Although some details from that September 1944 day have been lost to time, Claude Juin remembers his walk as an 11-year-old down a French coastal road somewhere near home between Granville and Saint-Pair-sur-Mer.
A few months earlier, parts of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day had taken place less than 50 miles away. With the often foggy English Channel serving as a backdrop, something shiny caught the boy’s attention. On the ground was an American soldier’s prayer book that would one day link Juin to a late veteran’s family in Pittsburgh and to amateur historians in Palatine.
“The (events of 1944) have deeply affected the Normans,” Juin later wrote. “There were tragic episodes, then a breath of fresh air.”
For Juin, finding the small “Catholic’s Pocket Manual” was one of the few bright moments during one of his country’s darkest periods.
The 2-by-3-inch prayer book was damaged. Pages were missing, and Juin assumed a vehicle, quite possibly a tank, had run over the manual and bent its metal cover.
Written on a sheet of flimsy paper were the words, “PVT James J. Hoban,” along with his address and ASN, or Army Service Number.
Although he’d forget about his find after leaving home at age 15, a quest to return the book to its rightful owner would begin decades later — but not without a stop in Palatine first.
The village, which is a sister city with Fontenay-le-Comte, France, began its search for a global partnership in 1990, when Chicago prepared to host the 35th anniversary of Sister Cities International.
President Dwight Eisenhower created the organization in the aftermath of World War II, hoping citizen diplomacy would allow cultures to celebrate their differences instead of deriding them and sowing new seeds for war.
Palatine’s opportunity to lock in a sister community came four years later when former Mayor Rita Mullins dined with M. Didier Pinoit Velancian of Schneider Electric, in town to oversee the company’s acquisition of Square D Corp. near Harper College.
Velancian suggested his boyhood town of Fontenay, where his father had been the country doctor. The Sister Cities Association of Palatine, founded by Village Clerk Marg Duer, has celebrated the relationship ever since.
It was during one of the local organization’s many trips to France, in 2011, that a member from Palatine crossed paths with Juin, who now lives in the Fontenay area. He had rediscovered the prayer book while cleaning out his grandparents’ home a few years earlier and shared his story with Palatine resident Marie Denise Cormier.
Juin, who learned from another Sister Cities member from Palatine that Hoban had survived the war but died in 1977, told Cormier he was getting old and wanted to know the book would be returned to the American soldier’s family.
“The solution may be in the hands of Palatine,” Juin wrote.
Longtime Sister Cities member Ken Asmann answered the call for help.
“The story intrigued me,” Asmann, 78, said. “And I’m retired, so I’ve got some time on my hands.”
For nearly four months, Asmann worked with the Palatine Public Library, the Arlington Heights Memorial Library genealogy department and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, sorting through U.S. Census data, decades-old phone books and obituaries.
“The more I got into it, the more excited I got,” Asmann said.
Along the way, Asmann, a veteran himself, got to know Pvt. Hoban. He learned the soldier was born in 1909 to an Irish father and a Scottish mother.
According to enlistment records, Hoban was 33 years old, living in Pittsburgh and working as a metal fabricator, when he joined the U.S. Army in 1942. He had a slight build, standing just 5 feet, 4 inches and 120 pounds.
“Many families felt obligated to send someone to war, and (Hoban) never married or had kids,” Asmann said. “He was supporting his mother and youngest sister but felt the need to do his part. I’m inferring that, but that’s what this process has done to us. We’ve all come up with our own stories about Hoban.”
He imagines Hoban turning to the book during desperate times, reading various prayers and even pages with instructions on how to preside over an emergency baptism or what to do “in case of danger of death.”
Asmann, who’s visited Fontenay with his wife, Barbara, struggled at times to make progress given today’s privacy laws.
“It was sad when we discovered that Hoban had died,” Sister Cities founder Marg Duer said. “We thought it was a dead end, and we were really disappointed. But Ken had faith he could find some connection.”
Asmann eventually tracked down Hoban’s niece, Patricia Hoban, in Pittsburgh. She lives in the very house that Hoban once did.
Her son, Martin Hoban, said his mother didn’t have much contact with her uncle but remembers he played the piano, fought in the Battle of the Bulgeand at one time lived next door to Art Rooney Sr., the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner.
The head of Fontenay’s Sister Cities organization brought the prayer book to Palatine during a visit late last year. Carl and Grace Arthur of Palatine will hand deliver it to the Hobans later this month when they visit family in the area.
Members of the Palatine group had a special box made for the book. Asmann also will include an old soldier’s rosary ring that he received as a Boy Scout, saying Hoban probably was issued one while in the service.
“It really is amazing that after 68 years, a little prayer book could find its way back to the family of the man who lost it,” Martin Hoban said.
Lost: Sister Cities members helped locate soldier’s family in Pittsburgh