Monday, April 9, 2012

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach

Ann and I visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach and it was certainly the most poignant part of our trip.  The cemetery covers 172 acres, and contains the remains of 9,387 American military dead, and the names of 1,557 missing in action.  Most were killed during the Normandy invasion on June 6th, 1944 and subsequent military operations in World War II.  Included are graves of Army Air Corps crews shot down over France.  The average age of those buried here is 24.  

At the center of the Memorial is a bronze statue entitled Spirit of American Youth. Facing west at the memorial in the foreground is the reflecting pool, the mall with burial areas to either side and the circular chapel in the distance.  There are more headstones beyond the chapel.

Spirit of American Youth

The names of 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign but could not be located and/or identified are inscribed on the walls of the semicircular garden at the east side of the memorial. 

I will relate several stories about service men and women who are buried here as told by our tour guide . 

Garden of the Missing
The first story is about a soldier whose name is on the wall in the Garden of the Missing - Raymond S. Hoback.  Raymond's bible was found by Cpl. H.W. Crayton wrapped in plastic on the beach where he landed on D-Day.  Raymond's address was written inside - so the Corporal, not knowing what had happened to Raymond, sent the bible back to Raymond's parents with a note cautiously stating they should know their son was safe by the time they received this package.  About a week after D-Day, the county sheriff delivered the dreaded telegram to Raymond's parents that one of their other sons, Bedford, had been killed in action.  The next day on July 16th, the doorbell rang again with a second telegram—this time informing the family that Raymond was missing in action.  Raymond's sister Lucille recalled that “My mother was overwhelmed, and my father went out to the barn to cry, just to hide his tears from us.”  At the end of the month his parents received Corporal Crayton's letter and package “from somewhere in France”, with its hopeful message.

Raymond and Bedford Hoback were from the town of Bedford, Virginia with a population of only 3,200.  Out of the thirty soldiers from the town that participated in D-Day, the Hoback brothers plus seventeen more were lost.

Raymond S. Hoback

 Not all of the casualties were men.  Elizabeth A. Richardson is one of the four women buried here.  Elizabeth volunteered to serve in the Red Cross and was assigned to a Clubmobile that provided coffee, freshly made doughnuts, chewing gum, cigarettes, magazines, newspapers, and records to GIs while they were in the field. But their real responsibility was to boost the spirits of the soldiers by chatting with them. Elizabeth wrote to her parents, "If you only knew what combat does to these boys--not in the physical sense, although that's bad enough--but mentally." The job required the women to be single, college graduates, and at least 25 years of age. They were expected to be skilled at interpersonal relations and only one in six of the applicants was selected for the Red Cross Clubmobiles.

Elizabeth Richardson

Elizabeth died on the morning of July 25, 1945 while en route from Le Havre to Paris. Both the pilot of the two seat military plane, Sgt. William R. Miller of the Ninth Air Force, and Elizabeth were killed instantly. She was only 27 yeas old.

   When Billie D. Harris and Peggy Seale married on Sept. 22, 1943, he was 21 and she was 18.  Although the couple would usually have two weeks leave for their honeymoon, it was cut short when a troop ship of pilots was torpedoed in the Atlantic and Lt. Harris's group was sent their place.  By mid 1944, Lt. Harris had completed over 60 to 100 missions flying bomber support missions in his P-51 Mustang or pursuing ground targets after the invasion of Normandy.  In July 1944 Peggy received a telegram that her husband was missing in action.  Later, she was notified that Lt. Harris had returned to the United States on leave but no one had heard from him.  The Red Cross told her he was probably being processed in a military hospital. She received a long series of conflicting reports, including notification that Lt. Harris was missing in action, then killed in action, then again missing in action. It appeared no one knew what had happened to the young pilot. 

Peggie and Billie Harris

Peggy did not believe that her husband was dead, and until his parents died in the 1980’s, they also continued to hope that their son was alive.  After he retired, a cousin of Billie's did extensive research including travelling to France where he found the townspeople who witnessed Billie's plane crash.  By October 2005 he discovered what had happened to Billie.  His plane had gone down in the forest outside the small village of Les Ventes, where French resistance members discovered the pilot was dead. They removed his handgun and codebook and left when the Germans approached the crash site.  The townspeople were allowed to retrieve the pilot’s body from the plane wreckage which they buried in a local cemetery along with other local war heroes.  The body was moved by the US Army in 1946 to a temporary cemetery where he was listed as an “unknown”.  In September 1948, without notifying the family, the US government interred him in the Normandy American Cemetery as Billie D. Harris.  It took 62 years for Peggy to learn this.

In the spring of 2006, Peggy Seale Harris flew to Paris and travelled to the Normandy American Cemetery where she was reunited with Billie.  She had never remarried, and since that original visit she often comes to the cemetery on June 6 and sits on a bench next to Billie's white cross.

Billie D. Harris

 On June 6th, 1944 by the end of the day, 34,000 American troops had been landed on Omaha Beach suffering 2,400 casualties in the process. 

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