WILMINGTON, N.C. — Linda and David Lashley held a tattered copy of the New Testament open to the dedication page, carefully sheltering it from the rain.
Their father, Howard Clifton Lashley, had received the holy book in 1943 at Camp Blanding, Fla., before going off to fight in World War II. He carried it onto Omaha Beach two months after D-Day. It was with him through the Battle of the Bulge, and he probably had it with him when he was wounded in Belgium.
Now, 70 years later, his two children were standing by his grave in Greenlawn Cemetery, holding the little book they’d received two days earlier.
The book had been mailed to them by Ward Dossche of Belgium, who had been trying since 1977 to return it.
The story of that Bible’s seven-decade journey is one of courage and sadness, determination and love.
Clifton Lashley was born in 1924 in an eastern North Carolina town so small it doesn’t exist anymore. He moved to Wilmington, where he worked with his brother and father for the Atlantic Coast Line railroad.
He was drafted in 1943 and was sent to Camp Blanding, where he was given a pocket-size copy of the New Testament with a note of gratitude from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Lashley landed on Omaha Beach in August 1944 and fought across France and Belgium.
On Jan. 5, 1945, he was standing behind a Sherman tank in Manhay, Belgium, when a German tank fired at the Sherman. The shell missed the turret and landed about 10 feet from him, he said in a letter to his family.
He called it the “Lord’s blessing” that he could tell about it.
He described the wound as “a scratch on the right leg,” but it kept him in a hospital in Liege, Belgium, for two weeks, and it hurt for the rest of his life.
After leaving the hospital, Lashley spent a month living with civilians in Belgium as his unit was being rested.
Maybe he lost the Bible when he was wounded or at the hospital, his children speculate. Or maybe he left it with that kind family who sheltered a stranger from overseas.
In any case, Lashley returned to the States without it. He went back to his job at the railroad.
Years later, his children remember him rubbing his leg at night. It was scarred and still had shrapnel.
He wouldn’t talk about the war. He’d leave the room when the 1960s TV show “Combat” aired. “He seemed to think he didn’t need the Hollywood version,” David said.
On April 7, 1976, Linda and her mother, Cozette Reid Lashley, were in a store in Longleaf Mall when Clifton Lashley came by. Something seemed a little off. Linda worried about her father as he left the store.
“Something told me to look at him, that I’d never see him again,” she said.
Driving home, he suffered a heart attack and hit a utility pole on Carolina Beach Road.
It was a year later that Lashley’s long-lost New Testament came into Ward Dossche’s possession.
Dossche, now 62, has a deep respect for veterans. He is the son of a World War II veteran and grandson of two World War I veterans.
Those wars are an ever-present memory in Belgium.
“The USA are lucky that they’ve never been invaded the way that my country has,” Dossche said in an email.
Belgium has been crossed by armies since the time of the Romans, Dossche said. In many regions, a traveler will nearly always be in sight of a war cemetery.
In Mortsel, where he lives, a U.S. plane was on a high-altitude bombing mission during World War II. The bombs missed the intended target, an airplane repair facility, and landed in the center of town. The blasts destroyed three schools and killed around 950 people, about half of them children.
But no one blamed the Americans. “It was a tragic accident, a case of friendly fire,” he said.
His great-uncle went missing in action during World War I. Dossche believes he is close to finding the grave.
He remembers his great-grandmother’s anguish. He discovered a letter she’d written “with a cry for information, anything that she could hold in her hand as a memento of her son,” he wrote. “After that war, she was left with nothing.”
Dossche’s cousin collected old books, and he bought the American serviceman’s Bible at an auction in the 1960s. When the cousin died in 1977, Dossche inherited it.
The dedication page listed the book as the property of one Pvt. H.C. Lashley. It had his service number and the Wilmington address of his mother, the next of kin.
Mindful of his great-grandmother’s wish for “anything that she could hold in her hand,” he resolved to return the Bible.
That was 36 years ago.
Dossche, now retired as a manager of a Belgian telephone company, wrote to embassies and to the Pentagon and even to President Jimmy Carter.
He brought the Bible to America in 2007 when he drove from Washington, D.C., to Key West, Fla., with his daughter. They stopped in Wilmington and tried to find someone who knew Lashley, but they had no success.
Several times a year he visits a grave at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial on behalf of an American woman of his acquaintance whose father rests there.
On a recent visit, he told the cemetery superintendent, Bobby Bell, about Lashley’s Bible.
Bell found an entry about Lashley’s grave in Greenlawn at FindaGrave.com, thanks to the work Tom Reece of Wilmington and his brother are doing cataloging the graves of U.S. service members.
Bell put Dossche in touch with Reece, who tracked down Linda and David Lashley.
Like Ward Dossche, Linda is in the telephone business, working at AT&T. David is in manufacturing.
David was 20 and Linda 25 when they lost their father. They have a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and photos he took during the war.
The palm-size New Testament arrived via registered mail from Belgium on June 4.
“When I had claimed it, I went over to Daddy’s gravesite and told him, with a big lump in my throat,” she said.
The brother and sister examined the little book. They said it helped to have a tangible reminder of their father.
Across the sea, Ward Dossche was glad to see a picture of Linda and David’s hands holding the book open.
“It is good to see this final photo of a friend who finally found the home where he belongs,” Dossche said of the Bible he worked so hard to return. “It fills me with pride having been able to do this, and a bit with sadness as I won’t see it lying around anymore.”