photo: Anthony Atkielski, Wikimedia Commons
I graduated from high school in 1994, and my father's graduation present to me was a trip to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. It was as much a present to himself as to me -- he was the one who was obsessed with World War II, the one who would enjoy all the various military museums we would see over the two-and-a-half week tour. I wouldn't say I was thrilled, at 17 years old, at the prospect of the trip, but I recognized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and there would be some free days in London, a city I'd been to once before, and Paris, a city I had never seen, so I went along with the idea.
We began in London, which, it seemed to me then, was likely to be the highlight of the trip, because I got to see excellent productions of Sweeney Todd and Oleanna (the latter directed by Harold Pinter), go to bookstores, and indulge my love of cities. But it wasn't until we took a ferry across the Channel to Cherbourg that I began to realize how truly unique this trip was.
I was the youngest member of our tour group and my father was also among the youngest members. The tour was one he had found via the Battle of Normandy Museum in Bayeux, and it had mostly attracted veterans. We traveled to five of the six landing beaches and to various towns, historical sites, and museums, and all the while I heard the stories of the men who had been there 50 years before.
My journal for the trip is not particularly illuminating, mostly because I did not have time to chronicle everything that happened, and half-way through the trip I was utterly exhausted. Adding to this was my own struggle with my presence there -- I was at the time a self-proclaimed and self-righteous pacifist and was deeply bothered by the inevitable expressions of triumph that accompanied many of the events we attended, so a lot of the journal is me trying to state to myself how much I hated the idea of war and all its attendant celebrations. But through it all, some occasional moments of interest appear. Here's one passage written on June 10 about June 7:
We went to Avranche -- all 12 buses of the tour. The whole town was waiting to greet us, as if they'd just been liberated. We let the veterans get off the coach first, since they were the people the Avrancheans came out for. It was tremendous. There must have been a few thousand people waiting for us, lining the sidewalks, standing on balconies, hanging out of windows, all with huge smiles and excited handwaving and vigorous greetings. They asked all of the veterans for autographs. A little kid, five or six, came up to us and held out his yellow balloon for my father to sign, but dad said, "No no. I'm not a veteran." The kid looked ready to cry.The day before, we had been at the ceremonies on Omaha Beach (I remember being pleased that we had better seats than senators Robert Dole and Patrick Leahy). I had forgotten my camera back at the hotel, but my father had brought a video camera; perhaps later today I will dig out the tapes, which I haven't ever watched. My journal for the day doesn't say much -- I remember being in awe, incapable of words, and most of the words I wrote down as I tried to mark some memory of the day were about people who were complaining about one thing or another and so were annoying me. Annoyance, that petty emotion, I could express; all the more profound emotions of the experience escaped my vocabulary.
The veterans and the town marched down to a town square where there were some speeches, music, and lots of wine. Patton's grandson gave a short speech and then led the "Star Spangled Banner", changing a few notes.
We went back to the hotel and the deputy mayor of Vologne [the town where we were staying] was waiting to greet us. He pinned a medal on one of the veterans, as a symbol of the town's thanks, and then gave me a cigarette lighter from the French senate, since I'm the youngest of the group, and I think Roger (who arranged all this) [and was our liason in the town] said all sorts of things about me. [Though I remember the deputy mayor was crestfallen when he learned I did not smoke!] I was really surprised and touched. The mayor herself wanted to greet us, but was doing stuff in Paris with the heads of state who showed up for D-Day.
The strongest memory I have of one of the veterans was a man named Harry who lived in northern California and had been with the 741st Tank Battalion. What I remember is sitting beside him on the bus and listening to him talk about watching the DD tanks sink in the heavy waves of Omaha Beach. He said by the time he landed in a regular tank, the entire beach smelled like blood. But he survived -- and went with the battalion on to Paris at the end of August and then into Belgium to support the 2nd Infantry Division, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. After that, the battalion continued on into Germany, crossing the Rhine at Remagen.
What struck me about Harry was how ordinary and humble he seemed. Some of the vets were boastful of their kills, but not Harry -- he talked reluctantly of what he'd done and seen fifty years ago, and more than once I remember him telling me something to the effect of, "War is a terrible thing" and "The Germans were just kids like us." Some of the vets seemed to wish they could go back to their youth, to their time of heroism; not Harry. The beach had smelled like blood.
I returned home from Normandy numbed by the whole experience -- I was getting ready to go to college, I had more on my mind than it could bear, and I didn't know where to put those two and a half weeks. I've spent a long time trying to contextualize them for myself, to fit them in to who I am, to sort out my relationship with my father so that I can better live with the memories. Even in 1994, though, and mostly because of Harry, I knew that part of my responsibility was and would always be to remember as much as I could of what I saw and heard there, out of respect for those men and what they experienced.
In 1995, Harry sent my father a copy of a history of the 741st written in 1982. His letter accompanying it says the history is good as far as it goes, but there's a lot that's left out. He says his wife, Rose, has often told him he should write a book, but he hasn't had time.
My father didn't keep the envelope that accompanied the letter, and so I don't have Harry's last name. (I never wrote it in my journal.) He was going to be 75 that December, he said.
My father died a year and a half ago, and I don't know if Harry or Rose are still alive. I remember that he said he hoped I would return to Normandy for the 100th anniversary. "None of us will be around then," he said, "except for you."
I'll be 67 in 2044, and if I'm alive I'll be in Normandy on June 6 -- for Harry and Rose, for the 741st, for all the people I was privileged to spend those weeks with in 1994.