Patti Singer, Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle
BRIGHTON, N.Y. - A few weeks ago, Irving Mann received e-mail from a French farmer saying she had found something he never knew he had lost.
"At first I thought it was a scam," said Mann, a decorated Army veteran who served in France and now is chairman of Mann's Jewelers in this Rochester suburb. "I never expected to see something going back almost 70 years suddenly appear out of nowhere."
But Sophie Lafollie, 36, who lives in the Champagne-Ardenne region, was persistent. Additional e-mails with more details convinced him that she had recovered his World War II dog tag.
"Now I have my identity back," said Mann, 88.
Mann was a 19-year-old private first class with the 90th Infantry Division when his unit landed at Utah Beach on the eve of D-Day. After fighting their way across the terrain, the soldiers were given time to rest in fields near the town of Rethel.
Mann and his buddy dug a foxhole, then he went to a nearby farmhouse to see whether he could get the two women who lived there to trade him eggs for Army rations. Mann recalled coming back to his shelter in the field and whipping up scrambled eggs in his helmet.
The meal was worth the mess, he said.
Four or five days later, the soldiers left. About three months later, Mann suffered a serious leg wound and was evacuated to a hospital in England. Dog tags are issued in pairs, and he didn't recall anyone asking where the other one was.
The tags were the first thing issued when he got his uniform, said Mann, who was drafted into the Army in 1943.
"If you were unlucky enough to get killed, they would take your rifle with the bayonet point and stick it in the ground. They'd put the helmet on top and the dog tags would hang from that. That was their main purpose, to ID you. I can't tell you how many times we shoved the rifle in the ground."
Mann couldn't recall how one of his tags fell off. He said it most likely came loose while he was digging the foxhole.
The two tags were held together by a ring.
"The chain goes through the ring," he said. "The ring must have opened up just enough to allow one of the dog tags to fall. It was in the same general area where we dug the foxhole."
Lafollie is the fourth generation to farm the land in Pargny-Resson, the village next to Rethel.
She was walking the fields in early spring, checking on the barley crop, when she saw a shiny object in a dirt path by a bank.
"I picked it up," she said.
At first she thought it might have been a bicycle tag, saying that Dutch cyclists often have such identification on their bikes.
On closer inspection, "I saw it was an American dog tag."
Mann's name was clear, and Lafollie did what most people would when they want to find out about someone: She went to the Internet.
She found a Democrat and Chronicle article from 2011 when Mann was named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, the highest honor that nation can bestow on a citizen. In the article, Mann is identified as chairman of Mann's Jewelers.
She found the store's website and sent her e-mail in April.
"I knew this Irving Mann was still alive in 2011," Lafollie said by phone. "I hoped he would still be now."
Lafollie insisted that she didn't do anything unusual in trying to find Mann. She said it took her about a half hour to find enough information to take the next step confidently.
"I had to send the e-mail to try to contact them," she said.
Mann's daughter-in-law Charlotte takes care of the store's website, and she got the email. It started a back-and-forth to confirm that yes, this was the same Irving Mann.
As the story unfolded, Mann said he remembered the two women. He and Lafollie believe them to be her grandmother, Marie-Louise de Proft, and her grandmother's sister Palmyre.
Lafollie's family came to the farm in the late 1930s and she lives there now. Outside of ancestors who lived on the farm during the war years, she said she didn't know the history.
"When I was younger, I was not interested in the war stories," she said, speaking from that same farm. Her grandparents are gone, along with her father and an uncle. "I don't have anyone left to tell me about the stories."
She asked a cousin of her father, but she was too young at the time to remember.
Lafollie said she sent the tag in about the same condition she found it.
"It was not dirty at all. ... I cleaned it a bit, but there was nothing to clean, really."
When she told people the story, they were stunned.
"They couldn't believe I found this man and he's still alive. Everybody wanted to know the end of the story," Lafollie said. As she was preparing to send the dog tag, she thought about how Mann would react.
"I wouldn't like to disturb him, remembering how he feels. Maybe it was not the best time in his life."
Mann said he had never thought about his tags until the missing one showed up.
"Some things you try to remove from your mind," he said. Mann received the tag like the gift it was intended to be. Charlotte Mann said she called her father-in-law when the package arrived at the store. After he opened it, she said he asked if he could take it with him.
"Of course," she said. 'It's yours."
Again. After all this time.
"I think we are both very lucky," Lafollie said. "Me to find something. He's still in good health. Or I hope for him still."
Irving Mann said the tag would join memorabilia - the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, French Legion of Honor medal and his many photographs from the war - left to his children someday, but not too soon.
Charlotte Mann had been the one to correspond with Lafollie, and Mann said that as of late last week, he had yet to speak to her. He sent her a diamond fleur-de-lis pendant and a note to show his thanks.
Asked who got the better of that deal, Mann said, "I think I did."