In the several hundred tours of the Normandy D Day and Battle of Normandy sites that we have performed, I have often thought how glad we are of its outcome, in contrast with how aghast we are at the horrors that everyone concerned experienced. Whether you were part of the invading or defending forces, or were among the French civilians caught in the middle, the trauma of war was a nightmare that few can bring themselves to remember and relive. Most of those who lived through it do their best to bury often unbearable memories.
There is no more eloquent evidence of that than the number of offspring of veterans we have had as tour clients who lament how little they know of their loved one’s experiences in Normandy. Most of those who survived the invasion in June 1944 and the events that followed quite simply did not talk to their families back home about what they endured. One can only surmise that some events were so horrible that you did not want to bring them to life in the minds of the people you loved.
I often therefore remark that war is hell on earth and that there is hardly anything that comes out of soldiers engaged in the grim business of death and destruction that one can describe as “good.” Victory is the prime exception, and the bonds formed among those who fought together are another. However, the one truly heart-warming phenomenon that emerged from the mayhem is the bonding that took place between Allied veterans and local French civilians. Better still, it is a process that has passed on to each succeeding generation, the children and grand-children of the veterans and of the French civilians. I have sometimes been fortunate to share in it, and I want to relate here a particularly poignant experience of it.
At the time that the fighting took place, there was little time that could be devoted to veterans and civilians inter-acting. Events moved so rapidly and chaotically that the urgent business was prevailing and surviving. For French civilians, moreover, interaction with the Allied forces was fraught with great risk at a time when the success of the invasion was not sure. By the time it was, Allied forces had moved in hot pursuit of the fleeing Nazi forces. The opportunity for civilians to interact with their liberators had, at that time, passed.
Such did not change until several years after the war ended. When Germany was defeated, soldiers returned to civilian lives and tried to put behind them what they had been through. It wasn’t until a decade had passed that some of the veterans screwed up their courage and undertook voyages to Normandy to see the places in which they had fought. At that time the civilians discovered their liberators, and welcomed them with open arms. Festivities were organized and the veterans became guests in the homes of ordinary French citizens who were keen to show their appreciation of the men who restored their freedom to them.
Some veterans, such as the illustrious Private John Steele, undertook not just one trip back to Normandy, but six times. We have had tour clients who are the children and grand-children of veterans who returned to Normandy to participate in annual celebrations regularly organized by the children and grand-children of French civilians.
Recently we received an inquiry about a tour of the US sector of the Normandy D Day sites from Bridget and Steven Cella, who live in North Carolina. Both the father and uncle of Steven, served in Normandy in 1944, and she indicated that she would love to learn what she could about where they served in Normandy. Steve’s father, Edwin, was an officer of the 9th Armored Division, which saw action in Sainte Mere Eglise on the Cotentin Peninsula near Utah Beach. His unit also was later based near Mont Saint Michel at Isigny le Buat, and there are records showing that it later fought in the Battle of Bulge. Steve was under the impression that his father landed on the third day of Operation Overlord, June 9, 1944, but he was not certain.
I asked Bridget to send copies of any documents that they might have, and, among what she sent there were photocopies of a letter sent to Edwin’s APO address from one Eugène Despas from an address in Isigny le Buat. The letter, absolutely remarkable for the beauty of its penmanship, expressed salutations for the New Year of 1945, appreciation for their friendship, and best wishes and luck in continuing his arduous engagement in the war.
Bridget and Steve had never seen a translation of Eugène’s letter, which I undertook and sent back with the suggestion that I might try to find a trace of Eugène Despas, who might or might not still be living. Steve and Bridget replied that they would be grateful if I would. A Google search did not reveal anyone of that name in the region of Isigny le Buat, but, interestingly enough, I found a reference to the celebration of the 91st birthday of one Eugène Despas, a resident of a retirement home not far from Paris, at a distance of about one hour’s drive.
Could the resident of the retirement home be the person who wrote the letter to Edwin Cella? If so, he would have been only 16 years old when he wrote it, which seemed unlikely. given the carefully crafted and beautifully formed script. But it was not impossible. With the approval of Bridget and Steve, I called the retirement home and explained why I wanted to communicate with their Eugène Despas, to see if he might have been the author of the letter. The next day, I received an email from Eugène’s son, Fernand. Eugène, he reported, is the same person who wrote the letter, alive and well,* and that he clearly remembers Edwin and his men.
I asked Fernand if Eugène recalls how he met Edwin. The answer was “clear as if it were yesterday.” Ed’s unit was sent to set up an anti-aircraft artillery battery to protect the Vezins dam near Isigny le Buat. It was established in a field on which Eugène’s home was located at one end. That is how they met, and Eugène has always been in awe of the fact that a powerful commander of an important military unit took the time to relate to a poor 16 year-old child of a peasant in Normandy, as he described himself.
Would Eugène welcome meeting Steve and Bridget? He replied that nothing would please him more: he was over-joyed at the prospect. Is he mobile enough to accept an invitation to lunch at the Cella’s hotel in Paris, or would he prefer to be visited at the retirement home? Quite fit to join them for lunch, Fernand replied, who also said he would be glad to drive his father to the meeting point, if we could figure out a solution to the language barrier, as neither Eugène nor Fernand spoke English and Bridget and Steven did not speak French.
I volunteered to be present to perform the role of translator, and the day of the meeting was set for Sept. 25, 2019. It is an event I do not think I will forget as long as I live. The tears of joy that rolled down the cheeks of Eugène Despas were matched by the expressions of deep pleasure of Steve, Bridget and Fernand. I have rarely seen four people so obviously rapt and fulfilled by what they were experiencing. Eugène did not stop repeating how much he appreciated the privilege of meeting his liberator’s son, how fulfilled it made him feel, and how there were no words adequate for expressing his joy.
Those sentiments were roundly reciprocated by everyone present. It was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced. The intensity of feeling reminded me of what I felt when I first saw the tombs at the American cemetery at Colleville sur mer. There really are no words to describe the emotion you feel when you see the ineluctable tangible proof of the staggering sacrifice made by young kids and men in a land that was not their own.
Sometimes I have been approached at the Colleville Cemetery cemetery by French civilians who ask me to convey their gratitude to the visitors from the US that I often accompany. I particularly remember the tears in the eyes of one, an elderly man who had been a prisoner at Auschwitz and liberated by US troops. He had to express through me to the clients I accompanied his thanks for the sacrifice made by the young kids who gave their lives for his liberty.
These are special moments that you do not simply take in your stride. They carry a weight, and, even though you shoulder it gladly, you cannot help but be aware of it. On the other hand, they make you thankful to have witnessed them, and to appreciate the privilege of being alive, in the presence of heroes and their children.
* I hate having to add a particularly sad and unfortunate footnote to this article: Eugène Despas passed on the twenty-second of this month.