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Preserving Veterans' Stories for Future Generations
Column published: 16 December 2006.
By: Shirley Gage Hodges Biography & Archived Articles
Preserving the stories of our veterans is something each of us should think about. If these stories are to be preserved for future generations we may be the ones who need to do something about it.
According to statistics, we have about 19 million living veterans in the United States. They say that we are loosing between 1,500 to 2000 veterans every day. Each time a veteran dies, we lose a piece of our history. Their stories are etched forever in the veterans' hearts and minds. They are something that he or she alone is capable of recounting and if we don't preserve them, they are lost forever.
Their stories are our nation's stories. They are stories from the front lines, of both great victory and sometimes defeat and discouragement. If their stories are not shared, they are forgotten and buried with the ones who lived them.
Most of us learn about wars in history books and just read the facts of what happened. If we hear the stories from the veterans we understand the feelings and the emotions of the soldiers who were there.
I would especially encourage you to think about any World War II soldiers that you might know. Most of these veterans are in their mid- to late-80s. Some have already forgotten the stories they could tell us as many suffer debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's.
I had the privilege, and I don't use that word lightly, of knowing a great gentleman who was a World War II veteran. His name was Ed Morey and he was from Eaton Co., MI. Ed was the type of individual that every community needs to have in their midst. I first met Ed when we were both appointed to the Board of Directors for the Courthouse Square Association. This is a foundation that is responsible for the preservation and rehabilitation of the 1885 courthouse in Charlotte, MI. Ed was very community spirited and was involved in so many things.
Ed asked me to help him preserve his memories of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of D-Day. He wanted to be able to share them with his family and friends. I have received permission from Ed's son, Gary Morey, to share the following story with you. I hope it will give some insight into the 50th Anniversary Celebration of D-Day and the time that it remembered.
May 31st found them arriving in Frankfurt, Germany and with the flexibility of a rented car they were off for Normandy. The trip across northern France accounted for a couple of very pleasant days and it allowed them to arrive at the landing beaches several days ahead of "The Big Show".
In Caen they learned the address of the French family who would be their host for the duration of their visit. Many French families offered the accommodation of their home to visiting WWII veterans as an expression of thanks for their help in 1944. Unfortunately most of the veterans attending were with tours where lodging was part of the package so there were many more offers than there were acceptances.
Bright and early on the morning of June 4th the Moreys were on the landing beaches watching the feverish last minute preparations. Behind the American cemetery at Colleville which is located on the high ground just above Omaha Beach a 20 story high temporary steel tower holding many TV sending antennas had been built. Miles of TV cable had been laid. The Good Morning America show was being shot on a windy platform just above the beach. Behind in the cemetery each grave was being decorated with a U.S. and a French flag. The stage on which President Clinton would soon deliver his D-Day speech had been erected and hundreds of chairs were all in place.
For many of the workmen D-Day had been just an event in history that they had given very little thought to until now. For most, it had happened before they were born. So to visit with some one who had been there was a novelty at this time since most of the veterans had not yet arrived. The WWII veteran Badge was the Key to many interesting conversations and reporter interviews. (There were a good many more news people than there were vets at this time).
The journey west to Utah Beach was by way of Pointe Du Hoc where Col. Rudder's Rangers scaled the cliffs to capture a German artillery position. One could hardly appreciate the immensity of the task without seeing the terrain. The position has been maintained essentially as it was on June 6, 1944 with the German concrete covered gun emplacements intact. One can stand inside and with a little imagination sense how the occupants on D-Day must have felt as they fired on landing ships in the harbor below and also how they must have felt when the impossible happened -- American soldiers coming over the brow of that cliff with flame throwers and explosives to over run their impregnable position. History comes alive as one stands there.
The first town in France to be taken on D-Day is located 2 kilometers inland from Utah Beach. It is Ste-Marie-Du-Mont. Activity there was much different than at the other beaches. The media was much less apparent. The town had many visitors considering its small size but most of them were veterans of the Morey's vintage, many of whom had landed on Utah Beach 50 years before. Even though they did not see any one they knew they felt like they knew every one. It was like a big family reunion with each member having his own story to tell. The comradery was a unique experience--once in a lifetime. Ed's first gun battery position in France was on the beach side of Ste-Marie-Du-Mont. He was almost able to pin point the location--not guaranteed though.
On the street out side of the only pub in town a middle aged Frenchman came up to Ed and in halting English explained that he had been a little boy when the invasion took place, but that he could remember it vividly. And then, with tears in his eyes, he said he wanted to say thanks to the Americans for what they had done. And that was followed by a heart-felt embrace. That encounter made a permanent impression.
The French sincerely appreciated our efforts in 1941! It was apparent everywhere now but it wasn't then. There were no happy crowds welcoming their liberators in 1944, but rather resentful people blaming us for the destruction of their homes and property. Not so today. Sincere expression of appreciation abounded.
In the pub which was filled beyond capacity with Utah Beach veterans, the air was charged with the excitement of reliving the experiences of 50 years ago. An elderly well-dressed Frenchman asked Grace if Ed had landed there in 1944. When the conversation allowed an interruption, he asked Ed to accompany him to his car where he presented him with an engraved bottle of very expensive liquor--another "thank you" to the Americans.
By June 5th the crowds in Normandy were immense. The most important event that day was the paratrooper jump at Ste-Mere-Eglise. To get there it was necessary to park 6 kilometers out of town along a side road. After the walk to town, it was discovered that the drop zone was 4 more KM beyond and located in a muddy pasture--deep mud. The experience of that afternoon was much more dear for the effort it took to get there. The sight of 180 paratroopers in air was spectacular. And they landed almost in the crowds of spectators. After the drop the airplanes made a low pass over the field which was truly spine tingling.
That evening, Ste-Mere-Eglise was filled with the same kind of goodwill and comradeship as experienced before only on a much larger scale and spiced with bands playing and semi-parades down over- filled streets. Unfortunately, the Moreys had to leave before the excitement had run its Course because they had an appointment for dinner sponsored by the Pierre Lefevre family, their French hosts. The dinner was a unique experience and well worth leaving early for.
The 6th of June 1994, D-Day Anniversary that had been planned for several years, dawned with a heavy overcast and a threat of rain. The Moreys had planned to attend the international ceremony at Omaha Beach. To get there, it was necessary to drive to a city several miles from the beach and there board a bus to the ceremony. Because of the crowds, no private cars were allowed. They arrived at 10 AM for a program scheduled for afternoon. This afforded them excellent seats near the stage that would later be occupied by most of the Heads of State of Europe and the United States and Canada. The arrival of Queen Elizabeth, Lech Walensa, President Mitterrand and President Clinton, to name but a few, was as interesting as the ceremony. Mr. Clinton came in from a carrier located out in the bay in easy view of the stands. He looked very uncomfortable that day. John Majors of Great Britain on the other hand was having a great time. He looked like a man one couldn't help but like. The ceremony went as well as it had been planned and that threat of rain remained only a threat.
Ed's battery had occupied a position north of St Lo in the small town of Ste-Clair-Sur-Elli. During the week in Normandy they had gone there to see if they could locate that gun position. While making inquiry they talked to a person who had been coordinating the plans for an area-wide honorary banquet for the 29th Division which had been active in the area. An invitation to attend was offered even though Ed had not been in the 29th. The party was scheduled for June 8th and over 700 hundred tickets had been sold to local residents and 400 29th Division vets were expected. They decided to go to the party.
About noon on the 8th the Moreys arrived in St. Clair expecting to get a room in the only hotel in town. Upon inquiring at the desk they were told to wait a moment while the desk clerk left the hotel to check on something. Minutes later an out-of-breath man arrived bidding them to follow him. Another host family was offering the accommodation of their home to some visiting Americans!
About dinner time ten busses arrived in St. Clair with at least 400 representatives of the 29th Division. Soon an 1100 plate dinner was in the process of being served. The vets were tired since they had been partying for three days at just such affairs as this. As soon as dinner was over and the band began to play the busses were ready to move--the 29th had another appointment, they hoped with a bed. This left 700 St. Clair residents and the Moreys to celebrate the 50th anniversary of France's liberation. The party which lasted until 2AM was spectacular and being the honored guests at such a gala affair was not unpleasant either.
For Ed and Grace Morey the whole experience of the 50th Anniversary of D-Day was far more gratifying than they had ever expected. The coordination of the many events, of which only a tiny portion have been recounted here, was a mammoth job superbly performed. The French have said, "Thank-you" in a resounding way."
The Veterans History Project web site, contains a "project kit" that includes everything individuals and groups need to begin recording the memories of "the greatest generation" and all other Americans who have defended our nation and its most cherished ideals.
Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email: email@example.com
Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930
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