Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 11, 2016
The French remember
A Kansan on a leisurely drive along the rural Rue du Catinat in the western part of France’s Lorraine region might feel as if he were at home. Traffic is slight and fields of tall corn line one side of the road while trees border the other.
But four miles from the village of Grand-Failly is something a Kansan will never see at home. Carved from the cornfields is a small area bordered by small bushes. In the center is a concrete star with roses growing in the middle. To the southwest is a small platform with steps and three flag poles. It is a memorial erected by the villagers in remembrance of the nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers who once lay buried where the corn now grows.
There are no grand entrance gates or welcome centers like those built by Americans at the cemeteries in Normandy, Epinal or St. Avold. But the local people remember. A plaque by the flagpoles expresses their thanks.
... These brave men made the ultimate sacrifice ... They will always have our utmost respect, admiration and remembrance.
Nearby is another plaque in French.
This past September, husband Art, fellow Kansans Brent and Charlotte Rundell and I visited the memorial. We were there because of another Kansan - Jodie Ray Lowrance.
Jodie grew up in the now vanished settlement of Midian, Kansas. His father Willie was an oil field pumper. But Jodie wanted more. He attended the nearby junior college in El Dorado. He was on the student council and played on the 1937-‘38 basketball team that won the Western division of their conference. He then went to Kansas State Agricultural College - now Kansas State University - and majored in agriculture. He apparently enjoyed singing as he was in the men’s glee club.
But farming was not in Jodie's future. By the time he graduated, World War II was raging and he joined the Army. He was stationed in Belgium during the cold December of 1944. Germany had one last chance to turn the tide of war in its favor. Mid-month, German army units emerged from the Ardennes forest, surprising American units and pushing them backward to form a large bulge in the front line. Casualties were many. Corporal Jodie Lowrance died the day before Christmas.
As the casualties mounted, the U.S. Army opened a cemetery near Grand-Failly. Jodie was buried there.
Another young man, Pennsylvanian Oliver August Simmers, died a few days after Jodie on Jan. 2, 1945. He too was buried at Grand-Failly.
Mary Simmers, devastated when she learned of her son’s death, wrote the military to ask if anyone would put flowers on his grave. Josy Simon, a young Frenchwoman from Grand-Failly, volunteered. She sent Mary pictures of the grave with fresh flowers.
And over the years, Mary and Josy became close.
That friendship continues to the current generation. Mary’s granddaughter Donna Paszek is friends with Josy’s son Guy Olivier Pernot, whose middle name was chosen to honor Mary’s son Oliver.
“Josy and my grandmother exchanged letters for years and years along with other family members,” Donna told me recently. “Unfortunately, I do not know if any of them still exist. I still have gifts sent by Josy when I was a little girl, one of which is a baby doll that is sitting on my bookcase right now.”
Josy continued putting flowers on Oliver’s grave until 1948, when the U.S. military began moving the fallen to private and national cemeteries in the United States and Europe. Oliver Simmers went home to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Jodie Lowrance returned home to El Dorado, Kansas.
To honor the men temporarily buried at Grand-Failly, Donna decided to identify them. The task, completed during the cold winter months, was emotional for her as it reminded her of the cold winter of 1944-‘45 when these men had died.
She put the information into book form and sent a copy to Olivier, asking him to present it to the town. But they would not accept it. They wanted her to attend a ceremony in October 2011 and present the book in person.
Donna couldn’t afford a trip to France, so Olivier, with the help of other townspeople, purchased airline tickets for her. Donna said:
The ceremony was really awesome. Because of the rain, the presentation and speeches were moved to the Social Hall in
Grand-Failly. Hard to describe the feeling of standing there listening to the "National Anthem" and "Taps." I was amazed at
how many people attended despite the weather.
Needless to say, it was a very important day in my life. Oliver and I are still very very close; in fact we refer to each other as brother and sister ...
... His "official" name is indeed Guy Olivier Pernot, but he has been and will forever be Oliver to all of his American "family."
... And I cannot say enough about the people of Grand-Failly. One of the reasons I wanted to do the book is because of their dedication and love of those soldiers. I think they are amazing ... We must never forget.
Art and I, in our travels in France, have found the French to be most appreciative of what the Allies did to liberate them from the Nazis. Even those who were born after the war have a reverence and respect for our fallen that touch my heart.
The French remember.
We must, too - and not just on Veterans Day.
Left top-to-bottom: Jodie Lowrance, Oliver Simmers, Mary Simmers, Josy Simon Pernot, Guy Olivier "Oliver" Pernot with Donna Paszek, right-top and right-middle: ceremony at the cemetery site, bottom-middle, Donna at ceremony with Jean-Paul Durieux, then mayor of the nearby community of Longwy and later member of the French assembly; bottom-right: star with rose bush. (Ceremony photos by Guy Olivier Pernot.)