Here’s a copy of the article I wrote for the Woodbridge LIFE newspaper. It was published in this month’s edition:
The High Price of Freedom
Who among us can forget seeing row after row of marble headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery, overlooking Omaha Beach? Many Americans who visit that cemetery in France are moved to tears by its vast size, each cross or star representing a young life lost in the ravages of war.Even if they haven’t seen the cemetery in person, millions of Americans saw it while watching the opening scenes of the film Saving Private Ryan. They also saw it on television in June 2009 when the 65th anniversary of D-Day was commemorated there. President Obama was present along with President Sarkozy of France, Prince Charles of Great Britain, World War II veterans from several countries, and many other guests. President Obama returned there in 2014 when the 70th anniversary commemoration was held and gave a moving speech. Here are some of his words:
At the end of the war, when our ships set off for America, filled with our fallen, tens of thousands of liberated Europeans turned out to say farewell, and they pledged to take care of the more than 60,000 Americans who would remain in cemeteries on this continent.
Not everyone attending the commemorations knew that the ground on which the Normandy Cemetery is situated was once a temporary resting place. It was named after a local town, St. Laurent, and was one of 37 temporary American World War II cemeteries scattered throughout Western Europe. After President Truman signed appropriate documents in 1946 authorizing the return of deceased Americans to their homeland, the U.S. Army learned that it was facing an enormous task.
One of its first duties was contacting next of kin to ascertain their wishes: Did they want their loved one returned home or laid to rest in a permanent U.S. cemetery in Europe? Even though no financial cost to them was involved, it was often a painful decision for families to make. After their answers were received at the Paris headquarters of the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC) European Area (EA), thousands of heroes who lost their lives in the European Theater would soon begin their journey home.
On Memorial Day of May 1947, dignified ceremonies were held at all of the temporary cemeteries. The first shipload of American war dead from Europe arrived in New York City in October of that year carrying more than 5,000 caskets. They had left from Antwerp, Belgium, the primary port of debarkation for the American deceased of that zone in Europe. Afterwards, other ports were used, especially Cherbourg in France.
The army’s AGRC-EA was also responsible for grading and constructing ten permanent American cemeteries, where the war dead to remain in Europe would be reburied. All of the permanent sites are on land where a temporary cemetery was previously located, except for one near the French/German border that was completely rebuilt. There are five in France, two in Belgium, and one each in Luxembourg, England, and Holland. Clergymen assigned to the AGRC-EA performed benediction ceremonies at the temporary sites when they were closed.
Building the Normandy cemetery was especially hard, as described in Final Disposition of World War II Dead: 1945-1951 by Edward Steere and Thayer Boardman. Work couldn’t begin until right of entry from the French government was received, which took longer than expected. Grading and construction began in June 1948, but because of St. Laurent’s proximity to the English Channel, AGRC engineers frequently had to trudge through thick mud, and French workmen often had to move their heavy equipment in clay-like soil. In spite of setbacks, operations ended in early November 1948.
When the AGRC-EA completed its work, it gradually transferred the permanent cemeteries to the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), a civilian agency. The ABMC later replaced the army’s simple wooden crosses and stars with those of marble and erected additional structures, such as beautiful statues. It continues to maintain them.
Before my parents and I left Paris in March 1950, an article about my dad, then-Brigadier General Howard L. Peckham, appeared in the March 18 edition of The Stars and Stripes. He had headed the AGRC-EA during the period May 1947 through January 1950. The article states:
Under him, approximately 83,000 World War II dead were returned to the U.S. Nearly 60,000 others have been interred in permanent cemeteries in France, Belgium, England, Holland, and Luxembourg.
Let’s recall, especially on Memorial Day, that an American flag still flies valiantly above those cemeteries.
(End of Article))
More about this subject appears in my book A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham.It is available at the link below:
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