Mike Barnicle is in Normandy, France on Friday for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Twenty years ago, he covered the 50th anniversary for the Boston Globe.
Amid the graves, gratitude lives on
The Boston Globe
June 7, 1994
By Mike Barnicle
ST. JAMES, France – On a stunning, cloudless afternoon, when the green grass of the low, rolling hills flowed like a brilliant emerald wave in the soft breeze, a long ribbon of schoolchildren marched in procession to honor 4,410 American boys buried beneath 28 acres of French soil liberated with their blood 50 summers ago.
More than 4,000 boys and girls had been summoned from this agricultural region 12 miles from the Normandy coast and they all walked in silence, each carrying a white cardboard box containing a single white dove.
It was well before the pageantry involving world politicians began yesterday at places named Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach, and there were no famous people present to give speeches. Instead, farmers and office workers, housewives and schoolteachers, young French families and frail grandparents came by foot and by car from miles around to pray, stand or simply stare at the graves of so many assembled strangers whom they never knew, never met but never forgot.
In the blue sky above the startling cemetery, a lone French paratrooper dressed in the uniform of the 82nd Airborne drifted lazily down to the sacred ground below. As he landed, a little girl took his hand and led him toward the chapel at the edge of all the marble headstones where the two of them joined the mayor of St. James several local dignitaries and a few members of the French and American military as they saluted history’s fallen legions.
A band played the national anthems of both countries. Then the children, one by one, stood alongside all the stone monuments and placed a lovely, lonesome daisy on top of every grave. All was quiet as the children opened the boxes and momentarily held the doves in innocent hands before releasing them in unison, the white birds soaring off in squadron toward England and ports all these brave dead boys sailed from at the start of their last summer, 1944. from Massachusetts. And their names represent a unique cultural tapestry. In death they blend together, all of them beyond prejudice, envy or the resentments that often weigh us down today. A few of them were: Douglas Perry, Robert Cahill, Ralph Parenteau, Robert Lamb, Vartan Panagian, James Huard, Alfred Cloutier, Herman Lindsey Jr., William LeClair, Clifford Oliver Jr., Walter Potter, Carl Savlone, James Starr, Joseph Tuohey, William Walsh, Edgar Whittaker, Daniel Esposito, Lucien La Croix, George Nawn, Thomas Duffy, Stephen Jakstis, Frank Mello, Bronis Lipskis, Michael Halprin, Nathan Gurwitz, Edward Drakopolos, William Breed, Neil Manning, Francis X. Kelly and Earnest W. Prussman from West Newton who, on Sept. 8, 1944, won the Medal of Honor when he destroyed two German machine gun bunkers before being killed by enemy gunfire.
You wonder now, all these years later, what the dead might have done: Who among them would have been doctors saving lives, teachers strengthening young minds, laborers building roads and cities, homes and highways, farmers growing crops, salesmen, police, firefighters. You wonder about the children some of them left and the families they were denied. You wonder about the parents of the 20 sets of brothers buried here, side by side, and how anyone could ever handle such great eternal grief.
These are the heroes who all died young. They missed sunsets and baptisms. They went without 50 World Series and 50 New Year’s Eves. They never stood at the door, anxiously waiting for a daughter’s first date to arrive or witnessed their kids’ junior proms and college graduations. They never saw men landing on the moon or a fax machine. They were not allowed to walk on a beach with the girls they loved or hold the hands of grandchildren who would have asked about their great crusade.
In our increasingly selfish country where everything and nearly everyone is part of some special interest, where defining any enemy or current threat to live or moral values is as difficult as peering through the murky fog that envelops this French coast, it is stunning to realize that these 4,410 and millions of others sailed to certain danger with no thought of conquest or profit. They came because they were asked and because they were needed.
And today the French here do their best to remember. The local people, far from the glamour of Paris, live in an area of centuries-old villages where nearly everyone still depends on the land. These citizens are the French equivalent of our Midwesterners, open, honest and grateful for what they have been given.
For the past few weekends, they have come in droves to the American cemetery. While D-Day has become a television spectacle in the United States, these simple folks who manage to get by without 100 cable channels, CNN, MTV, microwaves and ATM machines on every block recall their history and those who helped them. Unlike so many of us at home, geography never insulated them from sacrifice.
Now, as the sun began to set, the people began to leave the cemetery in groups of twos and threes, quietly, with respect, the way you would leave a church or temple after prayer. And as they headed toward their cars and homes and their rural lives, the only sounds in the gathering dusk were the bark of a single dog, the crowing of a rooster somewhere in the distance and the rustle of the wind that provides these boys eternal companionship.