After 4,500-mile journey, veteran, 92, reunited with long-lost war relic

Glyn Nightingale hands over a canteen belonging to Jesse Ricks, 92, at the American Legion in Starke on Thursday. Ricks, who served in the 941st field artillery battalion, lost the canteen in a barn near Normandy after D-Day. Nightingale, of Stourbridge England, and his family found the canteen while in France and later flew to Florida to reunite Ricks with the canteen on Thursday.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 8:16 p.m.

JJ Ricks sat in the screened-in porch of his house by the Starke water tower near U.S. 301. He was waiting Wednesday for a visit from a man he had never met, carrying something he lost long ago.

Ricks said he doesn't hear so well anymore, so he put on headphones to help his 92-year-old ears. He was surrounded by his family. There was a coffee mug filled with water and a straw nearby.

Glyn Nightingale, 41, then appeared, completing his 4,500-mile journey with a knock on the screen door.

He sat next to Ricks and returned a long-lost piece of his life. Ricks put on his gold rimmed glasses, and turned over the worn, silver military canteen. He saw the name scratched into the battered tin. He stared at it.

"Is that you?" Nightingale asked.

"Yeah, that's me," Ricks answered.

Nightingale smiled. "That's great," he said.


Ricks put his legs up on his walker, and it was like he was once again back in France fighting the Nazis.

Jesse James Ricks was in the 941st field artillery battalion — a corporal in the message center stationed at a farm near Santenay, France.

Ricks was a burly, handsome man with strong features, and he had a habit of carving his name into his things.

The battalion pulled huge cannons with tractors, and were used as a backup for the famous 83rd infantry division — part of the first wave on Omaha Beach.

"I was a messenger, and I learned how to use the codebook," he said. "If I think long enough, I can tell a lot of tales."

The men were hungry, he recalled. They found a steer and dragged it to a barn with a tractor, or rather, "it dragged us."

They set it up in the barn, hung it and skinned it. Ricks helped, he said. It was in the barn that he thinks he lost his canteen.

"Maybe I laid it over there on the wall," he said, looking in the distance and remembering. "I walked out of there and left it."


In July of last year, Nightingale walked into a dark barn and his son Sam used his iPhone flashlight app and came across something interesting.

They got excited. Canteens are not that special on their own — but a name — now that was rare. Here was a chance, Nightingale said, to connect with one of these men — these heroes — for real, and not through the pages of a book or the rust of old machine gun barrels.

He knew there wouldn't be many more moments like this. Ricks may not live much longer.

Nightingale's wife, Elaine, stressed the importance of the event. "In 10 years, there might not be any more veterans of that war," she said.

So they had a canteen, but no idea where to start.


It all started with model trucks.

Nightingale, 41, wanted something fun to do with his sons. They graduated to model tanks. Finally, replica machine guns.

"It sort of just snowballed," he said.

One day, a neighbor came down the lane of the house with a rusty M1-Garand rifle barrel laid over the handlebars of a motorcycle. The family got friendly with the neighbors and started regularly searching the area — that's what led to the canteen.

"Wow, that's been in this barn for 69 years," Nightingale said when he found it. He took it outside and ran it under some water to clean it off. When he saw the name JJ Ricks scrawled on it, he knew he had found something special.

"It was like finding the Holy Grail," he said.

Then came the research on ancestry and military websites. They found two Ricks, but one was dead and never served in the area. The other was part of the 941st, but they hit a roadblock when the local historian said that particular division was never in the area. He was wrong.

They put the information online with a Facebook group about the 83rd, and they got a hit about a man in Starke. They called Ricks' son and set up a meeting for February. Ricks' son Mike told his Dad, and said it was all his Dad could talk about.

"It gave him a new lease on life," his son said.

Ricks just hoped he lived long enough to see the occasion.


On a sunny Thursday afternoon, a community gathered to see Ricks officially accept the relic from his past. He sat inside the American Legion, surrounded by friends and family, and told stories. He'd never been shot, he said, but he remembers a bullet flying over his head. He remembers the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in the snow, and how the Germans wore all white coats for camouflage.

He remembers the day they ate the steer, and how he must have put his canteen down in that barn.

"I was proud to be there," he said in the noisy room.

Ricks' wife, Ellen, said she felt strange about that part of her husband's life making a re-entry after all these years.

"I get a funny feeling," she said, "to think that he was over there and he fought over there, but now (the canteen) is here."

As for Nightingale, he's thankful for the trip and the memories. He's grateful to be a part of an old veteran's life, especially since he knows he may never again get the chance.

He stood with his sons and his wife next to Ricks and his family, in front of TV cameras and flashing lights, and handed the dusty silver canteen his son found in a barn to the old soldier.

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