2018-05-24 / Front Page

Saco man recalls brother, veteran

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

Ben Boissonneault with the August 1944 issue of The Pepperell Sheet. His older brother Robert is on the cover. Robert Boissonneault was a Pepperell Mill employee who served in the Navy in World War II. (Abigail Worthing photo) Ben Boissonneault with the August 1944 issue of The Pepperell Sheet. His older brother Robert is on the cover. Robert Boissonneault was a Pepperell Mill employee who served in the Navy in World War II. (Abigail Worthing photo) BIDDEFORD/SACO – Seventy-four years ago, while World War II raged overseas, a Biddeford resident was interviewed for the August 1944 edition of The Pepperell Sheet, a monthly magazine that was distributed by Pepperell Manufacturing to keep employees informed on activities in the mills.

Robert Boissonneault, 20, and a Pepperell employee, was interviewed to detail his experience overseas fighting the Japanese, as well as his upbringing in Biddeford. Just six months after the magazine was published, the aircraft carrier carrying first class seaman Boissonneault, the USS Saratoga, was attacked by Japanese forces while responding to the American invasion of Iwo Jima. Boissonneault was reported missing and was presumed dead.

Boissonneault was born and raised in Biddeford and attended St. Andre’s Grammar School and St. Joseph’s High School. He was one of 10 children born to Gerard and Josephine Boissonneault, with five brothers (two of whom were born after his death) and four sisters. Boissonneault enlisted in the Navy in 1942, leaving behind his life and family in Biddeford to serve in the middle of World War II.

In this excerpt from The Pepperell Sheet, Boissonneault details the change in his life that came from joining the military:

“One month was pretty much like another in those days, and Bob never dreamed that instead of living his whole life in Biddeford he would be streaking across the Pacific after Japs, with the deafening roar of dive bombers in his ears instead of the hum of the looms, and vacations far, far away from Old Orchard Beach, on a palm-fringed and unpronounceable coral island.”

Of Boissonneault’s surviving siblings is Ben Boissonneault, 79, of Saco. Ben is Robert Boissonneault’s younger brother, and was just 6 years old when Robert died.

“Bob was my hero,” Ben Boissonneault said. “He was the hero of the family. I think he was my father’s favorite too.”

Ben Boissonneault was born in 1938 and is a graduate of St. Louis High School. He received his bachelor’s degree from St. Francis College (now the University of New England) in 1967, and his master’s degree from the University of Southern Maine in 1975. Ben Boissonneault has spent his life teaching, working at the Maine Youth Center and St. Joseph’s Junior High School.

The military has a strong presence in the Boissonneault family. Ben and his brother Richard were both in the Marine Corps; Ben served in the reserves from 1955 to 1959. Robert and his two brothers, Raymond and Donald, all served in the Navy. Raymond was the oldest son in the Boissonneault family and also served during World War II and survived the conflict.

Robert Boissonneault received a Purple Heart during his time in World War II prior to his death, but his brother didn’t know what exactly happened to warrant the award.

“He wouldn’t talk about it. I remember him coming home with a hurt leg, but that’s it. He didn’t want to get into it,” Ben Boissonneault said.

The Battle of Iwo Jima was a five-week-long amphibious conflict to secure a naval base in Japan, and is considered to be some of the bloodiest fighting in World War II. Spanning from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945, American forces saw 5,900 casualties and 17,400 wounded. Robert Boissonneault’s carrier, the USS Saratoga, was attacked on Feb. 21, 1945. Three Kamikaze planes and five aerial bombs hit the carrier, with 123 wounded and 192 dead. The photograph from the end of the battle of soldiers raising the flag on Mount Suribachi is one of the most recognizable from World War II, and was recreated as a memorial statue at the entrance of Arlington Cemetery.

Ben Boissonneault keeps his brother’s medals with him at home after finally securing them a few months ago. When one of his nephews expressed interest in seeing the medals, Ben Boissonneault realized that whatever medals Robert had received had been lost. Ben reached out to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), to explain the situation, and request replacements.

“In two weeks, I had the medals again. I thought it would take months, but they’re all here,” Ben Boissonneault said.

Besides the Purple Heart, three other medals were returned, for the Asiatic Pacific Campaign, the American Campaign, and a medal for World War II.

Following the battle of Iwo Jima, Robert Boissonneault’s body was never recovered. His name is inscribed in the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii, and also on the World War II Pepperell Alumni Plaque in Biddeford. During World War II, 304 of Pepperell Mill’s employees enlisted in active duty, and Robert Boissonneault is one of the 11 that did not return.

“It’s time for his story to be told,” said Ben Boissonneault, holding an original copy of the Pepperell Sheet, with his brother’s face on the cover. “He was a local hero.”

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