70 Years On, A Normandy Village Honors Aging WWII Veterans

70 Years On, A Normandy Village Honors Aging WWII Veterans

1:19pm Jun 05, 2014
Lucien (left) and Germaine Rigault lean out of their home in La Cambe, a tiny village in Normandy a short distance from Omaha Beach. The couple, in their 80s, were in La Cambe during the Allied landing on June 6, 1944, and live there still. "We were scare
Lucien (left) and Germaine Rigault lean out of their home in La Cambe, a tiny village in Normandy a short distance from Omaha Beach. The couple, in their 80s, were in La Cambe during the Allied landing on June 6, 1944, and live there still. "We were scare
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
  • Lucien (left) and Germaine Rigault lean out of their home in La Cambe, a tiny village in Normandy a short distance from Omaha Beach. The couple, in their 80s, were in La Cambe during the Allied landing on June 6, 1944, and live there still. "We were scare

    Lucien (left) and Germaine Rigault lean out of their home in La Cambe, a tiny village in Normandy a short distance from Omaha Beach. The couple, in their 80s, were in La Cambe during the Allied landing on June 6, 1944, and live there still. "We were scare

    Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

  • A group of children in La Cambe wave French and American flags at the unveiling of a plaque honoring the U.S. troops who liberated the village.

    A group of children in La Cambe wave French and American flags at the unveiling of a plaque honoring the U.S. troops who liberated the village.

    Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

Germaine and Lucien Rigault, 86 and 89 years old, respectively, lean out their first-floor window, watching people go by. They were here in the tiny French hamlet of La Cambe on June 6, 1944, the day the Allies invaded Normandy and began the liberation of France and Europe from Nazi control during World War II.

"I remember June 6 very well. We saw the first planes bombing and we knew something was happening on the coast. And soon we began seeing American soldiers," he recalled. "We were scared, but very happy to be liberated. I was working as a forced laborer then, building bunkers for the Nazis along the coast."

They married a year after the war, and never left.

La Cambe is about 10 miles inland from Omaha Beach, the American beach, and one of the five places where the Allies landed on D-Day. La Cambe celebrated Thursday, a day in advance of the formal anniversary, by unveiling a plaque in honor of the men who liberated it 70 years ago.

A crowd gathered and a band played amid streamers and banners. A group of children waved French and American flags. A bus pulled up, and American World War II veterans began getting out.

U.S. World War II veteran Arden C. Earll, 89, of Erie, Pa., landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, with the 29th Infantry Division. A crowd applauds as he arrives at a ceremony in honor of the division Wednesday in La Cambe, France, as part of the commemoration of the 70th D-Day anniversary.

U.S. World War II veteran Arden C. Earll, 89, of Erie, Pa., landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, with the 29th Infantry Division. A crowd applauds as he arrives at a ceremony in honor of the division Wednesday in La Cambe, France, as part of the commemoration of the 70th D-Day anniversary.

Claude Paris/AP

People clapped as the veterans disembarked and made their way up the street of the little village. Many had trouble walking and needed canes. They were all being assisted. One veteran was in a wheelchair. But they all made it.

The group included James Kunkle, 91, who was part of the 401st Fighter Squadron that patrolled the skies during the invasion to protect the troops landing on the beaches below.

"We unveiled a little monument out there at the airport this morning," he said. "It's really emotional."

Kunkle took off and landed from the farm of a French family for several weeks during that summer of 1944. I asked if he's still in contact with them.

"I'm staying with them," he said, laughing. "They're right over here."

A group of children in La Cambe wave French and American flags at the unveiling of a plaque honoring the U.S. troops who liberated the village.

A group of children in La Cambe wave French and American flags at the unveiling of a plaque honoring the U.S. troops who liberated the village.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

It was Dominique LeGrand's grandmother who met Kunkle in 1944.

"Jim is part of our family," LeGrand said, chuckling as well. "He's like our grandfather. It's very emotional."

LeGrand's laughter can't hide the tears streaming down his cheeks. He has brought his 12-year-old son to take part in the ceremony — passing the friendship down another generation.

Other children were there, too. Max Van Dorn, 11, came from California. It was his first visit to Normandy, a trip he described as "awesome."

"I'm wearing a 101st Airborne outfit," he said proudly, referring to the paratroopers who jumped into Normandy on D-Day.

Max's father, Ted, came to the 60th anniversary and vowed he'd bring his children back to the 70th.

"On the 60th, there were quite a few of the veterans who were here, and this year I think there'll be a little less. But they're still here. For the 80th, I don't think so," the elder Van Dorn says. "So this is the last time that there'll be a big anniversary, and we'll be able to meet these guys, so that was important."

American Don McCarthy, 90, fought with the 116th Infantry in the second assault wave on Omaha Beach that morning of June 6. McCarthy says he's been back 11 times. He says it's the only way to erase the horrors of that day.

"If you want to get through it and live through it and see it to its end, you gotta go back to where it was. You gotta put your feet in the water. You gotta crawl in the sand," he said. "And then you'll be alright. And I have."

As the village children helped unveil a plaque to the 29th U.S. Infantry Division, which rolled into La Cambe on June 8, 1944, everyone seemed acutely aware that this might be the last gathering to include the liberators and those they liberated.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene, good morning. Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, that began the liberation of France and Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Heads of state from across Europe and North America will gather for the official ceremonies. Smaller celebrations and remembrances are taking place in villages across Normandy. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Normandy and she sent us this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The tiny hamlet of La Combe lies about 10 miles inland, behind Omaha Beach. That was the American beach and one of the five places where the Allies landed on D-Day. Today, there's a celebration. The town is unveiling a plaque in honor of the men who liberated it 70 years ago.

GERMAINE RIGAULT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Eighty-six and 89-year-old Germaine and Lucien Rigault lean out of the first floor window, watching people go by. They were here on that June 6, they tell me. They married a year after the war and never left, says Lucien Rigault.

LUCIEN RIGAULT: (Through translator) I remember June 6 very well. We saw the first planes bombing and we knew something was happening on the coast. And soon, we began seeing American soldiers. We were scared, but very happy to be liberated. I was working as a forced laborer then, building bunkers for the Nazis, along the coast.

BEARDSLEY: A crowd has already gathered. A band is playing. There are streamers and banners. A group of children are waving French and American flags. A bus pulls up and American World War II veterans begin getting out. The ceremony's getting underway and some veterans are making it up the street of the little village.

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: People are clapping, as they come out of a bus. many are having trouble walking, carrying canes. They're all being assisted. One veteran's in a wheelchair. But they made it. One of them is 91-year-old James Kunkle, who was part of 401st fighter squadron that patrolled the skies during the invasion to protect the troops, landing on the beaches below.

JAMES KUNKLE: We unveil the little monument out there, at the airport, this morning. And the people were just - it's really emotional.

BEARDSLEY: Kunkle took off and landed from the farm of a French family for several weeks, during that summer of 1944. I ask if he's still in contact with them.

KUNKLE: I'm staying with them. (Laughing) They're right over here, someplace.

BEARDSLEY: It was Dominique LeGrande's grandmother who met Kunkle in 1944.

DOMINIQUE LEGRANDE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Jim is part of our family, he says. He's like our grandfather. It's very emotional.

(LAUGHTER)

BEARDSLEY: LeGrande's laughter can't hide the tears streaming down his cheeks. He's brought his 12-year-old son out to take part in the ceremony, passing the friendship down another generation. There are other children here. Eleven-year-old Max Van Dorn has come from California.

MAX VAN DORN: I'm wearing 101st Airborne outfit.

BEARDSLEY: And who were they? What did they do?

M. VAN DORN: They were and paratroopers that jumped into Normandy.

BEARDSLEY: Is this your first time here to Normandy? What do you think about it?

M. VAN DORN: I think it's awesome.

BEARDSLEY: Max's father Ted came to the 60th anniversary and vowed he'd bring his children back to the 70th.

TED VAN DORN: On the 60th, there were quite a few of the veterans here. And this year, I think there'll a little less but they're still here. For the 80th? I don't think so. So this is the last time that there will be a big anniversary and we'll be able to meet these guys. So that was important.

BEARDSLEY: Ninety-year-old Don McCarthy fought with 116th infantry in the second assault wave on Omaha Beach, that morning of June 6. McCarthy says he's been back 11 times. He says, it's the only way to erase the horrors of that day.

DON MCCARTHY: If you want to get through it and live through it and see it to its end, you go back. You got to go back to where it was. You got to put your feet in the water. You've got to crawl on the sand. You've got to go the whole nine yards and then you'll be all right. And I am.

BEARDSLEY: As the village children help unveil a plaque to the 29th U.S. Infantry Division, which rolled into La Combe on June 8, 1944, everyone here seems acutely aware that this may be the last gathering to include the liberators and those they liberated. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, La Combe, Normandy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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