- Historic Sites
This magazine’s publication of wrenching wartime letters between the author’s parents brought her to international attention. At the same time, it initiated some very heartfelt conversations with our readers.
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
It was with a mixture of anticipation and dread that we approached the entrance to the cemetery. Our task was to find Section I, Row 16, Grave 1. It turned out to be at the far west corner, and a long walk. The cameras accompanied us. I wondered if I had made the right decision about that, but they kept a respectful distance. Katy and I soon forgot the cameras were there. What felt natural, what flowed unrehearsed, was that we just talked to this man—our father and grandfather —for the first time. The word Daddy felt foreign on my lips. I don’t remember ever using that word before.
We told him about life without him, about my mother and her courageous struggle in the years that followed D-day, about how she had taught us the things he would have wanted us to learn. We told him about her enduring love of America. I told him how I watched when the Desert Storm troops returned home to be greeted by their wives and children and how I wept, because that had never happened for us. We left some stones from the United States at his grave because, although we are Christian, we love that Jewish custom, which means “someone has been here and has not forgotten.” Stones endure. We also left some flowers that the CBS news team had given us and a single pink rose that they wanted to be from them . “After reading the letters, we feel we know your father,” they had said.
Before we had left the States, Peter Jennings had phoned me to say that as he read the letters, he had become tearful and that on an advance trip to Normandy in early May he had slogged out to my father’s grave in the rain to pay tribute. We were deeply touched by such outpourings from seasoned news professionals—people who are reputed to be tough and cold, though that was never our experience.
June 6, 1994, dawned cold and rainy, with a brisk wind blowing, like the morning of that day fifty years earlier. Katy and I, thinking our time in the public eye was over, declined offers from both CBS and ABC to meet us in our village and drive us to the ceremonies. We decided to go via bus, along with the crowd.
Late in the afternoon we took our place about midway in the viewing area and awaited President Clinton’s arrival. We were stunned when we heard our names called on a loudspeaker and were asked to come down front. We were met by a member of the White House staff and seated among the “brass.” We felt awkward but honored. We were told that the President wanted to talk with us later. Who, us?
Then the President began to speak. Nothing can describe the way we felt as we heard him refer to my parents and to me—ordinary people from Pennsylvania—who, in this last and most anticipated speech of that day, suddenly became representative of all the men who had died, all the women who had waited, all the children who had been left bereft by war.
The rest of the day was a blur, as we met the President and I was able to whisper in his ear our gratitude for his comments. Later we walked a deserted Omaha Beach, heady with emotion. We were well aware that we had just shared one of the most significant events of our lifetimes with millions of people who had been forever affected by D-day. Throughout it all I had the strong sense that my mother and father were united somewhere, and smiling.
From the first the article in American Heritage inspired a torrent of the most eloquent letters. They are still coming in. There are simply too many to include them all here, but I would like to offer a sampling and to thank each of the writers. You know who you are. Your words were so compelling that when reading them, I felt just as I had when I first discovered my father’s letters: These are so good that they deserve to be read by more people than me alone.
“My life is richer for having read Frank and Polly Elliott’s letters. June 6 will no longer be just another day for me. Thank you for reminding me of those sacrifices that I will never again take for granted.”
Ed Young Nashville, Tenn.
“My husband and I have cried at least twice. We feel as if you are family to us!”
Betty Seitz Dallas, Tex.
“I recently lost my husband after forty-four years of marriage. It made me feel sad that your parents had so little time together. We Americans were never closer than during those dark days.”
Wanda Iverson Redding, Calif.