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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My Personal Tribute to WW2 Heroes

(Photograph from www.thisnation.com )

My apologies for not updating the blogs, lately.

It is safe to say that I probably won't get near the computer until the week is over because PBS is broadcasting an incredible documentary from Ken Burns about WW2, called The War, every night this week, and I just can't get away from the TV. Yes, I could tape it, but I won't.

I've heard a lot about WW2 when I was a kid, growing up in France, and not just in the media or history books.

For example, at home, if we complained about not having the latest gadget the kid down the block might have brought to school for show and tell, or not liking what was on our plate for dinner, my mother would invariably respond: "During the War, we didn't have anything at all!"

In fact, we heard that sentence so much, at home, that any time my mother started saying "During the War ..." we looked at each other and our eyes would start rolling up. Yet, we *were* incredibly privileged for growing up in peace time.

I believe it was my mother's idea that we should visit Omaha Beach, and we did that apparently when I was very young. My brother was not with us yet, so I couldn't have been not much older than 7 years old, at most.

Usually, going to the beach was a happy event, and as soon as I knew we were out of the immediate surroundings of Paris, I'd start asking my parents from the back of the car - every half an hour at first, and then, as we got closer and we could practically smell the sea salt, every 5 minutes - if we were there, yet.

That trip was a little different. When we got to Omaha Beach, there was nothing fun to do or and nothing much see, except a few people walking around fully clothed with their "serious faces" on and the ruins of a couple of German pill boxes, if memory serves.

I remember not understanding why we had to stay there for what appeared to be an eternity, getting impatient, and asking if we could leave already. My mother just replied that we were there "to pay respect" and ordered us to be quiet. Something about the tone of her voice made me not want to argue too much, that time, even though I didn't quite understand what she meant or why that piece of land concerned us so much.

We eventually left Omaha Beach, drove to the next one just like it but a little smaller (Utah Beach, I think?) but it wasn't until we were driving back that I began to understand ... for we could see field, after field, after field... spotless, impeccably manicured green fields, filled with so many identical white crosses planted on the ground, lined up like little soldiers... So many young lives lost.

In the back of the car, everything was quiet for a while, while we drove past these fields.

Many people my parents' generation and older still remembered WW2 vividly when I was growing up in France. They did not necessarily talk about it and we didn't dare ask them. But it was not that long ago, and they remembered the War like it happened yesterday. There were many stories, but most of all, you could tell the emotions were still running very strong, right under the surface, for many.

If you go to France even nowadays, you will see countless memorials and tributes to the "fallen ones" practically everywhere you go, and if you look carefully, you will notice they left the original bullet holes scarring the walls of many buildings, especially in the countryside outside Paris.

After I came to the U.S., I very surprised to notice how WW2 seems almost romanticized, here, and there seems to be a huge nostalgia concerning this period of time. You have mythical Rosie the Riveter still selling a lot of memorabilia after all these years, all the glamorous movies with handsome actors and actresses, Big Band music, fashionable women's clothes ... and of course, the booming defense economy and its lasting positive impact on the US economy as a whole ... maybe that's why people look back on that era positively, I don't know. Once, an older lady even told me how "it was such a great time to live in." Hard to believe, uh?

By contrast, the series playing on PBS right now shows a more realistic picture of that period of time. It is WW2 narrated from the US point of view, of course, and it addresses different issues (such as the Japanese internment camps and segregation within the US Army) than those Europeans are more familiar with.

From the footage, you will get this if you don't know it already, and I don't know how else to say it: War is nasty shit, it just is. There is nothing glamorous, nothing positive about it, and no, it won't do for us what WW2 did for the US economy at the time. Quite the opposite, in fact, but that's not what I wanted to talk about right now.

After seeing some of these images, we really get why people who go through stuff like that can never forget it as long as they live! We probably still won't quite know how they *feel* (how could we possibly ever?) but we begin to understand what they went through a little bit better.

And we also get how much we owe these guys. We do owe them.

You know, I've met WW2 vets several times over the years, here in the US, and a couple of them have told me they went through Omaha Beach. I don't know why, but ever since I became an adult, whenever someone mentions Omaha Beach, I just want to cry.

I remember that trip, the tone in my mother's voice, but most of all, I remember the numerous, numerous crosses all over these perfect green fields. And, yes, all these years later, I feel not only a great sadness but also an immense gratitude towards all these servicemen and all the people who had to go through these hard times.

Tonight they're showing D-Day.

* * * *
Additional Resources

Check out The War

(insert links here)

Omaha Beach Today

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Anonymous V-Grrrl said...

My husband visited Normandy over Memorial Day weekend, and I didn't join him because I knew how emotionally wrenching it would be for me. I'm a little too fragile to visit battlefields; I honor the dead in my own way.

Twice my husband and children have traveled to Bastogne, Belgium, to participate in a commemorative walk honoring the memories of those who died in the Battle of the Bulge. If I remember correctly, 78,000 Americans died in the days before Christmas, defending Belgium from Germany. I think more than a 100,000 died total in that one battle.

Those numbers ASTOUND me. I can't grasp the enormity of the loss and the madness.

My mother's brother fought in the Battle of the Bulge (and survived). My father was the oldest of eight and he and all of his siblings (except one sister), served in the Navy in WWII.

My mom WAS Rosie the Riveter. She had the blue jumpsuit and everything. She and my dad met when they were both working on an aircraft assembly line at Grumman's in NY.

1:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I wrote a long comment, which pretty much turned into a diatribe against war, so I deleted it. What's the use. I guess I have mixed feelings about neat rows of white crosses to honor the dead. How do people really feel when they visit these sites?

One more thing: Republicans love to point to George Bush's steadfastness, singular vision and resolute character as a virtue. However, regarding these qualities, he had nothing on Adolph Hitler.

Oops, there I go again.

9:43 AM  
Blogger patdem said...

Félicitations pour ton post, tu as raison il faut toujours s'en souvenir, nous ne connaissons pas notre bonheur d'avoir été élévé en temps de Paix.
Désolé mais j'ai pas ton niveau pour te répondre en anglais et être compris de tous tes lecteurs.
Juste pour dire qu'après une visite de ouradour sur glane on n'en ressort également pas indemne. Je vais voir si le reportage que tu mentionnes est dispo sur le net pour me le rapatrier. Sinon j'attendrais qu'il passe en France ou sur la BBC.

4:07 AM  
Blogger Tomate Farcie said...

Vgirrrl Thank you for your visit and that heartfelt comment; you are absolutely right, the numbers are staggering and incomprehensible, and I quite agree with you, there is no need to be present on the battlefield to feel the loss.

You know, I often wondred how people like your parents felt, in 2003, when certain media started saying things like "the French have forgotten the US effort in WW2" because of France's position towards the Iraq war. The reality is that the French have NOT forgotten, nobody over there will EVER forget!

Luggi I completely understand. To tell you the truth, I had a hard time staying focused on that post and wrote a lot of things I deleted, too.

I can't speak for other people, but from a kid's viewpoint, I can tell you, looking at all these crosses is simply overwhelming because you drive, and there is more and you keep driving and there is still more and more ...

Padem Merci pour le commentaire, c'est gentil. Oui, je crois qu'il y a beaucoup de "souvenirs" comme ça un peu partout en France et bien sur, la memoire collective de tous les gens d'un certain age. Désolée, je ne pense pas traduire ce billet Français.

9:43 AM  
Blogger patdem said...

pas besoin de le traduire je comprends tout, c'est plutôt mon expression qui fait défaut

1:44 AM  
Blogger tangobaby said...

Dear Tomate Farcie,

Thank you for this heartfelt and well-written post (I've been enjoying your blog from the sidelines for a while, as both a Francophile and a SF resident).

I am in the generation whose grandparents fought in WWII. My grandfather was an MP in the Army and landed at Normandy with the invasion. Although whatever he endured was horrific, because he still will not talk about it, he has always had very kind things to say about France and the people there.

In my recent visits to France, I think that the French still are very appreciative and remember the sacrifices made by many people.

The people who do not realize this as much, I think, are the Americans of my generation. Unless they had family who participated in the war, they have no idea of what even happened. WWII is something for movies and it is not real to them. And we cannot listen to what the US media says about the French until this disasterous President leaves office. He has brainwashed an entire country against the French, who have been our oldest allies since the inception of the United States. How many Americans even know that there is a Statue of Liberty in Paris? Not many, I can tell you that. But that is another topic entirely.

Since you are living in SF, if you have not had an opportunity to visit the USS Pampanito and especially the Liberty Ship, the Jeremiah O'Brien, I think you would enjoy it. You feel the efforts and energy that the people who served.

I was fortunate enough to take the most recent cruise on the Jeremiah O'Brien (they take it out on a Bay cruise several times a year) where many of the people on board were veterans of the Navy or the Merchant Marines during the war. I was one of the youngest people aboard that day. I honestly missed most of the cruise because I spent all of my time listening to these old men, asking questions and hearing their stories, which were vivid and fascinating, and thanking them for their service. It was a proud day that I will never forget.

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Tietie007 said...

Sympa ton article, Tomate !
D'un provençal qui aime bien les tomates farcies !

9:50 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

I, too, have been watching _The War_ and will continue to do so each night until the series is over. It is sobering to see the areas in which relatives fought and sometimes died. Because I was very, very young I can't recall as much as an adult of that time might, but I do have memories of going to bus and train stations to see relatives depart "off to war." I remember rationing and the terror to a young child of blackouts. I also knew instinctively that our kindly German neighbors were hurting. I also remember how the neighborhood reacted when the war ended. And, I distinctly recall sending Care packages to relatives who still lived in Germany and France.

I wouldn't characterize the American attitude as one that we have "romanticized" though. It was a different time and our culture changed dramatically as a result of the war effort. We honour the men of WWII to a high degree--men who are now dying at the rate of 1,000 a day.

Despite the war movies I've seen since childhood the Ken Burns' series has outlined quite graphically using vintage films--actions that most of us could never imagine or envision before.

I will never understand the impulse of solving conflicts by unleashing the power of destructive weapons that kill so many innocent people. There are still and now too many diabolical people the world over of whom we should be very, very afraid.

4:37 PM  
Blogger tonton_flaneur said...

Merci tomate!! I have been watching some of the programming, but I find it difficult sometime. Like you, I grew up after the war and we really had it drilled into us, the memory was still fresh in the minds of all the adults.

My father is 85 now and he was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism at the Battle of Monte Cassino and sometimes when he speaks of it one would think it happened yesterday. He was carried out by the Moroccan soldiers that were fighting alongside the French and spent the rest of the war in a hospital in Naples. Their generation is slipping away and one day I will go to Monte Cassino and to visit the beaches of Normandie. Merci encore!

2:39 PM  
Blogger Tomate Farcie said...

My apologies for being away from the blog for so long and thank you all so much for contributing these heartfelt, deep comments.

To tell you the truth, I was a little worried about posting words about something I (and the people of my generation) know very little about, really, but I felt I had an obligation to try.

Patdem You're doing fine! Don't worry.

tangobaby Welcome and thank you for this comment! I'm glad you got an opportunity to go to France and see that for yourself.

I visited the sub on Fishermans' Wharf whith my father when came over a long time ago, but I think I will check out the O'BRIEN, that is a great idea, thank you!

By the way, your grandfathers' attitude as you describe it is pretty much exactly what I've seen whenever I meet a WW2 vet in the US. They only talk (to me) about the positive impression they brought back from France. If you say "thank you" they downplay it and say stuff like "nahhh... we did what we had to do, no big deal." Everybody knows it *was* a big deal!

Titie007: Funny name! Merci et bienvenue! Et moi j'aime la Provence, pas seulement les tomates farcies ;)

3:42 PM  
Blogger Tomate Farcie said...

Kate: Thank you so, so very much for your comment! I loved it (as I loved all the others, of course) :)

Please understand that when I say "romanticized" I am not, by any means, trying to minimize what people went through in this country. It's just a matter of perception on my end, I suppose. When I compare the French approach to the topic of the WW2 era through the movies, documentaries, etc., that I grew up with, with the US approach, the French version seems to me much more intense, somber, dark than the US version.

I believe that Ken Burns's documentary The War is kind of a first in that regard, on that particular topic, at least, and possibly that is what makes it so mesmerizing and sobering.

Of course, this is just my opinion. :)

Tonton Flaneur : Non, merci à vous! :)

4:29 PM  

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