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The Meaning of Normandy


As time proceeds, memories diminish, and the significance ebbs into oblivion. Occasional bursts of remembrance may capture a moment in time and permit some symbolic gesture of recognition for an event that occurred 70 years ago: the Normandy invasion. Presidents, prime ministers, royalty and a panoply of civilization will assemble on the week of June 6 to commemorate that profoundly historic event and pledge fealty to its spirit and sacrifice. The beaches will be serenaded by bands, banners, pomp and circumstance. Speeches will be made by elected and appointed leaders of nations, recounting the events and their meanings. Then, as quickly as they assembled, the crowds will disappear and the events they came to commemorate will drift with the tide. But the real meaning of Normandy and what happened there on June 6, 1944, will live on in the rural towns and villages of the Cotentin Peninsula, where the invasion is more than an annual date to circle on the calendar. Such a place is Hemevez.

Hemevez is a small, obscure farm town near the more populated city of Picauville. One would need an acute desire to visit and a great sense of navigation, or be hopelessly lost, to encounter it. Yet on the slight high ground of the village center resides what inhabitants believe Normandy and the invasion was all about.

The hill is dominated by a small church and a copse of trees. The church is encircled by a graveyard several hundred years old and monuments to the various wars that the men of Hemevez have fought. The monuments are near an open farm field and gathered together, much like the gravestones of the past. On one edge, in an open, sunny place, is a particularly unique marker of polished black granite with gold letters. Unlike the others, it is not an obelisk but a rectangle. There are words and names incised on it and lettered in gold. A small gravel walkway leads from the church to the front of this monument. It truly stands alone among the others. It is treated as such.

Across the top are simple words in French: “In Remembrance of the Fallen Soldiers 6 June 1944.” Under that are seven names, all members of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. On the night of June 6, 1944, 14 soldiers of Headquarters, 1st Battalion, 507th PIR were misdropped over the small village of Hemevez at around 0240, and seven were captured by the local German unit. On the back of the monument is another message, also in French:

In memory of the 7 American Parachutists of the 82nd Airborne Division who were executed in the vicinity of this community 6 June 1944

The seven captured men were lined up and shot in a field near the church. The villagers buried them within the grounds and later, as the Allies cleared the area, repatriated the bodies. The villagers, however, did not forget the seven or what they signified. They built the monument in their memory, and each year, during the anniversary period, the entire village gathers in the churchyard and remembers those teenagers of long ago and what they meant for their grandparents, for them, and for succeeding generations.

This is not a contrived event. Hemevez is as obscure as a distant rural French village can be.  No one remarkable, French or American, appears there except on the rarest of occasions, and then it’s often by chance. This is not important to the village. The residents know why they assemble and why it matters.

The sun peaks over the roof of the church. Next to the monument, the mayor takes his place. A farmer by trade, he is wearing his best and only suit and tie, with a stained shirt and shoes still muddy with the residue of his livelihood. The prefect of the church has an old CD player. Next to them, in line, are the local historical representatives of the French Resistance, Army units and Foreign Legion, with their flags. They are humbly dressed, like the mayor.  

Any attendees not from the village are brought forward to a place of honor. The mayor begins by playing the U.S. national anthem from a CD, a somewhat broken and stuttering reproduction. He then plays “La Marseillaise.” Every citizen, as is the French custom – including the flag bearers – sings lustily and with emphasis. At the conclusion, donkeys in the adjacent field begin to bray, lending a concluding chorus to the affair.

The mayor signals for the CD to be stopped and, ignoring the braying, quietly recounts the events of that night so long ago. The villagers stand mute, thinking about the words that describe what happened. The mayor pauses and begins again.

He quietly reads each name graven in gold:
Pfc Elsworth M. HECK
Pvt Anthony J. HITZTALER
Pvt Andrew W. KLING
Pvt Delmar C. McELHANEY
Pfc Daniel B. TILLMAN
Pvt Robert G. WATSON
Pvt Robert E. WERNER

At the conclusion of each name’s reading, villagers firmly voice in unison, “Mort por la France.” After the seventh name is read, the mayor turns to the village priest, who prays. Most of the residents cross themselves, turn quietly and depart. Some linger and drop flowers by the monument. The cattle peer through the wire as the ceremony closes. The donkeys feed in the tall grass, and the sun settles behind the church.

Every year, the village repeats this ceremony.  Every year, they repeat the names and remember what they mean, in a part of Normandy unseen by the thousands who come each year and never happen upon Hemevez. Being seen is not important to the village. They know why they come together and why they always will. 

Retired U.S. Army Col. Keith Nightingale is a military history writer and frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.

 

Deborah Barker

December 6, 2014 - 12:42pm

I want to thank you for telling the story of the 7 paratroopers that was executed in Hemevez. My uncle was PFC Elsworth Heck. My parents has put up at plaque in West Virgina that a replca of the one that
is in Hemevez. Elsworth was my mother brother. We just found out the true story of what actually happened back in the summer of 2010.

Mark Albertson

June 12, 2014 - 4:49pm

As Americans, we miss the true strategic significance of the Normandy landings; for June 6, 1944 is not the turning point we understand it to be. In 1944, 156,000 Allied troops landed at Normandy on a front 50 to 60 miles wide. But Operation Bagration on the Eastern Front, launched June 22, 1944, was an attack featuring 2,500,000 men on a front 450 mile wide, later broadened to 650 miles. This tore the guts out of German Army Group Center, put the Soviets into Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Rumania. By August 28, the Red Army was only 350 miles from Berlin. Bagration is what killed the German Army in 1944. But the question remains, just what is essence of Normandy?

Agreements aside, do you trust Stalin to stop at Berlin and Prague in 1945? Picture how the Cold war would have been if Soviet tanks had made it to the Channel. By landing at Normandy, American, British, Canadian and Free French troops not only risked life and limb to serve Hitler his eviction notice from France and the Low Countries, they also won the first big battle of the Cold War. This is the true essence of Normandy.

SAM DUKE

June 11, 2014 - 12:05pm

MR.Nightingale SIR: thank you SIR: that was a great article!
SAM Duke 101 Airborne(NAM 1967/68/69) THANK YOU SIR!!!

Joseph Naporac

May 29, 2014 - 7:42pm

The Meaning of Normandy – The Rest of the Story

In the June 2014 issue of The American Legion magazine, Retired Colonel Keith Nightingale discusses a small French village and their remembrance of seven American parachutists killed by the Germans on D-Day (06 June 1944). The entire moving story left an impression on me being a parachutist and retired Army officer, too. One line especially grabbed my attention, “…the entire village gathers in the churchyard and remembers those teenagers…” That statement is not accurate; the youngest was 20, the others were 22, 24, 25, 27, and the oldest two were 31. Six were single and one was married. Two were born in California, one in New York, and the others were born in Louisiana, North Carolina, and West Virginia. For their highest level of education: four attended Grammar school, one finished 9th grade, one finished high school, and the 31 year old from West Virginia attended one year of college. Some of their remains were returned to the USA and some of them are still in France. Their unit, the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment has 130 members still in France according to the American Battle Monuments Commission web site – and everyone has a story.

From a speech that I gave at Maddingley American Cemetery at Cambridge, England:

It is indeed an honor to be here on this little piece of land which represents the United States of America. All of America is represented here – there are headstones from each state and territory, representing all races, religions, and backgrounds. From cities, from farms, from small communities they all came. They set down their farm rake, their office typewriter, their tools, their text books and put on boots, and picked up rifles or other tools of war, including medical instruments. They put their lives on hold for a few years. They left their family, their wives, husbands, children, brothers and sisters, girl-friends, boy-friends, or their pet dog. Many left all that they knew – leaving their small town for the first time in their lives. Young men from Montana – hundreds of miles from an ocean – joined the Navy and sailed halfway around the world, for example. They did this because it was the right thing to do. They had the support of the entire USA behind them. Everyone supported the war effort. Perhaps that would have been different if there were embedded reporters and live television coverage each night. The war for the USA officially started on December 7th, 1941, however some citizens went to Canada or to China to serve before the Declaration of War by Congress on December 8th. The war in 1942 was not going well, the Philippines fell to Japan along with other islands in the Pacific. There were over 35,000 America casualties that year. Today perhaps, there would be voices that the cause was lost at that point, that it would be time to bring all the soldiers home, that it was not worth it. I suspect that if the people buried here could talk, they would disagree. They were part of the greatest generation and their blood, sweat, and tears helped bring freedom back to the world. Was everything perfect? No, but their sacrifices made it possible for us to be here today.
So we are here to remember these brave men and women, from all walks of life. Today, the word hero is overused. Today, our heroes are sports figures and rock stars. The real heroes are right here – they never made it back. We should never forget that Freedom is not free.

Barry Fox

May 26, 2014 - 6:47pm

My wife and I were in Normandy last October, our tour guide was a 27 year old male who grew up in St. Lo he told us that while the perception is most French people don't like American that is true in other parts of France. In the Norman area of France, Americans are beloved for what our Fathers and Grandfathers did there to liberate the French people. You could hear it in his voice and see it his eyes that he wasn't just mouthing the words he said to us, they were so heartfelt, said with such raw emotion, it made me even more proud if that is possible to be an American.

sharkey

May 26, 2014 - 6:30pm

To gain a full perspective of the D-Day landings at all 6 beaches I recommend The Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson currently out for sale. While it is a lot of reading for those truly interested in gaining a full and complete understanding of what the landings mean. The fact is that nearly 10,000 Americans died there on the beaches but more than 16,000,000 Americans tramped from there to Berlin and we often do not realize what a sacrifice those solders made. My own son, now 36 doesn't really understand it so I constantly bring these events to his attention. I too will visit Hemevez and as many of the other WWII sites which honor all the Allied men and women who died freeing the people of Europe. They didn't want to die but they were willing to try to help and they did. God Bless them all.

keith nightingale

May 23, 2014 - 1:40pm

I am sure the folks there would love to have you visit. It is pretty close to Montebourg-due west from Utah.

Allen Groff

May 22, 2014 - 4:12pm

So heartening to hear of continued appreciation for a heart-shattering event of history.

COL John F. Rudman, USA (ret)

May 21, 2014 - 6:54pm

I am going to Normandy in July after dedicating a plaque for my father and his unit in Seaton, England on 13 July. This village is about 10.3 miles from St Mere Eglise. I would love to go there and thank them on behalf of all America and present them with a flag. Can you give me a POC there to talk to? I am using Overlord tours for my Normandy venture of Utah Beach and they are concerned that the folks might shy away from any publicity or acknowledgement. Need help on this and guidance. Thanks

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