U.S. researcher to feature N.B. Acadian soldiers on WW2 podcast

Louisiana native Jason Theriot (right) shakes hands with Acadian naval veteran Camille Leblanc at the Moncton Veterans' Health Centre in October of last year. (Submitted Jason Theriot - image credit)
Louisiana native Jason Theriot (right) shakes hands with Acadian naval veteran Camille Leblanc at the Moncton Veterans' Health Centre in October of last year. (Submitted Jason Theriot - image credit)

For two decades, Jason Theriot has been researching the Second World War experiences of French-speaking soldiers from his home state of Louisiana.

The Houston-based lawyer and historian said those soldiers had a unique wartime experience, one that was very different from other U.S. soldiers.

"It began with the Louisiana National Guard companies that were sent to North Africa in 1942 ... an entire battalion of four companies of which 99 per cent of those men grew up speaking French as their primary language," Theriot said in a phone interview from Texas.

"Many of them did not even know English when they went into the National Guard in 1940.

And so by the time they landed in North Africa, the military specifically put them in positions where their language skills could be used."

The region consisted of several French colonies, and the ability to speak the language was incredibly valuable.


Known as "Frenchies" to U.S. troops, Theriot said the Cajuns found themselves in a position they weren't used to, given Louisiana banned the speaking of French in 1921.

"They would have been ashamed to call themselves Cajuns in the 1920s," he said.

"We know this from newspaper stories, from letters, from, you know, from the literature. But the term "Frenchie" was the name given to the Cajuns by military commanders and by their comrades. "Frenchie" was a term of endearment."

Their importance grew during the invasion of France and Belgium, and Theriot set out to track down as many surviving Cajun soldiers as possible to preserve their stories.

Shift of focus

Theriot's focus has widened from southern Louisiana in the last year or so, partly because of a conversation with Noella De Maina, who works with the Canadian Consulate in Dallas.

"She said 'Jason, can you find an Acadian World War Two veteran in Acadia, have them interviewed, or better yet, bring them down to the World War Two museum in New Orleans along with some of your Cajun World War Two veterans, and let's put on a big symposium, a big commemorative event.'"

Theriot found Alphonse Vautour of Shediac, who was 102 years old. Vautour served with the North Shore Regiment, going ashore on D-Day driving a Bren gun carrier, a small machine-gun-armed armoured vehicle.

Vautour did agree to be interviewed, but he didn't make last April's ceremony in Louisiana, passing away just a month before the event.

Submitted Jason Theriot
Submitted Jason Theriot

Theriot said on the plane trip from Louisiana to Texas after the event, the plan was kicked into gear to seek out more Acadian veterans.

"Noella said, 'Jason, what would you like to do next?,' he recalled, "I said, 'Send me to Acadie. Let me see if I can find a few Acadians.'"

Last October, he travelled to the Maritimes with the help of the consulate and CODOFIL, the Louisiana organization that promotes French immersion in the state.

He met with two veterans in the Moncton Veterans' Health Centre, Roger Babineau and Camille Leblanc, and a Nova Scotian, Charlie Muise, of Yarmouth.

Those conversations will become an episode of Theriot's podcast, Frenchies, which is due to be posted on his website this weekend.

Submitted Jason Theriot
Submitted Jason Theriot

Theriot said the Acadian veterans had similar experiences to their Cajun counterparts.

"Many of the Acadians did not even learn English until they got into military service, and so that was, you know, that's a fascinating similarity there" to the experiences of the Louisiana National Guard unit, he said.

And, he said there is lots of evidence that those who could speak both languages were put to use by the military in France, and, uniquely, in England.

"When the Canadian forces were stationed there, there was a policy on the fly, if you will, for transferring bilingual Acadians into Quebec units to help them, to help the francophones, communicate [with] the anglos."

Theriot said Camille Leblanc, who served in the Navy aboard a corvette, expressed how important it was for the Acadian soldiers to be able to mix with their English-speaking counterparts and to wear the same uniform.

Theriot believes that experience likely helped fuel the push to preserve Acadian heritage in the 1960s, the way it had in Louisiana.

"[The Cajuns] came to recognize for the first time the value in their language and their heritage. And when they returned home from the war — it took them a couple of years, you know, life got in the way — but by the 1960s, they began to realize that the language was slipping and began, through political action and grassroots action to mitigate that loss and begin creating conditions for preserving that language," he said.

Submitted Jason Theriot
Submitted Jason Theriot

Theriot's efforts to keep these stories alive comes as the number of living veterans dwindles to just a few.

About 24,000 French-speaking Acadians served during the Second World War, but Ron Gaudet, of the Dieppe Military Veterans' Association, told CBC News earlier this year that he knew of only three surviving Acadian veterans in the province.

Theriot hopes their stories can help cement the ties between Acadians here and Cajuns in Louisiana.

"A big part of what this project has been about, is recognizing, documenting those ties and then bringing those out to share with the general public to show, you know, just how close culturally we are — we being Cajuns — with our Acadian cousins and how those relationships and ties can be and need to be expanded upon for generations to come."