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Who among us can forget seeing row after row of marble headstones at Normandy Cemetery, overlooking Omaha Beach? We saw them a few years ago in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, a highly rated movie starring Tom Hanks.Just recently we saw them on TV when President Obama of the United States came to France to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day and to give an inspiring speech. We were glad that President Sarkozy of France, Prince Charles of Great Britain, World War II veterans, and many other guests (including Tom Hanks) were also there.

What many people watching the D-Day commemoration on TV don’t know is that the ground on which Normandy Cemetery is situated was once a temporary cemetery, one of the 37 temporary cemeteries that were scattered throughout Europe until 1947. In that year, my father (Howard L. Peckham) was appointed the job of returning the war dead of the European Theater to the United States. The temporary cemetery in Normandy came into existence only a couple of days after D-Day. Its name was St. Laurent, or, to be more precise, St. Laurent Sur Mer.

The following paragraphs describe the difficult work of the American Graves Registration Command in Europe (AGRC-EA) in the grading and construction of St. Laurent, in order  to transform it into one of the ten permanent cemeteries of the European Theater. The paragraphs are excerpts from the biography I wrote about Dad, A Salute to Patriotism, but with the addition of comments in brackets.

Excerpts from Chapter 10, “Life in Postwar Paris,” from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham:

        On March 31, 1948, my parents and I stopped briefly at St. Laurent Cemetery after saying goodbye to Colonel Stevenson, the Quartermaster Corps officer in charge of AGRC activities in Normandy.

The colonel had given Mother and me an interesting tour of the Beach. Because of Dad’s work and the need for him to make frequent inspections at the cemeteries, he had already visited that part of Normandy several times.

        My father and Colonel Stevenson had carefully examined the cemetery’s final layout plan, completed in February 1948 by the architectural firm selected by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). Selecting architects for the layout of  the ten permanent cemeteries of the European Theater was one of that agency’s jobs, not the army’s.

There was much discussion between my father and the ABMC, which also had an office in Paris, about this matter and several others. Dad was always grateful for the cooperation that existed between them.

        AGRC engineers also had copies of the layout in their hands so they could make detailed plans for grading and construction. After those plans were completed, a contracting firm was selected from among the French firms that had been invited to present bids. The successful bidder could not begin work until right of entry from the French Government was received, however, and that took longer than expected. Geography also caused a delay. Grading and construction began in June 1948, but because of St. Laurent’s proximity to the English Channel, that work was extremely hard. “AGRC engineers often had to trudge through thick mud, and workmen frequently had to move their heavy equipment along in clay-like soil,” my father explained to Mother and me later.

He sounded sympathetic, probably because he had spent twenty years in the Corps of Engineers, where walking in muddy terrain was a common occurrence on his inspection trips.

Below is a paragraph, plus footnotes, from Final Disposition of World War II Dead: 1945-1951. It provides further details about the information I have written in this post. It also appears in A Salute to Patriotism:

Information from Engneer Files About the Work at St. Laurent Cemetery

        In spite of these delays, my father was pleased that grading and construction of the permanent cemetery (still called St. Laurent at that time) ended early in November 1948. Considering its D-Day significance, the results were well worth the painstaking efforts made by AGRC personnel.

[After the cemetery was transferred from the AGRC to the ABMC in early 1951, the name was changed to Normandy Cemetery. The ABMC also replaced the army’s simple wooden crosses and stars with those of marble and erected additional structures.]

[Note: Clergymen assigned to AGRC-EA performed benediction ceremonies at St. Laurent and other temporary American cemeteries when they were closed. During the construction phases, the deceased soldiers who were to be reinterred were placed in temporary storage facilities.]

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