French showed joy Iraqis don't feel

D-Day: Memories of the Americans' reception in Normandy highlight the differences, and similarities, existing in the U.S. role in Iraq.

August 22, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The squat concrete water towers provide incongruous punctuation to the rolling countryside of Normandy, meadows filled with spotted cows and fields of flax, separated by ancient hedgerows.

The utilitarian structures seem out of place amid the Romanesque churches and half-timber houses of this venerable French landscape that stretches west of Paris to the coast of the English Channel.

The water towers all look alike because they were all built at the same time. Six decades ago, their predecessors were destroyed by Allied troops. "Of course, the water towers could be used by German troops for snipers and spotting, so they had to be destroyed," explains Jacques Perreau, a Normandy guide who was 4 years old when the troops came through.

Without the towers, many Normans became sick from drinking foul water. But there was no anger directed at the Americans and their allies. Just the opposite.

"The Americans came with these water purification tablets," Perreau says. "This just confirmed to the locals that everything in America was far more advanced."

If there is a rift between the French and Americans over the war in Iraq, it is not evident in Normandy this summer. There seem to be almost as many U.S. - and British and Canadian - flags flying as tricolors of France. Sixty years after D-Day, they affirm the welcome given to liberators, the reception U.S. troops hoped for in Iraq.

At the base of the statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who has his hands on his hips in the middle of a traffic circle in Bayeaux, and the monument to Gen. George Patton in Avranches are formal bouquets of flowers, left by various French, American - even German - groups.

The war that was an ocean away for most Americans - brought home then by poignant letters and tragic telegrams and stirring newsreels, now by Hollywood movies - has always been very real to the Normans.

While in America the focus is on June 6 - D-Day - the French know that that was only the beginning of nine weeks of fighting that left many of Normandy's cities in ruins. Almost all of the destruction was caused by Allied bombs and artillery.

"In the grand scheme of American history, it was among the toughest military combat ever experienced by Americans," Baltimore-based historian Joseph Balkowski says of the Battle of Normandy. "Including the Civil War."

Sixty years ago today, Allied troops were mopping up after the battle of the Falaise pocket. The Germans suffered heavy losses as their trapped troops retreated from Normandy, but it was a missed opportunity to decimate the Nazi army.

Wednesday marks the 60th anniversary of the celebrated liberation of Paris. That was the end of the battle of Normandy, fought for a day on the beaches, for weeks on the bocage, the rolling Norman countryside criss-crossed by tall, thick hedgerows that concealed German troops and forced armor onto vulnerable roadways.

"Ultimately, if you look at World War II and the names that pop up as the worst of combat - the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima - realistically, the nine weeks of Normandy was about the worst there ever was," says Balkowski whose book, Beyond the Beachhead, followed the 29th Division in the weeks after D-Day.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of this fight, the city of Lisieux put up photographs around town, showing what it looked like as it was liberated. It was a shambles. Few of its ancient half-timber buildings remain. Like many Norman cities, it is filled with nondescript structures from the 1950s and 1960s.

No city suffered more than Caen. The British were supposed to take it a few days after D-Day, but it took weeks to defeat reinforced German troops dug in around the limited approaches to the city. American and British bombers, afraid of hitting their own troops, dropped their bombs behind the German lines, leveling the city where William the Conqueror planned his invasion of England in 1066, yet achieving no particular military advantage.

But Allied troops say they encountered little resentment despite the destruction they brought.

"These were mainly agricultural people, farmers," says Perreau, whose family's house was among those destroyed in Caen. "They were fatalists. They knew this would happen in war, that it was necessary to get rid of the Germans."

Caen now boasts a new and spectacular museum about the war, dedicated to peace. Visitors to its D-Day section are encouraged to follow the fate of a few soldiers who landed in the Allied assault. Among them is Washington native Charles W. Stockell. His biographical sketch says he was born in 1922 and was a cub reporter for The Baltimore Sun when he enlisted.

"I carried a pencil for Mark Watson," Stockell says of his job in the Washington bureau trailing behind the star reporters.

His principal memory of those days is that the windows of the Sun's offices in the National Press Building were across from a department store's models' dressing rooms. "And they never pulled down the shades," he says.

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