Best Defense Foundation Visits German and American Cemeteries, WWII Veteran Receives Legion of Honor
2023 Normandy Battlefield Return – Day 4
During the invasion of Normandy, 29,000 American soldiers were killed and 106,000 wounded or missing. D-day remains one of the bloodiest battles in America’s history. Almost 79 years later, 43 WWII veterans visited the Normandy American Cemetery on Friday.
White crosses and Star of David headstones stretch as far as the eye can see. The somber beauty of the cemetery brought tears to almost everyone in the Best Defense Foundation’s group visiting the cemetery that day.
Cpl. John “Jack” Foy was a front-line gunner in Patton’s Third Army and was one of the few survivors from his original company. He’s been the key speaker for multiple events at the Normandy American Cemetery, but the memories are still raw.
“It just breaks my heart,” Foy said. “I lost so many friends [on the beaches of Normandy] — so many.”
Tears rolled down his face as he and the other 42 WWII veterans were rolled down the entrance corridor of perfectly trimmed trees. The crash of the waves just beyond the cemetery was audible as the groups of veterans were escorted by tour guides. Words are not enough to describe the feelings you get walking amongst the thousands of headstones.
Each one marks the final resting place for every brave warrior who made the ultimate sacrifice during the war. One of the tour guides demonstrated how to highlight the headstone inscriptions by rubbing sand over the letters and numbers. It popped out the name, rank, unit, home of record state, and the day that soldier died.
The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains the cemetery and receives over a million visitors every year. Men, women, and children from all over the world flocked to the WWII veterans to say thank you for their service. You would think they had met a Hollywood star based on how excited the visitors appeared. Nope, just American heroes.
Once the group had toured the cemetery, they loaded up and moved to another cemetery. This one isn’t American, though. It’s the German cemetery for Nazis killed during the war. La Cambe German military cemetery is a bleak contrast to the American cemetery. It was designed as a landscape, not so much as a monument.
The headstones are made of dark materials like volcanic rock or dark clay. There are no individual graves but multiple people at one grave site. They are grouped in 2 x 2, 4 x4, or 6 x 6 because Germany wanted it to represent the denial of individuality.
CPL Joseph R. ‘’Joe’’ Picard served with the 552nd Field Artillery Battalion during the war. He landed at Utah Beach on June 30th, 1944. His best friend Raymond A. Bolduc was killed by German artillery. When asked how he felt about visiting the German cemetery, his first impression is that it’s disrespectful to Americans killed in the war. But, he had a change of heart.
“And then after you come to realize that it’s not the right attitude,” Picard said. “Let’s face it. I know all the Germans said, ‘We had to do it, or we’d be shot.’ In wartime, your attitude and perception are different. You come to realize that we’re all in it together with how we feel about this situation.”
1st Lt. Wallace “Wally” N. King served with the 513th Fighter Squadron, 406th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force during the war. He was a fighter pilot that flew 75 combat missions in P-51s and P-47s.
King said that age dims emotions. He realized the Germans were the enemy but didn’t view them as he did during the war. He understands that people are human beings and doesn’t have hatred left but a keen understanding.
The two cemeteries provided a strong contrast but brought about a sense of closure.
When the cemetery guide concluded at La Cambe, the group headed to the Cabbage Patch Memorial in Carentan, France, for a ceremony to commemorate the bloody battle eight decades ago. But, something remarkable happened for one of the foundation’s veterans.
Tec5 Robert ‘’Bob’’ Gibson received the French Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit. Gibson served in the 116th AAA Battalion, 1st Army. He landed at Utah Beach on the second wave during D-Day.
Gibson said he had to avoid dead Americans when he landed at the beachhead, something he will never forget. He never expected such a high decoration, but now he’s excited to show it off to his friends and family back home.
The ceremony had active-duty soldiers from the US, France, and Germany. Each country had its flag flying, and groups of children from local schools sat in front of the WWII veterans. The ceremony was a symbolic presentation of the strong Allied relationships between each country.
Following the ceremony, all 43 WWII veterans and the foundation’s team sat down for supper with the active-duty soldiers that attended the ceremony. Active duty soldiers swapped war stories with the WWII veterans. Cheers, laughs, and smiles could be seen throughout the building as the day ended.
This is the fourth installation of a series of stories. Keep an eye on the foundation’s social media on Instagram: @bestdefensefoundation, Twitter: @bestdefense_, and Facebook: Best Defense Foundation.