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Posts Tagged ‘world war 2 graves’

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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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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