Connecting With the Past in Normandy

By Samantha L. Quigley

Though the sky looked like summer—cloudy, but blue—cold waves rolled up Omaha Beach, lapping my toes and occasionally engulfing my feet in liquid ice.

Mine was such a small piece of the Allied troops’ experience as they waded ashore, their heavy combat boots growing heavier as they soaked up the English Channel more than seven decades ago.

U.S. troops landing at Omaha and Utah Beaches didn’t have the luxury of the relatively calm waters and clear skies I enjoyed during the events commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day last year. And the scene they gazed on—German troops in their way, tracer rounds flying in all directions and comrades falling to their left and right—was a stark contrast to the serene panorama the memorials and museums create today.

Rows of white crosses and Stars of David line the Normandy American Cemetery in Coleville-Sur-Mer, France. Each marks the grave of an American troop that fell during the D-Day fighting. | Photo credit USO photo by Samantha L. Quigley

There is one thing that hasn’t changed in all these decades, though.

On June 6, 1944, as Allied troops began the fight inland to reclaim France from Germany’s stranglehold, they were Normandy’s first glimpse of hope after years of occupation. The gratitude, even if mixed with the bittersweet understanding of war’s result, was freely given. Each year, that gratitude grows and Allied liberators—long since veterans of their respective services—are treated like rock stars when they return.

Any man wearing a ball cap that identifies him as a D-Day veteran is in danger of being kissed by a local woman. Nobody gets more attention than another based on the role they played in the landings. If you were there, you’re a hero.

But the admiration doesn’t stop with the generation that lived through the horrors of occupation and the relief of liberation.

Upon my arrival in Carentan, reportedly the first French city liberated—though there are others that make that claim—I was overwhelmed by the number of young reenactors dressed in vintage American World War II uniforms. The stunning accuracy of the uniforms is a point of pride among the men and women who wear them. They form versions of real units with friends and many attend each and every anniversary.

I found it heartening that so many American reenactors had traveled all that way to honor our vets. But my jaw hit the ground the first time I heard one of them speak. I didn’t understand more than a few words I could pull from my high school French vocabulary. I understood none of the Dutch or Swedish.

A reenactment of the Carentan Liberty March—a celebratory march that took place after the Allies liberated the French city from the Germans—makes its way to the town square June 7, 2014. | Photo credit USO photo by Samantha L. Quigley

But I learned that for some, this is a hobby. It’s a chance to indulge their love of everything vintage, including vehicles, which are transported from their home countries every year for the ceremonies.

While Tom Ooomen, of Holland, was wearing a vintage uniform, his passion lies with the vehicles. These large gatherings for military anniversaries provide him the opportunity to meet other enthusiasts, talk cars and trade information and stories about restoring these vehicles. The longest it’s taken him to fully restore a vehicle was two years and that included time to “find the parts and keep it cheap.”

Though he’s not into reenacting, he appreciates the history of D-Day and the need to keep it alive.

“The youngest one must also learn what’s happening 70 years ago,” he said. “D-Day is important because it’s the start of freedom in Europe. That’s for a lot of people (not just the French). My uncle was involved. And my grandfather.”

Then there are the many who reenact to show respect for the veterans who braved the odds to end the long, brutal war in Europe.

Stephane Bourjaillat is one of many Frenchmen who pays homage this way.

I met him at the Normandy American Cemetery the day before the 70th anniversary ceremonies. The cemetery was alive with veterans and visitors, the latter held rapt by stories from the former. A simple question from a visitor would sometimes spur a detailed account from a veteran—often corrected or added to by a buddy listening nearby. Occasionally, the question was met with a response many of us who have talked with WWII veterans have come to expect—enough to answer the question but not really answer the question.

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This annual observation is so important to Bourjaillat that he plans his work schedule as a Versailles firefighter around the weeklong calendar of D-Day events—and others commemorating major historic battles. As a reenactor portraying an 82nd Airborne paratrooper, it’s important to get it right, “to pay tribute.”

“First, for those guys’ memory,” he said, voicing strong opposition to the suggestion that some folks in vintage uniforms see wearing them as a hobby. “I don’t like the word ‘hobby.’ Go fishing. Fishing is a hobby. Or hunting, or play golf.

“We take it more seriously. It’s an outfit,” he said, referring to his uniform. “It’s not a costume. It’s not a hobby. Maybe it’s important for the young generation to see people—young-looking people—like us. We try to be like the soldiers at the time as best we can, so we give people an idea, an impression, of what it was like at the time. Original GIs.”

While looking like an original GI often comes with questions from curious onlookers, it was the questions he got to ask the veterans that really makes these events worth it.

“I’m very glad I could have the opportunity today to speak with veterans because that’s always the highlight of our trip every year,” Bourjaillat said. “Unfortunately, there won’t be any of them in the close future and that’s sad. Very sad.”

Many of the veterans who make the trip to Normandy do so to heal. They lost friends on Utah, Omaha, at Pointe du Hoc, in Sainte-Mère-Eglise and so many other battle sites. Returning to those places often provides a sense of closure.

Bill Colwell has made 10 trips back to Normandy since he first jumped over Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was 16 and, with a smile, admitted he might have fibbed to get in, but age wouldn’t have helped the way he and the members of the 101st Airborne felt as they crossed the channel at 1:30 that morning.

“I was scared. Very, very scared. And we all were,” he said. “Just a bunch of kids, all of us. It was just chaos all over. The only coverage these guys had coming in from the ocean was to lay down beside of a dead guy. Eighteen, 19, 20-year-old kids.

Bill Colwell has made 10 trips back to Normandy since he first jumped over Omaha Beach on D-Day. | Photo credit USO photo by Samantha L. Quigley

“We got a hold of the situation and got it put together and did what we were supposed to do and got the job done,” he added.

Memories fade over time—usually the good ones—but for those who saw war up-close and personal, some remain very vivid. “It doesn’t go away,” Colwell said. “You always think about it. Some of us can put it behind us and some of us can’t.”

On D-Day morning, his aircraft missed its jump zone by 20 miles. Colwell found members of the 82nd Airborne, also blown off course, and they traveled by night to get back to the beach, where he fought for a total of 33 days before being sent back to England.

But there’s familiarity in Normandy after so many trips—the reception.

“The first time, I couldn’t believe it. How everyone bunches around you and they want pictures of you,” he said. “I thought. ‘My gosh. These people are so appreciative of what we did.’ Then they said if you’d been under bondage for four years, you’d be the same way.

“Also the German people tell us, ‘Thank you for our freedom. We were under bondage, also.’”

When Colwell went to Normandy last year for the 70th anniversary, there was a different highlight awaiting him, something he hadn’t done for 70 years.

“Sunday, I’m making a parachute jump over here (Omaha Beach),” he said. “Only two of us. I don’t know if we can do it or not, but we’re gonna try.”

On the eve of the anniversary, the Norman Coast lit up with simultaneous fireworks from Cherbourg to Caen. It was an overwhelming sight and the experience gave viewers a sliver of what those who landed on those beaches heard. As fireworks boomed overhead, I closed my eyes and imagined the explosion of the German guns. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did that, trying to understand what those soldiers felt as they hit the surf. Still, it was a celebration and that was the mood on the beach.

The next day brought a positive, but more somber mood as hundreds of thousands of visitors gathered to herald the men who made the D-Day landings a success through sheer determination and more than a bit of luck. The plan had been to be a mile inland by 8:30 that morning, but six hours after the landings, our troops held just 10 yards of beach.

Photo credit USO photo by Samantha L. Quigley

D-Day veterans stand for the presentation of colors during the French-American ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

With rows of chairs as far as the eye could see in front of him and dozens of veterans on the stage behind him, President Barack Obama addressed the international audience.

*It was here, on these shores, that the tide was turned in that common struggle for freedom.

What more powerful manifestation of America’s commitment to human freedom than the sight of wave after wave of young men boarding those boats to liberate people they’d never met?

We say it now as if it couldn’t be any other way. But in the annals of history, the world had never seen anything like it. When the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory—we helped Europe rebuild. We claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag, and where we station those who still serve under it. But America’s claim—our commitment—to liberty, to equality, to freedom, to the inherent dignity of every human being—that claim is written in blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity.*

French President François Hollande restated a promise already decades old—France will not forget America’s contribution to its freedom.

*In English as in French, the names Omaha, Utah and Pointe du Hoc evoke suffering and glory, desolation and pride, cruelty and deliverance. More than 20,000 Americans gave their lives here in Normandy—20,838, because I don’t want to forget any of them. They were your relatives, your brothers and your friends.

They were our liberators.

I will reiterate the oath of my predecessors here. We will never forget … the American soldiers’ sacrifice. Mr. President, we are the children and grandchildren of that generation. We are their heirs.

Our parents, our grandparents raised us with the idea that for everything to change, nothing should be forgotten. From this memory—from this shared memory—our nations have forged a hope, which is also a duty. It is that of peace.*

As a proud American, the daughter of a soldier and granddaughter of a WWII Marine, I am forever grateful to our military.

I’m also appreciative of our Allies for their roles in helping keep peace, but I found it hard to comprehend the depth and longevity of appreciation the people of France have for our veterans.

I believe the answer, however, might be as simple as this: We cannot grasp the depths of their gratitude because we have not lived their experiences.

—Samantha L. Quigley is editor in chief of On Patrol magazine. This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.