Normandy, 1994

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I have always had a sense that a war claims many more casualties than those who perish on the battlefields. Each statistic, each white cross or star of David in a military cemetery suggests a mother, a father, a wife, a lover, a child left to grieve. I am sure of it, because I was one of the children. I was left with a hole in my heart and a sense of emptiness and vulnerability that comes from never knowing a father, wounds that will probably never totally heal. I have also had the notion that beneath our studied casualness we Americans must have something that runs deeper. I believe we still share the strengths on which we drew in the dark and sacrificial days of World War II.

Both these conjectures were confirmed for me last May when American Heritage published “D-day: What It Cost,” and letters from readers began pouring in. It was perhaps an atypical war story. It was not about foxholes or weapons or tactics but about the letters that passed between a soldier and his young wife and about what happened to the mother and child who were left alone when the others who fought and survived came home. Little did I suspect that my family’s personal history would capture the attention of so many, and I could never have imagined what would follow. I simply hoped to touch a few readers and to thank my parents and others like them for their sacrifice. That thanks has been returned to me tenfold.

I have two daughters, Katy, age twenty-five, and Sara, twenty-seven. Katy strongly resembles her grandfather and wears the engagement ring he gave to his beloved wife, Polly. It was Katy who accompanied me to Normandy to participate in the fiftieth anniversary of D-day. Sara, who was not able to join us, had been to France immediately after graduation from high school in 1985. Traveling there a few years ago, she was struck by how warmly she was welcomed and how strongly, after so many intervening years, many of the French people still remembered and remained thankful to the troops of liberation.

My mother had made her own pilgrimage to Normandy in 1971. When the war ended, each family was asked to decide whether it wished its loved one’s remains to be interred in a military cemetery in France or returned to the United States. Of the Americans who fell during the Normandy campaign, 9,386 are buried there; about 14,000 others were sent home. For many years after she had made the decision to leave my father’s body where it fell, she wondered if she had done the right thing. After experiencing the spiritual presence that seems to strike everyone who visits the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, she no longer had a shred of doubt about her choice. At Colleville it is immediately apparent that the crosses do not face the main memorial; they are aligned to the west, toward the home the men left forever.

So my mother and Sara had each made their visits, and long before the American Heritage article was published —indeed, long before I had even read my father’s letters—Katy and I had decided that on the fiftieth anniversary of D-day, in 1994, we would go too.

Making our plans well in advance, we thought, in October 1993, we discovered that already the only rooms available were at least seventy-five miles from the landing beaches. So we booked something in St.-Malo and planned to commute. Soon after the publication of my parents’ letters in American Heritage , my telephone started ringing. There were calls from friends and family, but I also was surprised by an influx of calls from the national press. Representatives from ABC Radio News, CBS’s “Eye on America,” ABC’s “Day One,” Peter Jennings, and dozens of newspapers all had become interested in our story. It soon grew apparent that we would need to stay near the center of activity in order to make our promised contacts with these newspeople. At the last minute, through Ralph Widener, a historian of D-day who was known to me via correspondence, and Millie Waters, who was working for the U.S. Army in France, we were put in touch with a woman named Helen Patton.

Helen, a granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton, has a home in a little village near Ste.-Mére-Eglise called Nehou. She called me from France in mid-May and cordially arranged for Katy and me to stay near Nehou with a couple named Jean and Jeanine Gauthe, who had been in their teens during the war. Although we spoke little French and they no English, they welcomed us with open arms. When we pulled up at their door, the neighbors also ran out to say “ Bienvenue! ” In spite of the considerable language barrier, we had little trouble communicating with the Gauthes, as they showed us pictures and told us of their vivid memories of the arrival of the first American troops in their village.

Nothing can describe how Katy and I felt when the President spoke my parents’ names.
 

The day was June 5,1994. We left for Normandy very early in the morning, for we were to meet Pat Shevlin and Anthony Mason from CBS News at 10:00 A.M. Our mood was almost jovial, as if to put off or deny the task at hand. Pat and Anthony showed us the footage they had put together so far for “Eye on America.” As we watched our family pictures flash on the screen, it was strange to realize that they would soon be broadcast in millions of homes across America.