Four remaining WWII veterans of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne) are sleeping in their own beds tonight, their whirlwind tour du France of the 70th Anniversary of the Southern D-Day a year ago last August–now a dim but savored memory. But, as this Veteran’s Day approaches, what will these men dare to dream? Will these Octogenarians and Septuagenarians dream of the few brief days they were celebrated as heroes? Certainly, their friends and family members, who didn’t accompany them, will never understand. The U.S. nation as a whole rarely grasps their valiant participation in yet another D-Day. And will time separate them from the richness of French gratitude extended to them during this eleven-day tour? If our veterans could hold on to only a few of the words delivered by French dignitaries and the hundreds of men, women and children who came forth in the sweltering heat to honor them that August summer, then maybe their dreams each night will be a little sweeter.
The 70th Anniversary of the Southern Landing (the 2nd D-Day) on the Côte d’Azur in France began for our men on August 15th –the actual 70th Anniversary of the landing on three of the beaches—Pampelonne near St. Tropez, La Croix Valmer and Cavalaire-sur-Mer—where the historic landings took place. Our men, in spite of being crippled by old age, stood tall and participated in seven commemorative events—just that day. These included placing wreaths at the memorials of our fallen soldiers, participating in parades, and being honored and celebrated with receptions, speeches, dinners, and an extraordinary fireworks display that evening in Cavalaire-sur-Mer.
The following days found our veterans continuing their tour north—north along their original trek of liberation—stopping at one village after another (twenty-five in all) along the Rhone River, through the French Alps, the Vosges Mountains, and at the infamous Colmar Pocket where so many of our men lost their lives. (Our John Shirley, from Livermore, CA. was captured, escaped and was shot near this location in Bennwihr.) The tour ended in a regal reception given for them in an elegant Hotel de Ville in Chateau Thierry outside of Paris. Throughout the tour, the pomp of full military accord with color guards, military bands, veterans of the 1st French Army, the French Air Force and members of the French parliament to wizened Partisans and former F.F.I. members met these ‘reluctant heroes’ and help to make certain they received their just due. Through parades, festivals, commemorative ceremonies, receptions, and luncheons, speeches from mayors, vice mayors, and Counselor Generals, the messages could be heard. But, it was also from the hundreds of villagers who lent their cheers and their tears to the soldiers who freed them. Literally thousands of people gave of their time and talents to making this 70th Anniversary tour one of their best.
The veterans themselves stood tall and accepted their praise, but still after all of these years, their quiet response was: “We were just doing our duty.” Especially while standing before the sea of white crosses (including Stars of David) stretched across the fields of Draguignon, Épinal and the American Lorraine cemeteries, their voices remained silent; their tears gave way to their heart-felt grief and sadness. Comrades lost; dreams unrealized.
But, it was probably the letters written for the veterans and read by the children of Saulx de Vesoul and Bennwihr, which touched the men most deeply: “We will never forget,” they read as their small, clear voices reached forth, rising above the church bells which began to ring. “We will never forget how you brought liberty to our beautiful country.” “We will never forget that you saved us from the grip of German tyranny and freed us.” “Because of your sacrifice, peace is now our second religion.” “Thank you for the sacrifice of your lives.” Throughout the readings, the church bells continued to chime, ringing the bells of Freedom and Thanksgiving.
Yes, that was the echoing refrain: “We will continue the memory of your deeds with our children and our children’s children,” the French told our men. “We will remind them of the sacrifices you made for us,” the mayors of each city invoked. “We will tell them about how you, not much older than children yourselves, came to a foreign land to save us from tyranny. No, we will never forget!”
Sleep well our ‘reluctant heroes’, for you have made our world safer and there are those who will never forget your sacrifice. Yes, the second D-Day for the U.S. may not be known, but in France you, as veterans and your deeds, will never be forgotten.
Happy Veterans Day to our own beloved veterans!!
Patrick Heagerty, Sgt., Manlius, NY
Gerald Papin, Sgt., Spring Hill, FL
Charles Condren, Pfc., Kerhonkson, NY