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Posts Tagged ‘world war 2 cemeteries’

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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American and French officials march to a speaker’s stand in St. Laurent Sur Mer cemetery of U.S. World War II dead. In the center foreground, carrying hat, is U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery. Behind Caffery are Lt. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner, deputy EUCOM commander, and Brig. Gen. Howard L. Peckham, commander of the American Graves Registration Command.
American and French officials march to a speaker’s stand in St. Laurent Sur Mer cemetery of U.S. World War II dead. In the center foreground, carrying hat, is U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery. Behind Caffery are Lt. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner, deputy EUCOM commander, and Brig. Gen. Howard L. Peckham, commander of the American Graves Registration Command.

From my collection of old newspaper clippings, this morning I brought out the one you see above. It seems particularly significant today, the 65th anniversary of D-Day.   

Excerpts from Chapter 10, “Life in Postwar Paris,” from my book A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham (available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/):

 

        The officials in the photograph on that windy day were in Normandy to pay homage to soldiers buried at the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery, who were to be unearthed that fall.“Many will be returned to the United States, per the request of their next of kin,” my father, then-Brig. Gen. Howard L. Peckham, explained to the crowd of spectators (which included several veterans’ groups). Other deceased soldiers would be reinterred at St. Laurent, again in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin.   

He also explained that the cemetery would be reopened as a permanent resting place, one of the ten permanent American cemeteries in Europe to be graded and constructed by his command, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC).   

        Five of those ten cemeteries were to be located in France: Draguignan in the south, Épinal in the northeast, St. Avold near the German border, St. James in Brittany, and St. Laurent in Normandy. These five were selected as the resting places of predominantly First, Seventh, and Third Army casualties. All of these sites had an association with a nearby battle or engagement. With the exception of St. Avold, which was to be built on new ground, all would be on the site of a former temporary cemetery.    

St. Laurent, overlooking Omaha Beach, came into existence only twenty-four hours after that first grim D-Day assault on June 6, 1944. (“Omaha” was the code name for the six-thousand-yard beach between Vierville and Colleville, the main landing area for the American forces.)   

        Immediately after they disembarked from the landing craft, many soldiers were mercilessly gunned down by enemy machine-gun fire. They were buried on the beach as quickly as possible and later interred at St. Laurent. Several others laid to rest at St. Laurent had participated in an airborne assault near Sainte-Mère-Église, “where the American flag was first raised over French soil on D-Day” (U.S. News and World Report, September 27, 1993). Many others died in military operations that occurred after D-Day.   

Near the end of March 1948, my father was scheduled to meet with the officer in charge of AGRC activities in Normandy, so my mother and I decided to join him. I was sixteen at the time and living with my parents in Paris, where I attended high school.   

        On this particular journey, we motored north of Paris for several hours, past diminutive thatch-roofed farmhouses and quaint villages. In some areas, the flowers of early spring had already started poking their heads through the softening ground. It was a pretty drive. Eventually, we arrived at a small town in Normandy west of Le Havre, where Colonel Stevenson, an AGRC officer, met us and drove us to his seaside villa, where we would be staying. My diary notes that we lunched with the colonel and his wife on delicious coq au vin, accompanied by welcome glasses of cold Perrier water.   

A bit later the colonel took my mother and me down to see Omaha Beach, where the D-Day landing had taken place fewer than four years earlier. The view was unbelievably sad, especially considering the loss of life that occurred there.   

        Barges and military vehicles, strewn at various angles on the broad beach, now stood in vacant silence. Foxholes on the sandy banks were as empty as air, and machine-gun nests that once rattled with German gunfire now sat quietly.   

 That night, while I was asleep in one of the guest rooms at the villa, the sound of a dog’s plaintive barking suddenly awakened me.   

        It was an eerie bark, and it seemed to come from far away. I wondered whether the dog sensed what had happened in that area of Normandy during World War II, or if he had even been a witness to it. I finally got back to sleep, but that sound stayed with me for a long time.   

 

 

 

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patriotic photo

A Memorial Day Message:

The American flags proudly waving in front of our homes this Memorial Day weekend serve to remind us of the terrible price of war and the ultimate sacrifice made by someone’s beloved spouse, child, or parent. My heart goes out to family members who have suffered such a loss.

In the spring of 1947, when my father (Howard L. Peckham) became in charge of the permanent disposition of more than 145,000 American World War Two dead of the European Theater, the stars and stripes proudly waved above 37 temporary American cemeteries scattered throughout Europe, where the fallen had been laid to rest.  The work of my father’s command, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC), would be both enormous and heart-wrenching during the years he was in charge (1947-1950).

Letters were sent out to the next of kin, giving them two options: Do you want your  loved one returned home for reburial or reinterred in one of the ten permanent American cemeteries in Europe? Although the majority of family members chose the first option, thousands did not. In all cases, however, their wishes were granted. All of the ten permanent cemeteries were graded and constructed by the AGRC, and all but one were former temporary cemeteries.

By the middle of 1951, the permanent American cemeteries in Europe had been transferred from the U.S. Army to the  American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), which  in the future would replace the army’s simple wooden crosses and stars with those of marble. The ABMC also built additional structures on the properties and continues to maintain them.

On this Memorial Day, let us remember that our flag proudly waves above those beautiful American cemeteries in Europe. And let’s not forget the supreme sacrifice made by our fallen heroes who rest there.

Thanks.

Jean

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LARGE CROWD WATCHING THE CEREMONY IN HONOR OF FIRST SHIPLOAD OF AMERICAN WAR DEAD FROM EUROPE: ANTWERP, 1947 (U. S. Army Photo)

LARGE CROWD WATCHING THE CEREMONY IN HONOR OF FIRST SHIPLOAD OF AMERICAN WAR DEAD FROM EUROPE: ANTWERP, 1947 (U. S. Army Photo)

Excerpts from Chapter 8, “Freedom Is Not Free,” from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/):

The first shipload of American war dead from Europe, more than five thousand caskets, arrived in New York City in October 1947. They had left from the dock-filled city of Antwerp, Belgium, which was the primary port for the deceased of that zone in Europe. General Lucius Clay, United States Military Governor in Germany and Chief of the European Command (EUCOM), paid homage to them before the flower-bedecked USAT Joseph V. Connolly slowly left port on October 5. On that day, wherever the American flag flew over U.S. installations in Europe, it was at half-staff.

Preceding the ship’s departure, my father’s office [the American Graves Registration Command in Paris] sent a list of the deceased by air courier to the Quartermaster General’s Office in Washington.

In a letter to us, my father explained the reason for this expediency:  “The list enables those families to be contacted and also permits arrangements to be made for subsequent transportation of the deceased within the United States.” He added that the same procedure would be followed for later shipments.

Mother received a tentative date right after New Year’s Day for our voyage to Bremerhaven. My father wrote that he had arranged a mid-February departure for us, which meant that we would need to begin preparing right away for our trip.

Preparations included arranging for the furniture to be put in a storage warehouse that Dad had selected and packing those items we thought we would need in Europe.

      Additionally, we had to go to the army medical center at the Pentagon for our inoculations.

     “I think we’re supposed to turn left here,” my mother said hesitantly after we had made a few wrong turns while trying to find our way through the maze of corridors to the Pentagon’s medical office. According to my diary entry for that day, my shots included smallpox and typhoid vaccines. Afterwards we visited the huge cafeteria for lunch.  

     In February, we packed our remaining belongings and left Cathedral Avenue behind us.

A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham is available at the link below.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/

 

 

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