Party in the American Sector



Dear Old Bolds, Friends, and Family,

Travelling is much more of a challenge these days.  Charley’s health is more fragile, and medical supplies and medications fill additional suitcases, which need to be packed, unpacked, and sherpa’ed at each new location along with the professional video camera, my suitcase and backpack full of electronics. Time to write?  Only now, in the aftermath.

Where were we?  Ah, Belgium, then Dunkirk, and Paris.  After picking Graham up from Paris, we settled in our secluded, beautiful, and modest chateau B&B just outside of Bayeux, and started our Normandy tour.

The First Day was the American Day.

As usual, we laid flowers with our French friends on the graves of B-24 TROUBLE crewmembers. The staff at the American cemetery is always so kind as to bring us out with a small golf cart, a pail full of Omaha Beach sand, and a wet sponge. As our escort filled in the engraved names with the sand and carefully wiped away the excess, the sunlight turned the sand into gold, gleaming against the white marble. Arnaud and I laid the flowers down together, and Graham and Charley honored our men with salutes.

When we had fulfilled our solemn and heartfelt obligation, we drove nearly an hour towards Utah Beach, out to a field in the country where we could watch young paratroopers from America, England, Germany and France jump from airplanes into nearby meadows. We then joined them in Ste. Mere Eglise under the hot sun.

In the British sector, there are commemorations, ceremonies, and remembrance.  In the American sector, we have those.  But it also gets a little wild here. Ste. Mere Eglise unleashes a massive party, including the reenactors camped out nearby.  The city blocks off the entrances to the center square, smoke from roasting meat rises from restaurant stands arrayed around the church, and parking demands creativity and imagination. We finally found a spot almost a kilometer away from the center of town, but neither Charley nor Graham would consent to be pushed in the wheelchair. As we made our way laboriously towards the town, a boisterous crowd grew.  Scouts found us and brought us to our HQ, a table outside the Spot Bar held by our Belgian friends. To refresh ourselves after our march, we partook of adult beverages and chatted with new British friends while watching paratroopers flirt with pretty girls.  I wondered for a while if it might all be too much for the veterans, but they fed on the energy, especially Charley, who was in his element.  Inside the bar, an American veteran reigned supreme, surrounded by a group of enthralled young American servicemen.

After everyone was sufficiently quenched and fed, several authentic WWII running Sherman tanks and other era vehicles pushed through the streets. Such a scene would be unimaginable in the US, where safety regulations, police cordons, and other litigation-avoiding precautions would prevent people from reaching out and touching the tanks.  Not so in France, where you can experience these beasts up close and personally. The crowds were so packed, we smelled them and heard them, but we could barely see them or get near them for the cheering masses on all sides.

While attendance at events in the British sector seems to be waning, the numbers of people coming to the American sector for D-Day is exploding. Call it the Band-of-Brothers Effect if you will, but 16 years after the release of the mini-series the enthusiasm, gratitude, and appreciation only seem to be increasing.  The mood is invigorating, to put it mildly. Even though we possess a dislike of crowds and a certain amount of faint cynicism, we were swept away and thrilled by the moment despite ourselves.

This was pure, unbridled basking in the glory, and none of us could resist it, not Graham, and certainly not Charley.

We slowly made our way back to the car, and to a restaurant on Omaha Beach for dinner. Later at our lovely hotel, as I descended into sleep, I wondered if we would be back next year.  If we do go, we may decide to stay in the American sector instead of Bayeux.

The 93-year-olds want to be where the action is.

Sending you much love,

Heather

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Sacred Journey



Dearest Old Bolds, Friends, and Family,

It’s been over a week since I left the US, and it’s been a joyful whirlwind.  I took some time in England for important visits.  The journey took me along to Birmingham, where I visited the last living Sherwood Ranger who fought against Charley in Africa.  Graham Stevenson was sixteen when he joined up (he was 6’3” – he lied, and they believed him).  He fought in Africa from the tender age of seventeen onwards until it ended there in 1943 when he was a much-older-than-his-years nineteen.  Shortly after the D-Day invasion, he was machine-gunned by some Germans while doing a reconnaissance in the hedgerows of Normandy and never returned to the war.

While I was in England, Graham and I visited Cannock Chase, the largest German military cemetery in the country. Here rest German airmen and naval personnel killed over the UK or in UK waters during both World Wars, including Zeppelin crews of World War I.  It is a beautiful place, maybe one of the only German military cemeteries I have visited which can be described as lovely.  It hides tucked away behind an English military cemetery down a tiny country road in the Midlands.  Lush grass covers the rolling hills like a carpet, and the surrounding trees are filled with a variety of song birds who fill the place with a country English perfectitude. There are no airplanes overhead, no motorways or traffic nearby, no houses or buildings in sight. We were cast off from our inane daily lives.

There were no other living humans here, but it was not lonely.  A slight breeze whispered peacefully to us as we overlooked so many young men who had been forced to give their lives in a war not of their making.  Graham holds absolutely no enmity against those who bombed and attacked his country, nor for those who tried to kill him in Normandy.  “They had a job to do, just like I did.” He wanted to make sure that I’d gotten it right. There are some Germans buried in lonely places that go to his account. Coming here allows him to remember them as the humans they were: brothers, fathers, husbands, sons.

During my visit, Graham sadly explained that his plans to join us in Normandy for the D-Day celebrations this year had been cancelled by those who had promised to bring him.  It seems he was too much of a burden to them as he is now – slow, hard of hearing, using a cane and a wheelchair.  He cannot stand long, his old legs don’t hold up so well anymore.  But the soul of that young man who fought and nearly died for his country – to save the world really – still inhabits his aging body.  For him, the annual pilgrimage as a Sherwood Ranger to Normandy is sacred.  As long as his body moves, he must go.  As long as air still fills his lungs, he must represent the men who fought and died alongside him.  As long as his heart still beats, his friends – his comrades – shall never be forgotten. To be left behind, alone at home, is the cruelest of all deeds.

This year a new plaque will be dedicated at Gold Beach to him and those who fought with him – the World War II Sherwood Rangers – to liberate Normandy. For months, Graham looked forward to the ceremony and feast.  He needed to be there.  We decided to make it happen.  We offered to take Graham with us, and to our joy, he accepted. Now, with two World War II veterans with me, I am clearly the one who has gained an immense treasure.

The last several days have been spent in a flurry making flight and hotel reservations for Graham, changes to our schedule in order to pick him up from the airport in Paris, and dry runs on the creative packing of a rental car to ensure we three, our luggage, and the wheelchairs and walkers will all fit.

A tremendous present has been bestowed upon Charley and me. It is an incredible honor to enable and accompany a worthy hero as he takes the honor due him and his fallen comrades.  The ability to spend days on end with Graham, to travel together, to escort him to Gold Beach, to Bayeux, to the place where he was wounded in Tilly-sur-Seulles – it is like a dream come true for us.  And we can’t wait.

The journey from Germany into Belgium has already started.  Today we landed in Ypres and tomorrow we have a WWI battlefield tour here.  Then we’re on to Dunkirk, Calais, Dieppe, and Paris, to pick up Graham.

There’ll be more later.  Until then, with love,

heather

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Separating the Truth from Fiction



We’ve had some emails and calls recently, wondering what we’re working on and what our vision is, and I’m happy to oblige with an update.

Our goal has always been to record the combat and human stories of World War II participants in the US and around the world, so they wouldn’t die with them, and to write them as books, develop them into multi-media projects, and engage young people by using them in high school and college curriculum.

That’s why our interviews are often not just 15 or 20 minutes long, or even 60 minutes long. Some are as short as 90 minutes.  More are in-depth, and can consist of 20-30 hours of footage or more, conducted over days, months, and sometimes years. The conversations often become intensely personal, and so can be the photos, journals, letters, documentation, and first-hand accounts we scan in.

Trust is part and parcel of our work. We have developed a reputation for being scrupulously honest. Our intent has always been record the truth and present it fairly, without bias. Without this trust, we could never have gained access to the inner thoughts and lives of these veterans.

The goal has never been to post in their entirety these raw videos, photos, journals or first-hand accounts on our website, although as we process them, some of the documents and video clips will pop up over time, like bon-bons.

Trust is one of the most important reasons we’re discriminating with our posts. We are the custodians of the personal details these videos and documents often contain, and have promised to handle them sensitively and correctly.

Another is that once transcribed (a very time-consuming process in and of itself for hundreds of hours of footage), oral histories must be verified and bolstered with archival data. Memory changes over time, and exaggeration is an all-too-human failing. Even worse, we’ve discovered to our dismay that a surprising number of veterans have told us flat-out whopper fibs. Only diving deep into archival records has separated the truth from fiction.

And we refuse to publish fiction. It may be entertaining, but it does irreparable harm to those who really are honest, and whose experiences are genuinely deserving of our respect.

After months of transcribing, researching at the archives, and pouring through documents, we have had to reject four of the first five stories we wanted to publish, because archival records have proven them untrue. One is wending its way through the design process in pre-publication, and we are moving on to others.

Good, thorough research and writing is never lightning fast. It takes both time and money – in the gathering of information, the processing of it, and then in the telling of the story.

There are no shortcuts to quality and truth.

We could use your help. If you would like to assist us by donating your time or supporting us with the funds we need to continue our work, please donate here or email us at info (at) ww2historyproject.org.

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