EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the June 13, 1994, issue of National Review.
Ste-Mere-Eglise, France–Smack-dab in the middle of the little town that bears its name stands the thirteenth-century church of Ste-Me`re-Eglise, as proud and sturdy as the people who built it. As such there is little to distinguish it from the many other stone churches that crowd the Norman landscape. Except for this: a special, stained-glass Madonna and Child that I have always found more engaging than all the glories of Chartres. For the Madonna of Ste-Me`re-Eglise is surrounded by American paratroopers descending from the heavens.
#ad#These are the men of the U.S. 82nd Airborne, the first wave of what Churchill described to Roosevelt as “much the greatest thing we have ever attempted”: the D-Day invasion. Late on June 5, 1955, the division’s Lieutenant Colonel Edward Krause held up a folded American flag before his paratroopers in Britain. “Tonight,” he said, “we are going to liberate the people [of Ste-Me`re-Eglise] and fly this flag from the tallest building.” Well before break of day the colonel had made good on his vow. The Stars and Stripes fluttered from the town hall, and Ste-Me`re-Eglise became the first town liberated–the word had not yet acquired its current Gulag connotations–in France.
Today June 6 is remembered in tears, and some of the town’s residents keep old packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes as souvenirs of their GI friends. Colonel Krause’s flag is still there too, hanging on the wall just outside the office of Mayor Marc LeFevre. Long ago immortalized in Darryl F. Zanuck’s epic The Longest Day, Ste-Me`re-Eglise is perhaps best remembered for the famous scene of Private John Steele (played by Red Buttons) dangling from a parachute snagged on the church belfry as the war rages all about him. Even today the townspeople leave a dummy and parachute hanging there as a reminder.
This is my fifth visit to Ste-Me`re-Eglise; this time I am traveling through Normandy with my wife and parents. My first visit was back in 1984, not long after I arrived in Brussels to join the Wall Street Journal Europe and only a week after the fortieth-anniversary celebrations. That June 6 I stood transfixed before the television with some older European colleagues as we watched a day rich in ceremonies: the eight Allied heads of state standing together again on knifelike promontory between Utah and Omaha Beaches. Today a granite pylon jutting up from an old German bunker at Poine de Hoc commemorates the U.S. Army Rangers who took it. Of the 225 who started out at the bottom of its almost sheer, 100-foot cliffs that June day, only 90 would be standing by battle’s end. Thirty of those who had made it to the top returned for the fortieth-anniversary celebrations, and when Reagan made reference to them, few of those watching with me held back tears. “There are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” said Reagan. “These are the champions who helped free a continent; these are the heroes who helped end a war.” As Reagan spoke, the boys of Pointe du Hoc–grandfathers, mostly–stiffened to attention; and if there was an extra sadness in the air it was the unspoken but inescapable recognition that for many this would be the last roll call.
“You are a child, you cannot understand,” a Dutch colleague told me, dabbing her eyes with tissues. She had lived through the bombing of Rotterdam. “We were waiting for the Allies to come, waiting, waiting. And then they came.”
Indeed they did. For the peoples of Europe, D-Day represented redemption and hope; for the Allies, the making good on a promise that erased the hesitation of 1939 and embarrassments like Dunkirk. Although terrible battles were still to come and the Germans would exhibit an awesome capacity to fight under the most appalling of circumstances, everyone knew, Hitler included, that once the Allies established themselves on the beaches it would be but a matter of time. In his attic in Amsterdam, Anne Frank’s father chalked off the days. In Paris my father walks under the Arc de Triomphe in the footsteps of his uncle Tom Bartley, who marched through on his way to the German border that summer fifty years ago with men who told each other, “We’ll be home for Christmas.” Little could he have known then what lay ahead of him at the Battle of the Bulge.
It was precisely this restoration of hope that explains why D-Day has always resonated more fully in the collective memory than even the end of the war, tainted by Yalta. At the American military cemetery at Ste-Laurent-sur-Mer above Omaha Beach, the winds are whipping and the rains cut to the bone. In the small reception house, an official kindly offers us help. “Are you looking for someone special?” he asks. We are not, but others are. Even on this nasty day, they have come: a fiftyish woman laying a rose on the grass over a father who probably hadn’t been out of Iowa before being sent over to free Europe; a veteran of the 1st Infantry Division–the Big Red One–with white hair and a waist thickened by the interval of fifty summers, standing silently before the cross of a fallen comrade.
Not far away is the German cemetery at Cambe, where 11,167 Germans are buried. Doubtless they were all special to someone, too, evidenced by the bouquets left here and there. In looking through old Allied photos of POWs, I notice that a fair number of the Germans in Normandy look scarcely old enough to shave. Their unlucky comrades sleep here, under sad, dark stones that lie flat on the ground, punctuated by low clusters of black knight’s crosses. Having missed the entrance, my father and I come in over a small fence on the side, almost as intruders on a private grief.
Back in the car, this cemetery leads to a debate whether Helmut Kohl ought to have been invited to this year’s anniversary–to emphasize, as President Mitterrand put it in 1984, that our victory was over Nazism, not the German people. Mrs. McGurn (the Younger) comes out for inviting the Germans and leaving Clinton at home. “At least they fought,” she says. But Clinton remains the President of my country if not my President, and I cannot wish a U.S. Commander-in-Chief humiliated on foreign soil. We may properly dislike a President who ran from the call. But on this day of all days, our responsibility is to those who did not, what General Omar Bradley called “the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the Channel coast of France” that longest of days. A few short weeks after we leave, the Allies will mark the fiftieth anniversary. All around we can see signs of the preparations: spruce-up operations at the Utah Beach monument, souvenirs in the shops, and–already–NBC cameras at St-Laurent-sur-Mer. With the Soviets now gone from Europe, there is that much more to celebrate, and even Reagan now conjures up warm feelings that he might perhaps have found more comforting ten years ago, when he was fighting hard to deploy the Euromissiles.
Like the original invasion, too, this year’s hasn’t been without its flaps. Dame Vera Lynn, the British “Forces Sweetheart” who gave the troops “Yours” and “The White Cliffs of Dover,” nearly brought down John Major in a tiff over ceremonies at New Hyde Park. Chancellor Kohl let it be known he felt snubbed by the lack of an invitation. And the French government, bent on a stupidity that I hitherto had thought reserved for the Republican Party, canceled private hotel reservations made by Canadian D-Day vets (they were ultimately restored, but only after a huge stink).
Perhaps the most gratuitous move was the tearing down in November of the Pegasus Bridge just north of Caen, the site of Major John Howard’s successful assault. “I don’t know why they didn’t have the decency to wait another few months,” says Arlette Gondree-Pritchard, whose family home next to the bridge was long ago turned into a cafe and second home for visiting Britishers. Now the local authorities are threatening the Cafe Gondree too. “They have no memory,” says Mme Gondree-Pritchard, whose father dug up 97 bottles of champagne to share with the commandos who liberated his home. As if to emphasize her point, that night the evening news carries a clip suggesting NATO would respond to the shooting down of one of its planes over Bosnia by reducing its involvement.
With all this in the background it would be easy to thunder on about how we have forgotten the sacrifices of Normandy, and I confess to finding the temptation great. But to do so would be to miss the sweeter happenstances of grace there for anyone disposed to receive them: A Frenchman who accosts my father on the promenade of Mont-Saint-Michel, bursting to tell us how the Americans saved his family so many years ago. Arlette Gondree, who will once again carry through a half-century of tradition by serving champagne to visiting British vets. The Ste-Mere-Eglise Madonna with her paratroopers. Or the many expressions of thanks, frequently in French and as often by children, written in the visitors’ book at St-Laurent-sur-Mer. The one that caught my eye was signed by a Julie Countelou, a day or so before my own visit: Les Americains avaient de courage et je les admire–the Americans had courage and I admire them. I admire them too. And I’m not sure the angels could have put it better.