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July is an especially patriotic month for the citizens of two countries–the United States and France.  That’s when both countries celebrate their freedom and independence, each in its own unique and joyful way.

For the French, it all began on July 14, 1789, when a mob of downtrodden French people stormed the Bastille, a fortress-like Paris prison. Soon afterwards, the fearful Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette escaped to Versailles while angry mobs destroyed homes of the nobility in Paris. To the French, Bastille Day signifies the end of an oppressive monarchy and the beginning of a free republic.

Excerpts from Chapter 12, “Meetings in France, Germany, and Italy,” of  A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/):

        As his days in France were drawing to a close, my father expressed more and more his appreciation to the French for having cooperated well with his command, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC). He personally thanked many people who had visited American cemeteries, such as Épinal, to honor our fallen soldiers by reciting prayers in churches near the cemeteries and by placing bouquets of flowers near the gravesites.

The French of course admired their own military heroes, those presently serving in their army and those lost in battle. This pride seemed most evident on Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison by livid French citizens and the start of the French Revolution.

        The biggest Bastille Day celebration since the beginning of World War II was held on July 14, 1949, and it bounded into the city like a jolly traveling circus. On the preceding evening, people already started celebrating. Beginning at around six o’clock, Paris took on the atmosphere of a country festival. Lanterns and flags hung gaily on apartment balconies and from windows. On the outside of nearly all the corner cafés, orchestra stands seemed to jump onto the pavement. At seven o’clock, the city fathers marched—along with columns of Paris police and Republican Guards—to the Arc de Triomphe, where they laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. By nine o’clock, tables at cafés that provided live music were fully occupied.  Street dancing went on until dawn.

I didn’t dance until dawn, but I did watch the parade as it traveled down the Champs Élysées the following day. These are only a few of the words I wrote in my diary: “The parade was really spectacular. I especially liked the Moroccan troops who, dressed in white turbans and capes, rode by on horseback, blowing trumpets.”

        The fountains and edifices were beautifully lighted that night, and the fireworks cascaded magnificently across the summer sky with rainbow-hued streaks of light. I remember skipping and dancing on the cobblestone streets of the Left Bank until two o’clock in the morning with a group of American college students. Hundreds of Parisians were doing the same thing, perhaps for the second night in a row. They wanted to enjoy every minute of this day, the biggest and happiest Bastille Day since the end of the war.

The French joyfully welcomed this long-anticipated celebration partly because their defeat in World War II had been so humiliating. A teacher of mine at the American Community School, Madame Marguerite Dubus, didn’t let her class forget how well trained her country’s soldiers were, in spite of their capitulation. “Our soldiers got good training and fought well. They didn’t have all the good equipment the Americans had,” she reminded us.

         She was basically correct, especially about that last part. France didn’t have the economic advantages of the United States, which placed that country in a defensive rather than offensive position at the beginning of the war. Later, the Germans destroyed much of their best equipment.

Even if they sometimes envied American military might and economic prosperity, the French people my parents met seemed eager to maintain a good relationship with the Americans who lived in France and with American citizens in the United States who had sent them food, clothing, and other gifts after the war.

        Their appreciation was visibly demonstrated in Paris on January 7, 1949, when a train composed of forty-nine small boxcars left the city. The cars were filled with such items as cheeses, fruits, vases, works of art, books, and various items the French people themselves had made. After a band played The Star-Spangled Banner and the Marseillaise, a young girl blew the departure whistle, and the train went on its way. The boxcars were shipped from Le Havre to the United States, where they were greeted happily by the states through which they traveled.

[As reported by The Stars and Stripes on January 8, 1949, my father was one of the officials who gave the train, called the Merci Train, a big send-off.]

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Excerpts from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham

AGRC Party at the Hotel Celtic: 1948
AGRC Party at the Hotel Celtic: 1948

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My father hosted a party at the Celtic Hôtel Celtic in April. The hotel, located two blocks up from the Champs Élysées near the Étoile, was essentially an AGRC hotel then.  At the party, he officially introduced my mother and me to several AGRC officers and their wives. Many Department of the Army civilians under my father’s command also attended the party. According to Occupation Forces in Europe Series: The Third Year, 1947-1948, the AGRC workforce consisted of approximately 1,500 military personnel, 3,300 civilians, and 2,600 local resident laborers.  

A few weeks later, a reception was held in honor of my parents at Isle St. Germain, the AGRC depot on the Seine River.  

        Isle St. Germain was where Paris-based AGRC soldiers were billeted and had their mess hall. It’s also where our theater (for stage shows), PX, commissary, and dentist were located. My parents and I rode to the occasion in an army car, accompanied by an official military escort. When we and the motorcycle outriders swung through traffic on streets near the Seine, even Parisians who were otherwise blasé turned and looked at us with curious stares. It was as if we were celebrities. The reception at the depot was warm and congenial, and I was beginning to feel that life in Europe was both interesting and fun.
       

We were not in Europe to have fun, however. Reality would be brought to the fore only a few days later, when I was in my father’s office at AGRC headquarters, where I had come to learn more about his work and meet the clerical staff.  

        AGRC offices were in the former Hôtel Astoria, at the corner of Rue de Presbourg and 131 Avenue des Champs Élysées. “This map shows the location of the temporary cemeteries,” my father said as he pointed to a map on the wall. Graves registration activities of the Quartermaster Corps in the European Theater began in December 1941, when the United States asked the British War Office about burial facilities for our military personnel expected to arrive in 1942 in Northern Ireland, where they would aid the British in their defense of that part of Ireland. Sadly, as was expected, American lives were lost after the men arrived. These burials had been in swampy ground in local cemeteries, but the U.S. Army negotiated with the British and secured a plot of land at Lisnabreeny, a suburb of Belfast, where the Americans were reinterred.
       

All through the war, graves registration soldiers diligently picked up our dead and transported them by trucks to temporary cemeteries. Moving them quickly was a big priority. This was especially true when the dead lay on main highways, where they could be seen by troops moving in their direction. The ones who died during the initial landings on D-Day, so graphically depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan, were buried on the beaches and then later brought to temporary cemeteries—primarily St. Laurent-Sur-Mer.  

        In Europe, the command known as the American Graves Registration Command-European Area (AGRC-EA) was created in 1945. In the preface he wrote for L. R. Talbot’s book The Story of American Graves Registration Command in Europe and Africa, published in 1955, then-Major General Robert Littlejohn, Chief Quartermaster of the European Theater, writes how the command’s creation came about.  

These are General Littlejohn’s words: “I came home with General Eisenhower on his private plane in June 1945. On this trip he and I discussed the problem of Graves Registration, cemeteries, etc. . . .We agreed that a separate command should be set up to do the job in the ETO. . . .As a result, I was relieved as Chief Quartermaster, ETO, in the fall of 1945 and assigned as Commanding General, American Graves Registration Command with station in Paris. . . .I organized this new command with an allotment of military personnel given me by General Eisenhower. Civilians were employed to the fullest extent. . . .  

         Before formalizing the organization’s establishment, the two generals discussed the main reasons for creating the AGRC in Europe. Among these were that American troops were quickly being repatriated after the war, leaving many temporary cemeteries understaffed. Also, a need existed to consolidate graves registration functions under one command, instead of leaving them in the hands of the various armies (such as Seventh Army). An official document to establish the AGRC-EA resulted from those discussions. It had the title “Establishment of Command” and became effective October 1, 1945. In regard to the Command’s subsequent performance, Littlejohn indicated he was quite pleased with its work.  

In his preface to Talbot’s aforementioned book, which he composed at his Maryland home in 1955, the general writes: “I think I can truthfully say, without fear of contradiction, that the performance of the American Graves Registration Command in the European Theater was one of the greatest jobs ever performed by the Quartermaster Corps and the Army anywhere at any time in any war. . . .I salute the commanders who followed me for their accomplishments for which I only pointed the way, to wit  Brigadier General John C. Odel, Brigadier General Alfred B. Denniston, Major General Howard L. Peckham”  

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