Flowers for a Fanning: Fallen World War II hero receives floral tribute in France
On July 31, 1944, William Fanning, a first-class private in the U.S. Army, was killed in action.
The 21-year-old Shawnee resident was a casualty of the Battle of Normandy, an invasion of the Normandy region of France by Allied troops that began on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and continued until the end of August 1944. The historic battle, led by Dwight D. Eisenhower before he became the 34th U.S. president, effectively helped to end World War II.
Details of Fanning's life have become a bit hazy with time, but across the North Atlantic Ocean, there are those who still honor his memory to this day. The name William Fanning is among more than 1,500 monikers inscribed on the Walls of the Missing — a monument dedicated to those fallen American soldiers whose bodies were not initially found after the Normandy invasion — at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Taking it upon themselves to place flowers under Fanning's name periodically throughout the year are a France-based mother and son, Marie-sophie Bouffier and 16-year-old Alexandre Bouffier. About two years ago, the two joined Les Fleurs de la Memoire — translated in English as The Flowers of Memory — a French volunteer-based group in which members sign up to adopt, or sponsor, the name of a soldier missing in action during the Normandy invasion. Sponsorship involves placing flowers at the namesite at least once a year. Marie-sophie Bouffier and her son now sponsor four names, including Fanning's, between them.
“Two for me and two for my son. William Fanning is one of (the names sponsored by my son),” Bouffier said in an interview conducted via email — the two live in Grandcamp-Maisy, France.
Bouffier said she and her son visit the Walls a number of times each year, placing flowers under the names they have adopted on notable dates that include Independence Day, D-Day and the date of each soldiers' death.
"The objective of this association is the duty of memory, to not forget all the American soldiers dead for the freedom. The final goal is to sponsor all the buried soldiers in Normandy and Brittany cemeteries," she said, speaking also of the Brittany American Cemetery, another notable site of battle during the 1944 invasion.
While there is no rosette next to Fanning's name and the American Battle Monuments Commission still lists him as "missing in action," Fanning's family members say they have since discovered that he was killed through a direct hit and subsequent explosion of the Sherman tank he was inside of during the fighting.
Since adopting Fanning's name, Bouffier had been able to glean a few details about the man, including the name of his mother, Edith Leeker, and his brother and sister, Robert Fanning and June Eubank. But Bouffier and her son wanted to learn more.
"Because he's not only a name on a wall, but a young man who had a story, a family," she said.
Through a search online, Bouffier landed on the Johnson County Genealogical Society, and decided to reach out to the organization in the hopes of developing more of a detailed history and family tree for Fanning.
While there's not much to be found these days in the pages of Fanning's own story, it turns out that his family tree is quite vast and the name Fanning carries a lot of weight in Shawnee's history. The family goes way back, all the way to the 19th century, when the first Fanning, the Irish-born Lawrence E., moved to Shawnee and settled in the area where Shawnee Mission Lake is now located. Another relative, Dick Fanning, was the first superintendent of the city's street department in the 1950s, recalled Jim Fanning, one of a handful of cousins of William Fanning's who are still living.
"Every Fanning in Shawnee is related," he said.
What is known now about William Fanning himself is that he grew up in some rather tough circumstances — the Great Depression was going on and his father, Martin Fanning, a bootlegger, was out of the picture.
“He was just a normal youngster,” recalled June Eubank, Fanning's only living sibling, of her older brother. “He was outgoing, you know, how teenagers are.”
He also had a love for cars, and worked as a clerk at the local grocery store on Monrovia Street before shipping out to war. Eubank's husband, Carl Eubank, a good friend of her brother's, also served in the Army during World War II. At one point, before Normandy, they were both stationed in England at the same time, Eubank said.
“They had planned to meet in London, but they never got around to it,” she recalled.
Later, following the explosion of Fanning's tank, an Army officer mistakenly arrived at the home of his aunt, uncle and cousins to break the news.
“He just had the wrong address is all,” recalled Jim Fanning, who was only 7 at the time. “And then my mom corrected him.”
Jim Fanning has his own war stories, having been drafted in 1960, after which he served in Germany during the Berlin Crisis. He says he doesn't remember much about his cousin, but the memory of that day when the news came about William still brings tears to his eyes.
“I was still little, but I followed the war. I always read the paper,” he said. “And when it hits home like that, it hits home.”
Eubank and her husband have since been to visit the cemetery where her brother's name is inscribed. But prior to Bouffier reaching out to the Johnson County Genealogical Society, she and her cousins had no idea others were paying tribute to him as well.
“I think it's wonderful,” said Rita Summers, Jim Fanning's sister and one of Williams' cousins. “Because he's so far away and we never really got to see his burial or go to anything that they have for him.”
For Bouffier and her son, it's all about the importance of remembering and honoring such sacrifices as the one made by William Fanning — even in the form of a simple flower arrangement.
“Just that some french peoples don't forget yours, buried here, killed for our freedom, far from their families,” she said of what she wanted others to know about Les Fleurs de la Memoire's efforts. It's important, she said, “to honor our liberators and for our son not (to) forget the soldiers who come to free our country.”