participants. The duo met a witness to the battle where Fountain died. The witness was a boy at the time.
“The idea of the actual trip to France was to walk in the footsteps of the Allied troops from the landing at Normandy all the way to liberation of Paris,” said Hagee. “It was called a staff tour.”
The students and teachers spent time on the various beaches — Utah, Omaha, Juneau — some of which have been immortalized in various depictions of D-Day in books and movies. They visited key bridges and other landmarks.
“We had all these stops all along the way that created this story, this narrative of the experiences that the Allied troops would have had on D-Day, from a lot of different perspectives,” Hagee said. “We never stopped learning. We never got to the end.”
On D-Day, according to Hagee and Uhrlaub, Fountain landed near an area called Brécourt Manor, in the small town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, 11 miles from his intended landing site. The parachute drop targets had been set awry by the fog and German attacks on the planes, according to Uhrlaub.
At Brécourt Manor, Fountain and the other Allied troops tried to secure the town. However, they got locked into a battle with German forces who were trying to resist the massive Normandy invasion.
According to the military records, Fountain was fatally shot in the chest. The man who witnessed the battle as a boy is Charles Valla-Vieille, now the mayor of Brécourt Manor.
Although Valla-Vieile didn’t actually see Fountain get shot, the mayor confirmed it was Fountain who died from a combination of the yearbook photo that Uhrlaub showed him and from other identifying information.
“I didn’t expect him to be able to recognize Bryce’s face, as the assault was fast-paced and Charles, the mayor, remained distanced from the fighting,” Uhrlaub said in an email. “He was also very young when he witnessed the battle.”
However, it turned out that Valla-Vieille had been researching the battle at his town all these years. He had been in touch with the institute on several occasions, and this year was the first time the mayor agreed to have the program participants visit the battle site, Uhrlaub said.
“Over time, he had learned the names and roles of almost every Allied soldier who fought at the manor,” Uhrlaub said.
“He confirmed Bryce’s participation by naming his military placement and assignment during the attack,” he added. “This corroborated information that we had previously found but that had not until then been confirmed by a primary source.”
After the meeting with the mayor, Uhrlaub stood by himself at the same field where Fountain had died. It was a moment he captured later in the eulogy he gave by Fountain’s grave.
“Today, it shows no signs of war or bloodshed,” Uhrlaub said of the field. “Instead, much like the rest of the Norman countryside, it is a true natural sanctuary with flourishing wildlife and free inhabitants.”
“This was no doubt enabled by the liberation of France from German occupation, made possible by the Allied forces on D — Day,” he said.
The private ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery took six hours as each student in the program read eulogies for the soldiers they studied.
“The coolest thing for me was to see each student go to the gravesite,” Hagee said. After reading the eulogies, the students had a “quiet moment” with the program’s head scholar, who thanked each student personally for doing the work to honor the soldiers, Hagee said.
Uhrlaub said the research and experiences have changed his life. He said he still plans to major in psychology in college, but now has a “new view of humanity” after immersing himself in Fountain’s life.
“I am truly inspired by Bryce’s undeniable display of valiance, determination and solidarity, both on and off of the battlefield,” Uhrlaub said. “However I realize that this is only one life, capable of drawing admiration and delivering inspiration, yet connected to so many others that were lost on the same day.”
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