Lafayette, voila mes oncles…
September 1978. It is only a little more than 30 years after the end of the war that devastated the European continent and threatened the entire world. But that war is a distant, vague reality to me, born 8 years after it was resolved. I know it happened, but I’ve never thought much about it, and when we studied American history–in fifth, seventh and tenth grades–we never got that far. We always started with the Conquistadores and the Pilgrims, we never got past the Treaty of Versailles. Why didn’t the fifth, seventh and tenth grade history teachers ask each other how far we were getting each year? Seems like something could have been done about that.
It is 1978, and I am walking in the streets of Bayeux in Normandy, returning to my hotel after having gone to see a movie. It is my first trip to France. I had only been there for a couple of days, and was still getting used to the idea of travelling alone.
As I paused to get my bearings, a couple of older gentlemen stopped and asked me if I needed help. When I answered in my far-from-perfect French, they knew I was a foreigner. “American?” they asked, and I nodded. Their faces broke into wide, warm smiles, they shook my hands enthusiastically, they practically embraced me. “We fought with your father, your uncles,” they said. “We fought with them, side by side.”
Confused, I shook my head. At the time, I didn’t know that any of my uncles had ever been to France, and I knew my Dad hadn’t been. (Though he had been stationed in Japan after the war.)
“Not my Dad…” I said.
“Well, your uncles, then,” they insisted. And they also insisted on walking me safely to my hotel.
That was the first experience I had with the “ungrateful” French–the ones who are supposed to be completely unappreciative of our rescuing them from the Nazis in World War II. These two Frenchmen, total strangers to me, were effusively grateful for what they presumed my uncles had done for them before I knew that my uncles had done anything at all. And they seemed to want to step into the role of protecting me as a natural instinct, a way of expressing that feeling of gratitude, of family.
It turns out the Frenchmen were right. I learned later that not just one, but two of my uncles had aided in the liberation of France. One was a medic who had arrived on D-Day, day 3. The other was a radio technician, in service at the Battle of the Bulge. My Uncle Lewey, the radio technician, mentioned, when I had returned from that first trip to France, that he had been there too. “It wasn’t for fun, though,” he said, with a kind of rueful grin.
There were 160,000 Allied troops involved in the D-Day invasion. More than 9,000 of them were killed or wounded in the assault on the French coast. The rest lived to carry out the mission, and many of them, though not all, survived the war and went on to live out their lives. My uncles’ stories are just two of them.
Seven years ago my son, then 13, was doing a school project on World War II (I am so glad his teachers managed to get him and his class that far!) and he interviewed each of them. I will be posting excerpts from those interviews as the anniversaries of these two momentous struggles, so important in world history, approach. Stay tuned!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France.
Entry filed under: About My Family, About World War II. Tags: American history, Battle of the Bulge, D-Day, family history, France, France Will Never Forget, French gratitude, French history, Liberation of France, Normandy, WWII.