Normandy France brings many memories to those who fought in WWII. It was horrific and yet the beginning of victory over the invading and occupying German Armies. I want to share a piece of history from my own experiences there.
In 1967 I lived in Orleans, France for several months between my sophomore and junior years in college. I was fortunate to have a job as a bank cashier at Caisse d’Epargne in Orleans. I received this opportunity ironically through the friendship and connections of a German foreign exchange student who had stayed at our home in Milwaukee. There I lived in an ancient 16th century home called a “Hotel Particulier.” The five story stone house was on a narrow 12-foot wide street in the old town across from a House of Pleasure. The latter is beside the point, except for a connection to WWII and the story I want to share. It turned out that my 4th story bedroom window was opposite that of several prostitutes. Although I never walked across the street, scouts honor, I had many long conversations with the girls to help improve my conversational French.
The American Army occupied France from 1945 right up to just weeks before I arrived in France. President Charles DE Galle did not want us there and kicked out the U.S. Army troops in 1967. This was a blow to the local economy in many ways I found out, particularly for the “working girls” across the street. They had little traffic anymore and had lots of time to talk of the many generous Americans they met.
The President of the bank where I worked came from Normandy where his father still lived in their ancestral home. He invited me for a weekend to visit Normandy, which was an incredible experience. We stayed in his father’s house that it turns out was taken over as the German Army Headquarters for the Normandy invasion. It was a beautiful grey brick home of perhaps 6 bedrooms. I stayed in one with Louis XVIV period furniture. After supper, M. Bouis, the owner, told me his story of the war. He pointed out a large pine tree in the backyard with an unexploded artillery shell still visibly stuck in it. He told of how they had to flee the house. He had had just enough time to hide valuables in a trapdoor cellar under an oriental rug in the study where we were sitting. He lifted this same rug and the trapdoor. We proceeded down the ladder into darkness with a flashlight. I joined him there in an ancient and dusty wine cellar. There he pulled a dust-covered bottle off the rack. He said it was a bottle of Calvados (apple brandy) bottled from his orchards in 1942 before the Normandy invasion. He had been keeping it for an occasion of meeting an American whom he could toast and thank for their liberation.
It was a very moving experience to toast the 120 proof clear yellow Calvados together. I told him of my own father’s Army service with the 32nd Division, fighting Rommel up through Africa into Italy, where he was seriously wounded at Monte Casino. There was a camaraderie established with this 85-year-old man that stays with me today. I did not find many other thankful French, and only did when I told them I was French Canadian, therefore explaining my somewhat strange accent. However, I will say, by this time in my stay I was quite fluent, even dreaming in French.
We walked the vast white graveyard crosses of Normandy sharing the awe of sacrifice together. More toasts and thanks came as he introduced me to people in a restaurant as the son of a Liberator.