On June 5, 1944, the eve of the largest invasion in history, General Dwight Eisenhower visited the English airfield where U.S. paratroopers were preparing to take off for their drop into France. “Quit worrying, General,” one of the soldiers told him. “We’ll take care of this thing for you.’’ The following day, 175,000 men landed on the beaches and fields of Normandy.
For children growing up in Washington, D.C., shushed into silence behind the blackout curtains while our parents bent over radios bringing the long-awaited announcement of the attack, it was all beyond comprehension--save that every little boy was climbing into a tree to pretend he was flying his Spitfire over the Channel, or parachuting into the French countryside.
At age seven, I was one of those boys. Last week I had the good fortune to meet another member of my generation, whose experience of D-Day was something quite different. His name is Pierre Bernard, and he is retired to his family’s farm in the village of Maisons, a stone’s throw from the beaches that became the site of what the French call the Débarquement. In the spring of 1944, Pierre was 12; with his parents and siblings, he worked the farm and waited for the Allied troops to arrive and free them from Nazi occupation. When that day finally came, Pierre recalls, the Germans simply vanished. British and then American troops soon passed through the village, moving quickly inland. His family was luckier than many others: Some 12,000 French civilians were killed during the battle for Normandy, along with more than 75,000 troops on both sides.
Today, long retired from his job as a cook in Paris, Pierre oversees a bed and breakfast in his old stone farmhouse. He’s never learned to use a computer, so his daughters help arrange who is to come, while Pierre, along with his two dogs, goes out each morning to bring back fresh baguettes and croissants. He serves them along with the jams and pates he makes himself, and sits quietly at the head of the family table, contentedly watching his guests eat breakfast. And he’ll gladly trades war stories with a visitor who, like himself, is too young to have fought, but old enough to remember.
Normandy today still inspires awe at the courage of the men who stormed Fortress Europe: Omaha Beach, so wide and unprotected; the cliffs of Point du Hoc, higher and steeper than I could have imagined. But by now, the genuine remnants of the war--half-buried German bunkers, wrecked ships, and thousands of well-tended graves--are far outnumbered by nostalgic renderings of the real thing: Army surplus stores are filled with Eisenhower jackets, berets, and rucksacks (many of them supplied by German companies). Towns compete for tourists--and a place in history--with tanks on their village squares and little museums dedicated to every aspect of “Jour J.” In Sainte-Mère-Église, where an American paratrooper famously got caught on the church steeple, a dummy is suspended from a parachute to commemmorate the event. Then there are the British and American visitors tearing around in rented World War II jeeps, windshields down, and even a half-ton olive drab truck. They look far too young to be veterans; too young even to have been alive at the time. The men and women who fought that war are fast disappearing (some 850 U.S. WW II vets die every day, according to the VA), and those who lived through it as children are now well into our old age.