Sainte-Mère-Église, France — “We love you! Thank you for all you did!” 15-year-old Audrey Rigaud said with tears in her eyes as she embraced Bob Bedford, a 90-year-old veteran of D-Day, outside the banquet this small French town held in honor of their country’s liberation from Nazi occupation. The difference in their ages may have been three quarters of a century and their cultures a continent apart, but the message was clear: A surprising number of French haven’t forgotten America’s role in “the liberation.”
Audrey had come to Normandy all the way from Marseille — 700 miles away — with her classmates to commemorate D-Day for a school project. “Our feelings are so full, we want to make sure no one forgets the liberation,” Olivia Diddi, a fellow student of Audrey’s, told me. For his part, Bedford was overwhelmed by the reception he’s gotten. “It’s the first time I’ve been back since 1944,” the former Navy lieutenant told me. “If I’d only known how they felt.”
The feeling about D-Day runs deep in Normandy, a still largely rural part of France where the main economy is dairy farming, agriculture, and, yes, tourism. Stephane Lamache is a former French paratrooper from nearby Cherbourg. Until recently, he was director of this city’s Airborne Museum, which honors the 16,000 Allied paratroopers and glider troops who dropped behind enemy lines and enabled the soldiers on Normandy’s beaches to resist the German counterattack and establish a toehold in Europe.
Lamache takes us through the fields where U.S. paratroopers fought Germans for three days to prevent them from taking back a bridge across the Merderet River. “The battle has been called the most intense small-arms battle of World War II,” he told our group. “The Americans had only what they could bring from the sky, but they held the Germans off and soon liberated Sainte-Mère-Église.” Later, at lunch, he says the D-Day invasion has very personal connections to him. Walking on Omaha Beach one day in 2012, he spotted a small scrap of steel and picked it up. It was a dog tag, or nameplate, of an American soldier. After extensive cleaning, he was able to pick out the name — James Kelson, an African-American soldier who was still alive in the Washington, D.C. area, at age 93. In an emotional ceremony
, the dog tag was returned to Kelson last year with French TV recording the event. “I felt it was the first time I could pay back what Americans had done to liberate my country,” Lamache told me.
I heard a lot of things in Normandy this week that might sound trite or simplistic to someone who has never been in battle. But you quickly realize that the reason some truths are eternal and valuable is precisely because they can have such great meaning to people. Europe was occupied by a terrible tyranny and its people were slowly starving as the war ground on. America, Britain, Canada, and other countries that sent their young men and women overseas to take back Europe did a noble and courageous thing. It’s refreshing to learn that so many people in Europe who weren’t alive to witness the joy of liberation still do so much to commemorate it.
But Americans are doing their bit too. The Airborne Museum in this city, for example, has expanded over the years, fueled by many private donations from the States. The latest example, unveiled last week, is an exhibit sponsored by the Reagan Legacy Foundation, the group I traveled to Normandy with. It commemorates the famous Pointe du Hoc speech by President Reagan in 1984, when he became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to France to mark the significance of D-Day. “We think there is a continuum from the liberation of Europe by these veterans and the kind of persistence Reagan and Americans showed 40 years later in ending the Cold War without a shot being fired,” says Jay Hoffman, a board member of the Reagan foundation. The group will break ground nest year to build, next to the Airborne Museum, a conference center that will honor President Reagan and provide a forum for the discussion of the need to oppose tyranny at all times and at all places.
Michael Reagan, President Reagan’s son, walked through the Reagan exhibit at the Airborne Museum here in a pensive mood. The exhibit includes a new film, Reagan at Normandy, that highlights his visit here in 1984. “My father joined the Army Reserves as early as 1937, but he was rejected for combat duty because of extremely bad eyesight,” he recalls. So Reagan served three years with the Army First Motion Picture Unit, making training and inspirational firms. “He felt his service was honorable but couldn’t compare with those who landed in Normandy,” he told me. “That’s one reason he came here to honor them.”
The message I take away from the windswept beaches of Normandy is that there are times when tyranny must be opposed with every fiber of our being — and that service comes in many forms, some dangerous and some just a matter of doing what even the weakest among us can. And finally, that even though it can’t be expected or wished for, the gratitude of people toward those who fought against tyranny can be long-lasting indeed. I learned that here in Normandy.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.