David Ortego holds a photograph of his uncle, Murphy Fontenot who was killed aboard the HMT Rohna during World War II, while standing beside the war memorial outside the Evangeline Parish Courthouse that bears the name of his uncle. (Gazette photo by Tony Marks)
Lost in the shuffle
“PFC Murphy Fontenot of the U. S. Air Corps, Engineers Division has been reported missing in action since November 26 in the African Theatre of War, according to a telegram from the War department received by his wife, the former Earline Tremie, yesterday,” as reported in the December 30, 1943, edition of the Ville Platte Gazette. Young Fontenot was inducted one year ago this week and had only recently been sent overseas. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Prosper Fontenot, has two brothers Elmond Fontenot, also in the service, and Eubert Fontenot of Ville Platte; two sisters, Mrs. Domonique Pierrottie and Mrs. George Ortego.”
Not much was known of the events surrounding Fontenot’s whereabouts or condition until the Gazette ran a story about the HMT Rohna being sunk by the first radio guided missile. In the attack which Fontenot was among eight from Louisiana who were killed.
Since the story of the HMT Rohna appeared, several family members of Fontenot have come forward and shared how they have learned the truth of what happened.
This is their story.
“Murphy Fontenot, was my great-uncle,” said Catherine Sylvester, the daughter of Floyd and Jinver Soileau. “I still remember seeing his photo in uniform in my great-grandmother’s house. I was told he died at sea in World War II but never knew the circumstances. Even when I asked my grandmother, Thelma Fontenot Ortego, who was his sister only two years younger than he, she did not have any more information about his death.”
Another relative, Mitch Fontenot, said, “both my father (Elmond) and Murphy were both MIA at the same time. My father was later found to have been a POW, and Murphy had died. I have a picture of a monument at an American Military cemetery with Murphy’s name on it on the coast of Africa It was sent to my dad in the early 1990’s by a mother of a man who was working there for an oil company that saw Fontenot and decided to send it to his mom who was a Fontenot. It turned out she remembered Murphy and sent the pictures to my dad. After seeing them he became very emotional which was very unusual for him. He, nor any of the family, ever knew that this graveyard or monument existed. It really was ashame that they kept all of this from them.”
Also related to Fontenot is David Ortego, who said his family never knew what had happened to his uncle.
“My grandparents were not literate people,” Ortego said. “I think my grandmother, Dorzina, went to second grade. She could write some. My grandfather, Prosper, spoke only French, and my grandmother spoke English a bit. They didn’t have means educationally to pursue anything.”
He continued, “As far as I know, they didn’t have any information as to what had happened. All they knew was he died on a ship. The reason is it was classified until just recently.”
Ortego was born six years after Fontenot’s death. As a result, the two never met, but there is still a strong connection.
“My dad told me an interesting story that I never knew and almost didn’t find out at all. He knew that my grandfather and I were very close. In fact, Murphy and Elmond’s father was more of a fatherly role model than my dad. My grandfather told my dad the reason he and I were so close was he felt like I had taken the place of his son who had never came back. That’s touching to me. I’m glad I know that, and it makes me feel differently about this man and closer to him.”
Ortego continued, “Of all the brothers-in-law, my dad claimed he was the closest because they had more in common. They liked the same things. They hunted the same game and spent more time together.”
According to Ortego, he remembers his grandparents living with the memories of Murphy.
“They got a TV in the late 1950s,” he said. “They would show war clippings, and I thought it was kind of interesting. But, my grandmother would always ask to change the channel because it brought back memories. This was a tough deal because in a short period of time they got a notice they have a son who had apparently gotten killed, and, within days or months, they get another notification the other son, Elmond, is missing in action.”
Ortego also recalled how Fontenot’s wife, the former Earline Tremie, still spent time with the family after his death.
“Earline and her husband Luther Guillory were religiously visiting my grandparents for every major holiday,” Ortego said. “Their relationship continued as her first in-laws.”
He continued, “When I was a kid, I couldn’t quite understand what these people were doing here. I knew they weren’t related, and, then, it finally hit me that she was Murphy’s wife. That meant a lot to my grandparents that they stayed in touch for years.”
Over the years, all of Fontenot’s siblings have passed away, and his memory has started to wane with the younger family members.
Ortego has a picture of Fontenot hanging on a wall in his home. As he expressed, “None of the kids know who it is. I have a little tag in the back that says who it is. But, that’s how people are forgotten about. People go on with their lives and kind of forget.”
For Ortego, finally knowing what happened to his uncle is a last piece of the puzzle. He concluded, “I think it does bring some closure and answers some questions. It is a blood relative that we wonder sometimes what happened to him.”