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Not all of the memorials donated by the French are static. One weekend this summer I was escorting a couple on a D-Day Tour and arrived at the town of St. Marie du Mont which was seized by the 101st Airborne in the early hours of D-Day to allow the safe passage of the troops into the interior that Teddy Roosevelt would lead ashore a few hours later.
The sight that greeted us as we turned the corner into the town square was reminiscent of one of those spooky films where people suddenly find themselves in a time warp, as spectators of events that had happened long ago.
The town was full of paratroopers displaying the screaming eagle arm badge of the 101st, surrounded by authentic kit and equipment. Machine guns and mortars were in position as a jeep sped past. On the grass around the church a first aid post had been established and French locals including a gendarme and a nun were dressed in 1940s style. It was only when we heard one of the paratroopers speak in French that the penny dropped. This was an elaborate re-enactment by a Lions/Rotary group to recognise the 68th anniversary of the liberation of their town. It was June 3rd and this was the nearest weekend to the anniversary date.
On one of my earliest tours I found myself unexpectedly taking part in a commemoration ceremony. I first met Barbara Redmond, the founder of A Woman’s Paris, when she called me to arrange a visit to Omaha Beach with her 84-year-old father, Bob McArdell, who had landed there with his battalion in support of General Patton. I contacted the local museum beforehand in the hope that they may find the time to welcome him, which they agreed to do, and when we were given free entry to the museum upon arrival, I thanked them for their generosity and thought nothing about it. After a few minutes I heard the curator (who also happened to be the local mayor) ushering other visitors to the reception area and mentioning something in French about an American veteran. Then it was our turn.
We were escorted to the front of the museum where a presentation had been set up with Champagne, food and posters in French and English bearing Bob’s name. Madame Chartier, the curator/mayor, publicly presented Bob with a Certificate of Appreciation, and children appeared with gifts for him, which ensured that any eyes that had hitherto remained dry suddenly opened the floodgates. We did our best to take questions in French. Afterwards a couple came up to Bob and said that the previous year (which had been the 65th anniversary, attended by heads of state from all over the world) they had come to see President Obama. This year they had come to see Bob. Their choice of words made him feel like a million bucks and we left in awe of the warmth displayed by the community to its liberators so many years after the event.
May 2010. During my two-month stay in Paris, I invited my father to join me for my final ten days to visit his WWII tour of service in France. The program I designed included Normandy for its monuments and memorials; Paris to learn about the occupation, resistance and liberation; and Reims to visit The Museum of Surrender, Musée de la Reddition.
When D-Day tours historian Alan Davidge, whom I contacted from Paris, asked for my father’s WWII papers I knew immediately that Alan would customize a relevant and exceptional experience for my father. My father served under General Patton in Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe (earning three battle stars, which included the Battle of the Bulge), as an engineer on the railroad delivering supplies to the front. Among his papers was a small pocketsize notebook where he marked the towns he passed through starting from Omaha Beach. From these pages I was able to find the railway line we could take from Gare Montparnasse in Paris to Vire, the nearest town to the 18th-century B&B farmhouse were we would stay as guests of Alan and his wife Carol.
One by one we saw the train stations penned in his notebook on our train ride to Vire. As we watched the scenery change and the stations come and go quickly before us, my father, who was seated nearest the window, would ready his camera and we would crane our necks to keep the vision for as long as possible hoping to see something familiar from the war. Train stations had been updated or replaced. Signs identifying each village, town or city were new. Only the railway tracks remained. Approaching in the near distance was what we were both anxiously hoping to see: something that remained from WWII. At the outskirts of the yard sat two discarded, rusted boxcars, which had been removed from their tracks and stored, one following the other, nestled up against the tangled brush and gnarled trees.
The sequence of recognition events Alan describes; from the Champagne reception hosted by Madame Cartier where she presented my father with a Certificate of Appreciation, to the behind-the-scenes visits of sites seldom seen on WWII tours and visits customized to my father’s experience, to the history and culture Alan shared during the tours and over meals at their home, were extraordinary in all respects.
Following our extended weekend in Normandy, we were invited to a dinner party in my father’s honor at the home of my Parisian friends, Robin and MaryAnn, whose guests included friends who had experienced WWII first hand: Béatrice, who was a young child living in Paris during the occupation; Michel, who served in the French Air Force and brought with him maps and memorabilia from his personal archives; and Fabienne, whose parents lived through the occupation and liberation of Paris.
The next day Brad Newfield, a professional guide with many years of experience leading tours in Paris with Paris-Walks, provided us with a private tour of the occupation, resistance and liberation. This history was vital to our tour, as the sniper fire following the liberation of Paris during my father’s service in 1944 did not allow him into the city.
Finally, we visited the phenomenal Surrender Museum in Reims, a 45-minute TGV train ride from Paris. This museum’s displays and historical accounts captured the enormity of the war and the campaigns to end it.
Of all the memorable experiences my father and I shared during our time together in France, the last was the most humbling. On our return trip and arrival at the Minneapolis airport on May 30, 2010, a U.S. Customs officer greeted veterans as they exited the plane. My father, wearing his WWII cap with medals of service, was the last to depart. We waited for the passengers to clear and for a wheelchair to arrive. The officer settled him in his chair, handed his carry-on luggage to me, and whisked him to the back of the room where more than 500 people, who had arrived on planes from Paris and Tokyo, were waiting to be cleared through customs.
There, for all to hear, the officer introduced my father and his service in WWII in France, as well as details that my father shared with her en route. As she wheeled my father toward the front of the line, the awaiting crowd separated creating a wide path through its center. There was sustained clapping and tipping of hats. The comment I most remember was from a gentleman who stood in the pathway nearest the front of the line who said for several to hear, ” Welcome home, sir.” My eyes filled with tears for my father, and also, in part, for the veterans who never returned home to words of welcome.
Recommended Books: WWII
Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944, by Joseph Balkoski
Utah Beach: The Amphibious Landing and Airborne Operations on D-Day, June 6, 1944, by Joseph Balkoski
Beyond The Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy, by Joseph Balkoski
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor
Band of Brothers (DVD boxed set)
Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian in Normandy, was born in London two years after the war ended. Now, after 40 years of working in education, Alan is living in Normandy and leading visitors in the footsteps of the soldiers, concentrating on the Americans, who liberated the area in the summer of 1944. Alan is preparing D-Day tours for 2013. Contact Alan at: email@example.com
Barbara Redmond, publisher of A Woman’s Paris® (AWP), is a long-time Francophile and travels to Paris every chance she gets — and has learned a lot along the way. Her stories about Paris and France have been published in AWP® and republished, with permission, by other blogs and publications. Barbara has presented programs on French fashion and food, and has been a guest speaker for students planning their study abroad. She serves as an advisory board member at the University of Minnesota College of Design and is an active student mentor. Barbara has been recognized for excellence in art by international and national organizations and publications. Prints of her fine are paintings are in collections in Europe and North America and are available for purchase.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Normandy never forgest: WWII monuments and memorials in France (part one), by Alan Davidge D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan shares a number of places of significance and remembrance. Guides included.
D-Day Travel Guide: For American visitors to Normandy, France, by Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan has managed to seek out a number of places of significance that do not usually feature in guidebooks. Guides included.
French Impressions: Alan Davidge leading visitors in the footsteps of the soldiers who liberated Normandy the summer of 1944. D-Day historian from Normanday, Alan Davidge, writing on personalized tours that have been particularly successful for young people for whom the concept of war is often difficult to grasp. His success is due to his treatement of the subject as social rather than military history, looking at how the war affected ordinary men, women and families.
The Stones of Carnac, by award-winning travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson, who writes about the giant stones that linger at this prehistoric site in northwestern France. Giant stones that march in rows across the French landscape, shouldering their way over rises, past houses, through farm fields – a granite army, 3,000 strong.
Text copyright ©2012 Alan Davidge. All rights reserved.
Text copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.