Originally created 09/09/01

Family prizes memories

On Dec. 7, 1941, Elias "Al" Felberg had served his time - his one-year stint in the Army was up, his gear was turned in, and he was ready to return to civilian life.

Destiny had other plans.

The Japanese had hit Pearl Harbor, the announcement over the post's loudspeaker said, and all single soldiers were to report back to duty. Pvt. Felberg hadn't even made it out the front gate.

Within 30 months, the Orthodox Jew from Manhattan, New York, would crisscross the East Coast, start a family with a Southern Baptist wife and die on the battlefield after the D-Day invasion.

"He always told me 'You'll be my destiny,"' Lillian Napier said.

Now 82, Mrs. Napier still lives in Gloverville, and still loves her boy - 57-year-old Paul. He never knew his dad. Al Felberg saw his son only once, during a weekend leave when Paul was 4 months old. "You just smiled at him the whole time," Mrs. Napier said, winking at her son.

Falling for the first time

Mrs. Napier - then Lillian Clark - will never forget the day Al Felberg walked by her family's house in the Valley. She'd been warned by her mother not to mess with soldiers on weekend leave from Camp Gordon, but this one was persistent, and she couldn't resist.

"I think he fell for me more than I fell for him at the time," she said, grinning. "He was different from the other boys in the South."

He said he'd be back the next weekend - she didn't believe him. A week later, there he was knocking on the front door.

They courted for a year while he trained for war at Camp Gordon and tried to assuage her family's fears about the Orthodox Jew their daughter loved. His family never really accepted the couple, though they loved her greatly, Mrs. Napier said.

On a Sunday afternoon in September 1942, they eloped. North Augusta Justice of the Peace Jimmy Parker married the couple, and they began to steal away time whenever possible.

"We really didn't have a life together," she said. "But we treasured our little times together."

Soon, Mrs. Napier was pregnant and Pvt. Felberg was transferred to New Jersey. He stayed there for most of the pregnancy before being shipped to Florida. But he was at her side when Paul was born.

"He told me he'd be there if he had to ride in a cattle car," she said, laughing.

After Paul was born, Pvt. Felberg came home once before being sent to England to train for the D-Day invasion. He arrived at the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

"There were a lot of them that were just lost in the ocean," Mrs. Napier said.

Al Felberg, by then a private first class, made it ashore, but was killed by a mortar shell two days later.

Dealing with death

Mrs. Napier knew something was wrong when the letters stopped.

Her husband had written faithfully during the war, his letters filled with longing to spend time with his new son and the wife he addressed as "Darling," "Lil" and "Honey."

The last letter was dated June 1, 1944. His words describe a photo of his wife and son.

"I can really see that both of you have improved with age," he wrote in near perfect penmanship. "You especially have more poise and that corsage you wore on your dress that day must have been submerged by the loveliness of the woman that wore it."

He laments not being able to come home and the gray creeping into his hair. He wonders what his family does in their spare time and what movies his wife has seen recently. And he closes with a request.

"Please take good care of yourself and Sonny Boy and let him know who's boss," he wrote, closing with "Always yours with love, Al."

"I didn't hear anything until the telegram on July 18," Mrs. Napier said.

She was holding her son when the knock came. Two officers from Camp Gordon brought the news.

"I was not at all prepared," she said. "He always said he'd be back. It was a shock. But after a while, I had to accept it because there were no more letters or anything."

Later, the Army mailed some of her husband's personal effects, including a check for the $38.33 that was in his pocket and the sterling silver ID bracelet he wore to war.

"He told me, 'Baby, if you ever get this, you know I won't be back,' and tears came into his eyes," she said. "And then he said 'I hope you never get it."'

Now a single mother, Mrs. Napier moved in with her parents and took a job at the Graniteville Co.

"I worked at night because I wanted to be at home during the daytime because (Paul) was so little," she said. "He was my world."

A few years later she remarried, but made sure Paul kept in touch with the Felberg family in New York City. He made several trips there - journys marked by memories of riding the subway, seeing the New York Yankees and watching Mickey Mantle take batting practice.

Although his stepfather was a good dad, Mr. Felberg said, he grew up with a nagging question bouncing in his mind, "What if Pfc. Al Felberg had made it back from Normandy?"

"When it's your dad and you don't remember seeing him ..." he said, his voice trailing off. "It's the 'what ifs' that are the hardest."

Eventually, he had six children of his own, raising them in the Augusta area and telling them of the grandfather they'd never know.

Filling the void

For 30 years, Donna Felberg Palmer heard the wishes of her father. Just once, he'd like to see his father's grave. Just for a while, he'd like to walk near his father's final footsteps. Just for a lifetime, he'd like to know his dad.

So Mrs. Palmer decided to make it happen. She started compiling items that represented the 32 years of her grandfather's life - especially those brief few with her grandmother and the months as a father - into a scrapbook.

She began by sitting down with her grandmother to collect her memories.

"It amazed me what she had," Mrs. Palmer said.

There was the Western Union telegram from the Army, there were the dozens of letters - each stamped with "PASSED BY ARMY EXAMINER," and there were the tangible pieces of his life. One of the letters - dated May 18, 1944 - had always been a favorite of Mrs. Napier.

"The most important thought I always carry is of you and Paul. My love for you both is the destiny of my life, so take good care of him and yourself," Mrs. Palmer reads with the cracking voice of a granddaughter who never knew "granddaddy."

While making the scrapbook, she turned to the Internet to track down old soldiers to see whether they could add to her collection. She found a picture - nearly three feet long - of Pfc. Felberg's division, lined up in formation in front of a backdrop of Army vehicles.

She went to the local Veteran's Administration office to get the one thing her grandmother didn't have - an American flag to commemorate her fallen husband. She talked with a clerk who asked her to wait a few minutes. Then she heard someone ask for "Miss Felberg."

"There was an officer standing there," she said. "He saluted me and told me what an honor it was to present the flag in honor of a fallen hero.

"I cried all the way home and just clutched that flag."

With the scrapbook coming together, Mrs. Palmer decided to take her quest to France. In February 1999, she took her father to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur Mer. The cemetery sits on a cliff overlooking the beaches of Normandy where so many soldiers lost their lives in June 1944.

There among the sea of stark-white crosses is Pfc. Felberg's Star of David tombstone - its letters barely visible.

Mrs. Palmer, her husband and Mrs. Napier gave Mr. Felberg time alone at the grave site. While Mr. Felberg stood there, propping on his father's marker with his right hand, the cemetery's caretaker went to the beach to collect some sand. Minutes later, he rubbed a handful from the Normandy beach across the facade, filling in the cracks and making the name appear.

"It's the most humbling thing I've ever had happen to me," Mr. Felberg said, his eyes filling with tears. "It's something I can't talk about really."

A few months later - on Father's Day - Mrs. Palmer gave her dad the scrapbook of his father's life. The pair cried as they looked through it.

"It's the little things - his father's penmanship, phrases he'd never heard his father use," she said. "Some things you just can't put a value on. It's some things you'll never forget."

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115, or jbsmith@augustachronicle.com.

Editor's note: Pfc. Elias "Al" Felberg died two days after the D-Day invasion, and nearly six decades later his granddaughter brought his memory to life for her father - who was a baby when his father was killed.

During the next three months, The Augusta Chronicle will publish the stories of our World War II veterans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of America's entry into the war.

If you have a war story to tell, mail your submission to: War Stories, c/o The Augusta Chronicle Newsroom, P.O. Box 1928, Augusta, GA 30903-1928. Or e-mail your stories to newsroom@ augustachronicle.com. Please include your name, address and telephone number with your entry.


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