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Posts Tagged ‘world war 2 in Europe’

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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Excerpts from Chapter 8, “Freedom Is Not Free,” of A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham:

My parents made a plan that seemed workable. My father would leave in May for Europe, as scheduled. In July, Mother would give Howie a big sendoff to West Point, which he would enter as a freshman. I would finish my sophomore year of high school at the end of December. “Jeanie and I can spend Christmas with Howie at West Point,” Mother told Dad, “and then join you early in the new year.” My brother’s lowly plebe (freshman) status required that he and the other members of his class not leave the Academy for the holidays.

Howie had been overjoyed when he first received news of his West Point appointment, and my father was delighted that his son would be attending his alma mater and following in his footsteps.

Mother, however, had mixed feelings about it. The World War II photographs and newsreels that showed young officers leading their men on the battlefields of Europe and Asia, where they risked and often lost their lives, were still too fresh in her mind. My mother’s fears for her son, who would be commissioned a second lieutenant upon graduation, were intensified when she received my father’s first long letter to us, which came in the mail soon after his arrival in France. More than ever before, she thought about all the mothers who had lost their sons during wartime. After Memorial Day had passed, which of course had been solemnly observed in our area at Arlington National Cemetery, my father wrote us details about the Memorial Day ceremony in which he had participated at Hamm Cemetery, located in the wooded hills three miles east of the city of Luxembourg.

My father was in charge of this ceremony and others like it all over Europe that day, so he was gratified that everything had gone so smoothly.

He was even more pleased that the people of Luxembourg had shown their gratitude to the U.S. Army for liberating them from the Nazis, evidenced by the presence of a large crowd and the many bouquets of beautiful flowers placed at the gravesites.  To provide us with more details, my father also sent us a phonograph record containing his radio address to the United States from Luxembourg on that Memorial Day, which was broadcasted after the ceremony. Although his address was intended for all Americans, it was particularly aimed towards those citizens whose loved ones had died in the European Theater. After being introduced by Henry Cassidy, a commentator with NBC, my father spoke in a clear, strong voice.

My book, A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham, contains the text of his entire speech as well as the one given by Grand Duchess Charlotte, whose speech followed his. At the conclusion of her speech, Mr. Cassidy said: “Americans at home are now being consulted as to whether the bodies will be left here or returned to America. If they are to go home, General Peckham’s command will take them in full dignity. If they remain here, the people of the Grand Duchess will be honored to watch over them. Either way, those of us who observed today’s ceremony are sure they are in good hands. This is Henry Cassidy in Luxembourg.”

      An announcer then closed the broadcast by saying:  “NBC has presented Memorial Day Overseas, with Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg, Brigadier General Howard Peckham, Henry Cassidy, and Paul Archinard of NBC’s overseas staff. This is NBC, the National Broadcasting Company.”

A Salute to Patriotism is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/ 

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