Editor’s note: Modesto’s Joe Swain is in France preparing for Thursday’s 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy landings that eventually liberated Europe during World War II. See Friday’s paper and modbee.com for his subsequent report on the main ceremony.
There was something different, anticipation wise, about this trip. The night before leaving Modesto, we watched a “D-Day 75th Anniversary” special on television. Men who participated in the Omaha Beach landing and a parachute drop behind enemy lines told stories of incredible bravery, stomach-churning fear and willingness to die so that others may live in freedom.
Having arrived in France, we saw a few aging veterans at the airport and spoke with the families. To a person they indicated that this will be the last time they attend an anniversary ceremony.
As we left Paris behind and headed west to the Normandy coastal region we soon came to places I recall from watching the “Band of Brothers” miniseries about the valiant men of Easy Company as they fought their way through the countryside. Bayeux, Caen, St.-Lô — communities forever changed by four years of fascist rule, and the ensuing liberation in the weeks following the D-Day landing. Civilians died, buildings were destroyed but still the people rejoiced at the allies’ triumphant advance through France, Belgium and finally into Germany. As each town and village was cleared of the occupying German army, the citizenry celebrated their American, British and Canadian saviors.
Today each community recalls those days, 75 years ago, with U.S., British and French flags flying. For the next week there will be scores of re-enactments, parades, concerts and memorial services.
On June 5, the day before the anniversary, we drove to the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. The Normandy countryside meanders through rolling hills, dotted every mile or two by quiet villages with benign sounding names like Maison and Vaux that mask the violence and horror of war that was witnessed here in early summer 1944.
The narrow road into the cemetery was already getting backed up at our relatively early arrival hour of 0800. We chatted with the media operations manager, who invited us to a private wreath-laying ceremony with seven returning veterans and their families. It was incredibly emotional as the American National Anthem played, followed by taps. The seven vets stood together and saluted as families and media folks looked on.
In different areas of the cemetery, other nations were holding their own tributes. We witnessed a representative of the German army laying a floral arrangement at the base of an American flagpole. The act of a former enemy honoring their adversary was strikingly beautiful.
We spoke with US Army Signalman 1st Class Carl Felton, who at 18 years old was a Morse Code specialist stationed on the British ship HMS Ceres, a communications vessel. His job was directing naval traffic in the Omaha Beach landing area. He spoke of being sick at the sight of bodies in the water and on the beach. His ship was adjacent to the USS Susan B. Anthony when it was sunk by a German artillery shell.
Carl’s son Jack told me that today was his dad’s first time back in France. It was an emotional day for Carl as he gazed out at the final resting spot of 9,300 of his fellow heroes. Jack said his dad had always been tight-lipped about his service. He said it wasn’t until they watched President Reagan speak at the 40th anniversary ceremony in 1984 that his dad said, “That’s where I was.” Jack was dumbstruck that he hadn’t heard the story. His dad just shrugged.
Carl said the hardest part of his service was going home, knowing that all he witnessed had changed him forever. He envisioned rushing into his parents’ arms at his homecoming but instead sat in his car for 20 minutes screwing up the courage to walk up the steps. After he finally made it into his family’s arms, he knew it was going to be OK.
We left the cemetery the day before the anniversary in humble anticipation of what emotions tomorrow will bring. We know we’re blessed to have seen and talked to some of our few remaining heroes.
Joe Swain is a financial planner in Modesto and contributes to Stanislaus Magazine. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.