One Frenchman's Commitment To Keeping D-Day Memories Alive
During my many visits to Normandy, I have come across many French people committed to preserving the memory of the young men who sacrificed their lives here to liberate the continent from Nazi tyranny. On my latest, trip, I met up again with Joseph Delecolle, who I had interviewed at the 60th D-Day anniversary in 2004.
Delecolle was back, dressed as before in the uniform of an American GI and driving his rebuilt, 1940s-era American jeep.
"Each year I go to Normandy to cry," he says. "I don't know why because I was not alive during the war. But for me it is important to remember this sacrifice."
This year Delecolle was with a group of friends and they had three jeeps. They drove all the way from his native Picardie region in the north of France – traveling at a speed of 40 miles per hour. I asked him if he isn't exhausted by such a drive and he tells me: "No, because it's my passion to come to Normandy."
There is passion for veterans across Normandy. All week in the towns and villages along the Norman coast, the veterans were treated like returning heroes. People crowd around them taking pictures and asking for autographs, eager to hear their stories.
Delecolle says the emotion, especially in this region, over the young men who landed here 70 years ago, doesn't fade with the years.
"I think the French people will be forever grateful to the Americans for their freedom," he says. "We are also grateful to the English, the Canadians and all the allies that landed here. But there's something special about the Americans."
I climb into Delecolle's jeep for a spin along the wide, low-tide Normandy beach. On one side is the choppy English Channel, on the other, green cliffs rising above the coastline.
We cruise along between Sword Beach, where the British troops landed, and Arromanches, where the Mulberry Harbor is still pretty much intact. That's the steel and concrete artificial harbor built to facilitate the rapid offloading of cargo onto the beaches that summer of 1944, as the allies prepared to take back the continent from the Nazis.
"It's always, for me, very emotional," he says of driving along the beaches. "Because I think all young boys who came for freedom, for our freedom."
Delecolle says he usually spends an entire week here during the D-Day anniversary. On Friday, he went on the bloodiest landing beach, Omaha Beach, at 6:30 in the morning when it all began.
"There are a lot of commemorations around these anniversaries," he says. "But I think for me it is important to see the place where they landed, and to touch the sand."
In his free time, Delecolle leads school trips to Normandy. He says it's important to pass the story on to future generations. He is here on this day with his 40-year-old son Pierre-Yves, with whom he rebuilt the jeep.
Delecolle also belongs to an organization called "Flowers of Memory," that has allowed him to adopt the grave of an American soldier in the Normandy cemetery.
He says he chose a soldier from the division that liberated his Picardie region in August 1944. He has become the godfather of Lawrence Davis from Arizona, who was just 19 when landed at Utah Beach on June 14, 1944, and was killed five days later.
Delecolle says he is trying to locate Davis' family in America. He hopes he will one day be able to find them, so he can send them some sand from these sacred beaches.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We turn now to a story about the simple act of giving thanks. Gratitude seemed to underline much of Friday's celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day. In his remarks, President Obama paid special tribute to those who cared for America's fallen soldiers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In the words of one man, we will take care of the fallen as if their tombs were our children's. And the people of France, you have kept your word like the true friends you are. We are forever grateful.
MARTIN: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley now brings us the story of one French man committed to honoring the young men who stormed that beach at Normandy 70 years ago.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Bonjour.
JOSEPH DELECOLLE: Bonjour.
BEARDSLEY: I first met 63-year-old Joseph Delecolle at the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. I interviewed him because he was dressed as an American G.I. and driving around in a 1940s Jeep. Today, he's back wearing the same uniform and still driving his well-cared-for, rebuilt American Jeep. Delecolle says he doesn't miss a D-Day anniversary.
DELECOLLE: Each year, I go in Normandy to cry. I don't know why because I was not alive during the war. But for me, it is important to give a memory of this sacrifice.
BEARDSLEY: There are thousands of French people like Delecolle who have a passion for this place and its history and a deep compassion for the men who sacrificed their lives here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you. Thank you. Merci.
BEARDSLEY: Returning veterans are treated like heroes at a ceremony at Utah Beach last week. People gathered around a group of veterans, many of whom were in wheelchairs, thanking them, taking pictures and asking for autographs.
Delecolle has returned to Normandy with his son and some friends in three rebuilt Jeeps. They drove eight hours at 40 miles per hour from their region in the North of France to get here. Delecolle says the trip doesn't tire him because coming to Normandy is a passion. And he's going to take me for a ride.
So here we are. We're riding along the D-Day beach, Sword Beach, coming up on Arromanches where there's still the Mulberry Artificial Harbor out there in front of us. The tide is way out. We can see the Cliffs of Normandy. We can see the beach where the soldiers landed. It is amazing to think 70 years ago what was going on here.
DELECOLLE: It's always, for me, very emotional for me because I think all the young boys came for freedom, for our freedom.
BEARDSLEY: Delecolle belongs to an organization called Flowers of Memory where he's adopted the grave of an American soldier. He says he wanted a soldier from the division that liberated his native Picardie region in August 1944. He chose 19-year-old Lawrence Davis from Arizona who landed at Utah Beach on June 14 and was killed three days later. Delecolle says every year on June 6, he goes to the bloodiest landing beach, Omaha, at 6:30 in the morning when it all began.
DELECOLLE: There are a lot of commemoration, but I think for me, it is important to see the place and to touch the sand. For Lawrence Davis' family, I take some sand to send to the family the sand.
BEARDSLEY: Delecolle says he is looking for the family of Lawrence Davis and hopes he will one day be able to find them and give them the sacred sand. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.