Normandy hails the returning heroes of liberation D-DAY: PRELUDE TO TRIUMPH

June 06, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Sun Staff Correspondent

ST. LO, France -- Even without the falling rain, there wouldn't have been a dry cheek along the Rue du Neubourg.

Men of the 29th Infantry Divisions -- aged comrades with aches and pains and old memories of fighting their way through the fields of Normandy to liberate this town from the Germans half a century ago -- are heroes again.

The 29ers parade past children clutching red and white and blue carnations. Past mothers cheering and fathers clapping. Past a new bride, still dressed in her white gown, smiling. Past two elderly Frenchmen standing side by side, tears rolling into the wrinkles of their red faces.

The 29ers have returned.

And St. Lo, the town of 25,000 people that D-Day almost erased from the face of France, expresses its gratitude in an outpouring of affection for the liberators who paid the price along with their parents and grandparents.

"I'm satisfied now," says Mervin "Buddy" Coblenzer of Pikesville, who landed with the Maryland-Virginia 29th Infantry Division on Omaha Beach June 6, 1944, and who, 42 days later, lay wounded beneath a bridge on the outskirts of St. Lo as the enemy retreated.

"For years you think about all this, but you don't talk about it," says Mr. Coblenzer. He stands between two tour buses that will carry him and the other 29ers to a banquet the town is throwing for victors of D-Day. The parade, complete with a military band and a company of French World War II buffs dressed as GIs, is just the beginning. "I'm with my peers, and I'm fine," Mr. Coblenzer says.

Veterans are pouring into France for what some are calling "Operation Friendly Invasion." No one can say precisely how many veterans are showing up, but it's hard to cross a street without bumping into someone with either an American or a British accent.

Although thousands of vets and dignitaries from North America and Europe will mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day today on the bluffs overlooking the beaches where the invasion force landed, for some 29ers like Mr. Coblenzer, there's more to this pilgrimage than remembering only June 6.

Four days before the St. Lo parade, the 29ers are on buses heading west from Paris. A passenger mentions that they are entering the famous farming section of Normandy, where thick hedgerows serve as barriers in the expansive checkerboard of fields. This is where soldiers fought desperately for every yard of ground. Many died and more -- including some of the men on the buses -- were wounded.

Some of the men stare stoically at the seat in front of them. One man drops his head between his palms. The bus, noisy with chatter moments before, is suddenly quiet.

In all, the 29ers, their families and a clutch of reporters number 480.

The group fills 10 tour buses, and when the caravan bounces along the narrow Normandy roads, the site of them turns heads everywhere.

The French seem to know instinctively that the gray-haired men looking at them through the rain-streaked bus windows are American war veterans.

In the pretty town of St. James, for instance, pedestrians pause on the sidewalks to smile at the visitors. Women lean out of second-story windows and wave their arms.

4,410 graves

Two days before the 29ers arrived, 2,000 French school children were brought to the American cemetery outside St. James, where they stuck little U.S. and French flags into the manicured lawn, a pair of flags for each of the 4,410 graves.

Then they released 4,000 pigeons which, the children were told, symbolized the men who died for their freedom.

The pigeons, the children's teachers said, would fly safely to England, whence came those liberators 50 years ago.

At the cemetery the 29ers are greeted by two columns of French veterans holding worn battle pennants, standing as tall as they can even though they are tired with age, too.

George Dabbs, a 29er who served with the 121st Combat Engineers, walks past the Frenchmen and turns to shake their hands. "I did it," he says, "because their free act of giving made me feel very good.'

Dr. Claude Petel, a Frenchman who says he was 16 years old when a GI befriended him in 1944, looked into the 29ers' faces and grabbed hands as they walked by searching for the face of his unforgotten old acquaintance.

"It's possible to see him again?," he asks with a hopeful shrug.

Among the tourists

The caravan leaves the cemetery for the trip's only venture into pure tourism -- a stop at the century-old Mont St. Michel cathedral and village.

The veterans work their way through the streets crowded with students, British tourists and vendors selling T-shirts, post cards and snacks.

William "Buck" Williamson, a 29er out of Virginia Beach, calls the vets "the hearing-aid and walking-cane gang." But some of these old soldiers are in marvelous condition. They climb the steep stone steps vigorously to lookout points. The tidal flats around the mountain island resemble a shimmering desert.

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