It is a beautiful morning in Paris this morning, the 69th anniversary of the Allies’ Normandy Landing. Next year, I suppose, will have grand commemorations. This year, relatively little attention is being paid. But I never forget what my parents’ generation went through and what they accomplished. I have written several times about D-Day, but there are two essays that are most important to me.
The first was published on May 31, 2004, as Americans were just beginning to realize how deeply and foolishly they had become mired in Iraq and President George W. Bush was planning a big speech at the cemetery above the Normandy beaches. He was expected in some way to romanticize war, and to make an analogy between the war our fathers’ fought, and the one he launched. This is an excerpt from my Shadowland column, “The Last Roll Call”:
The chronicler of G.I. Joe’s World War II was Ernie Pyle. When he was killed by a machine-gunner on the little Japanese island of Ie Shima in April 1945, after so many years reporting on the fighting, he had a draft column in his pocket that describes as eloquently as anything I’ve ever read the weight of the carnage on those who survived it. He was thinking back on Normandy:
“Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks,” Pyle wrote. “But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.
“Dead men by mass production—in one country after another—month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.
“Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
“Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.
“These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.
“We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference… .”
The second piece was written as a kind of travelogue, but an emotional one full of discoveries, for Departures Magazine in 2009. An excerpt from “Normandy: Then and Now”:
There is no place in France where so many American flags fly as in Normandy in June. The Stars and Stripes festoon the windows of ancient farmhouses. Old Glories catch the Atlantic wind over the beaches, waving above stone walls and the patchwork of orchards and pasture that borders the cliffs or descends to the edge of the tide. Everywhere you look, it seems, red-white-and-blue flutters against lush green farmland. Flags are stickered on snack-bar doors. Sometimes, accompanied by Union Jacks and Canadian Maple Leafs, they’re arranged like bouquets of long-stemmed flowers for sale in front of souvenir shops. And of course they fly in June, as they do all year round, above the vast garden of stone at Colleville-sur-Mer, where so many thousands of GIs lie buried. These French remember, you think when you first see it all. And they do.
But there is more than recognition and hospitality for Americans here. The memory of that great sacrifice and long-awaited liberation, in 1944, has been internalized over six and a half decades by the Europeans who gather in Normandy in June, and there are some surprising celebrations of Americanness by people who speak little English, if any. Scores of local Harley-Davidson owners in black leather jackets parade along country roads and through village streets with their star-spangled banners raised high. Others, Belgians as well as French, don the uniforms of forties GIs, authentic down to the boot laces, and they pretend over beer in Isigny-sur-Mer to relive the liberation that took place before any of them were born.
[The 18th-century Chateau d’Audrieu] is not one of those musty castles where mildew passes for atmosphere. It’s a first-class hotel rated among the most agréables in France by the Michelin Guide, which also gave its kitchen a coveted star. As we walked through the public rooms with Monsieur Livry-Level, a waiter was ironing the white cloths on the dining tables. Through the windows I could see hay drying on the lawn that stretched a third of a mile to an ancient obelisk that marks the edge of the parc. In the bar the view is across a pond to the local Romanesque church that dates back to the 12th century, as Monsieur Livry-Level was happy to point out.
“We visited the church before we came here,” I said.
“My ancestors are buried there,” he said, noting two paintings above the fireplace.
“In front of the church,” I said, “there is a little monument to the Winnipeg Rifles. It looks like something terrible happened.”
“That’s right,” said Livry-Level. “Twenty-seven prisoners of war were shot.”
“There was hard fighting close to here,” he said, then stopped himself. “Look, there is a long story about that.”
It is told, in fact, in a book called Conduct Unbecoming, by Howard Margolian, who goes into exhaustive detail about the actions of a reconnaissance battalion of the 12th SS Division “Hitler Youth” that briefly used the château as its headquarters. Under fierce bombardment it finally pulled out, and the next day part of a British Dorsets Regiment moved in.
“The Dorsets could not help but marvel at the beauty of the surroundings,” writes Margolian. “Thinking the place deserted, they were pleasantly surprised when Monique Level, the daughter of the château’s proprietor emerged from the main house. Refined in manner and fluent in English, Mlle Level offered food and cider to the new arrivals. After having endured the rough Channel crossing, the bitterly contested landings, and two days of almost incessant close-quarter fighting, the battle-weary British troops must have thought that they had entered Shangri-La.”
Then Level went to talk to their major. “She recounted for him the previous day’s nightmarish events,” writes Margolian. “The major learned that at approximately 2 P.M. on June 8, more than two dozen POWs had been escorted onto the grounds of the château, interrogated in small groups by the German commander, then ushered into the adjacent woods and shot.”
It is hard, knowing this story, not to look at that path behind the pool and think of those moments. It is hard not to see ghosts among the hedgerows that were liberated at such an enormous cost. But then you don’t come to this part of Normandy to forget. You come to remember—and, yes, to be remembered.