Noticing the smallest detail that could be missed by the average viewer is nothing new to dentists — including James Wheeler, 73DMD. He has brought the same passion
and attention to detail he uses in dentistry to a small museum in his basement
dedicated to his father and World War II.
The story of how Wheeler’s home museum came to be is quite unexpected, and it has connected him with a family in France forever.
Wheeler’s father, Gene, was a McLean County native whose C-47 was shot down over Normandy early on June 6, 1944, while ferrying paratroopers for the D-Day invasion. “My father was the co-pilot and he and the pilot held the plane up on one engine until
every paratrooper except one got out safely, and then they crashed,” Wheeler said. Wheeler was just five months old when his father passed away.
Wheeler grew up always curious about the father he never knew, and after two decades of research, he was able to piece together his father’s story. In 1984, Wheeler made his first of five trips to Normandy. Many chance encounters led him to Howard L. Huggett, who was on the same C-47 as his father. With Huggett’s help and that of a French D-Day researcher, in 1994 they were able to locate within a mile where Gene’s plane crashed.
In 2006, Wheeler found a huge manor home within a half-mile of where the plane crashed, and in 2014 he went to visit the family living there. The homeowner, Gilles, gave them a tour of the grounds including where the plane crashed, while Gilles’ daughter, Marine Lemonnier-Dlubek, translated Wheeler’s tour to English. The simple tour led to a family friendship.
Two years later, Marine, now 19 and in her second year of university, visited
Wheeler and his wife, Leta, in Louisville, spending a month with them this summer
as part of a living abroad experience. “It is just incredible here, so much nature, many museums, and cultural experiences. I love it,” said Marine.
Wheeler’s own mini-museum honors his father and World War II. Included in the hundreds of items in his collection are countless model airplanes including P-47s and C-47s, and even a hand-crafted scene of Omaha Beach. Wheeler recently displayed a number of his creations and memorabilia in Louisville at the Spirit of ‘45 Celebration, honoring the end of WWII.
“I have been so blessed, I really have been so blessed to
do the things I have gotten to do,” he said.