May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
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.
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.
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.
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.
“I am a high school teacher at the Taipei American School in Taiwan. My advanced-placement U.S. history class read your parents’ words, and yours. I suggested to my students that perhaps the best way to try to give something back to people like your parents would be by trying as much as possible to live as good, concerned American citizens who actively try to make America a better place. The immense loss that your family has endured for the last fifty years will not be forgotten. Your father and mother gave so much fifty years ago to make America a place where people who love can love for a lifetime and not have that time together cut short. My father also landed on those beaches in June 1944. Because of people like your father and mine, my own daughter will grow up in a better world than we would have had if the Nazis had prevailed in Europe. I thank you once again in the name of my daughter, Lara.”
Nancy Lynch Taipei American School, Taiwan
“I have read that of all the many terrors of the battlefield, the artillery barrage is the most hated and feared by the combat soldier. The reason for this is that the ordinary infantryman is helpless under artillery. There is absolutely nothing he can do but hunker down and pray that the next shell doesn’t land in his foxhole. It is purely a battle of nerves against the odds, and it occurs to me now that this was just the kind of war that Mrs. Elliott and her contemporaries fought every day. For the mother, the wife, or the daughter, the enemy was the war itself, and all she could do was wait out the barrage. She could not shoot back, and there was no foxhole deep enough for her to hide in. If the telegram did come, it had her name on it, and it was inevitably a direct hit. I would like to thank DeRonda Elliott for sharing with us her very private sorrow. At the very least she has given us a broader definition of the word veteran .”
Dale Gelineau North Hills, Calif.
“We can never make up for the violent loss of a parent, but if we can see the events that took our fathers in an unselfish manner, grace enters our hearts. We can love them for who they were and what they chose to do in their time. My father also wanted to come home. In a sense he is home, with me, my brother, my sister and my mother. The example of his life inspires us and touches us and our children.”
Robert J. Harding New York, N.Y.
“There is a plaque on the wall of the Georgetown University Hospital chapel listing the names of students who died in the war. I saw it many times when I was a student in the 1950s, and I always wondered about these people and those they left behind. It certainly is a strange world. Your father and all those other young men paid such a dreadful price to save the world from thugs, but you can read the newspapers fifty years later and wonder if we learned anything at all or if we are really worth saving.”
Dr. John R. Agnew Fort Myers, Fla.
“Your article moved me deeply and struck responsive chords in my own background. I am terribly sorry that your father did not survive the Normandy invasion. Mine returned, but we lost him later anyway, partly because of that war. My father, William Lloyd Tucker, was a tail gunner during 1944 and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew six extra missions over the required thirty-three to obtain a special assignment as a gunnery instructor. Like many of his contemporaries, he returned an old young man. For the first year or so he suffered intermittent blackouts and nightmares. He developed a heart murmur and was plagued by a lifelong “nervous stomach.” Three weeks before his fiftieth birthday, in 1972, he died of an aortic aneurysm. We attribute his condition partly to a permanent intense anxiety caused by those bombing missions. Thank you for sharing your parents’ story with us. You have helped ensure that our own generation’s memory of that war does not fade.”
W. Jeffrey Tucker Foster City, Calif.