Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 13, 2005

We won't forget

In the spring of 1995, a wedding invitation arrived from our friend Jan in England. We had kidded her that if she ever married again, we'd be there. But we knew her invitation was more of an announcement than an expectation we'd attend.

Then late in March of that same year, a company Art was doing business with needed him to go to France to meet with one of their business partners. I called a travel agent and within a day we had tickets. Our plan was to arrive in London on May 5, drive to our friends' Tom and Freda's home in Wales and then surprise Jan and Malcolm at the wedding the next day. Then we'd spend a few more days with Tom and Freda before leaving for France.

In the whirlwind of planning, it had escaped our notice that the following Monday - May 8 - was no ordinary day. Not only was it the anniversary of V-E Day - Victory in Europe - it was the 50th anniversary.

But the folks around Tom and Freda's little village hadn't forgotten. There was a large fair scheduled in the city commons for Sunday afternoon preceded by a parade. Part of the festivities were to be presided over by Lady Myddleton, the last in a long line of Myddletons, a family who once held sway over the area and miles beyond.

On the way to the fair, we passed the preparations for the bonfire to be lit that evening. It was no random collection of combustibles, but a carefully-constructed pyramid of large wood boards that reached 30 feet into the Welsh sky. That night was cool, but the bonfire and the people singing songs such as the "White Cliffs of Dover" warmed us.

Earlier in the day, Art asked Tom what he had done in the war.

"I wanted to go," he answered, "but a few years earlier I had taken work as a coal miner. When the war began, coal mining was designated a defense industry and we were not allowed to leave the mines."

On Monday evening, all four of us sat in front of the television and watched the fireworks and other merrymaking taking place in London, including a speech by the queen. I'm not sure why, but those celebrations touched me more than any at home where V-E day can pass entirely unnoticed. Perhaps it was because when the Germans surrendered, it meant little more to Americans than they could then turn their attention entirely to the Japanese conflict.

But somehow it seemed more than that. Yes, our men were in the war and it's questionable whether the Allies could have won without our effort. But we weren't having our cities bombed. Citizens weren't being killed in their homes. We were a worried nation, but most of our citizens weren't wondering when it was over if our country would still exist as Britains were wondering about theirs.

Yet however emotional that experience was, it was nothing like what was to come. In France we stayed in the village of Bayeux. Our French friend Bruno suggested before we left that we would enjoy our stay because the people in that area had never forgotten the sacrifices of the Allied forces.

What we didn't realize was that Bayeux was the first town of any size liberated after D-Day in Normandy. It was only a few kilometers south of Omaha and Utah beaches where the landings began.

And Bruno was right. In window after shop window there were American flags on display with the words "Thanks to our liberators" written in English.

After Art completed his business, we visited the American cemeteries and a rather neglected one that was the final resting place for some of Germany's young men. We walked the beaches and wandered through the deserted gun fortifications high above them that the Germans hoped would keep an attacking armada at bay.

On another day, we stopped in St. Mere Eglise where American paratroopers touched down the night before the assault. We wandered the countryside where every few kilometers there were markers relating what had happened there almost 51 years earlier. Many were accompanied by a cemetery. We spent the better part of another day in the battle museum at Bayeux.

Ten years have now passed since that trip. Jan's marriage didn't work out. Lady Myddleton is gone and the family's castle has now passed to the National Trust, a monument to a now-gone age in Britain. And like so many others who contributed to the war effort, our dear friend Tom has passed on as well.

But events that led to an unexpected trip left an indelible imprint on my heart. We went expecting to help a friend celebrate her wedding and to wander a bit of the English and Welsh countryside. But instead we left with an appreciation of what happened that no newsreel footage or history book could convey.

St. Mere Eglise memorial to American paratroopers who landed near the village.

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