This article was first published in November 2001 by World War II magazine and is reprinted with permission of the author.
It was just going to be a quick ten-day vacation in Paris, part respite to recover from all the papers and final exams I had been grading and part the necessary culture jolt I always seem to need every few months. Denise and I arrived from the States on a Friday morning, and after a day of getting over our jet lag at Bruno and Marie-Camille’s apartment in Place D’Italie, the four of us drove to Normandy for the weekend to visit mutual friends in Caen.
As we were about to leave Paris, I related to Marie-Camille an ancient childhood memory about my Uncle Cyril. Actually it was less a memory of him than it was of the stories my mother had told me as I was growing up. My father’s youngest brother, Cyril, had journeyed from his Newfoundland home in the late 1930s to join his brother in New York who had left their fishing village home in Newfoundland a decade earlier. My father had a truck and the two of them were starting up a modest family-run moving and storage business when, shortly after Pearl Harbor, twenty-two-year-old Cyril joined the United States Army. The night before Cyril was shipped off to Europe in 1943 he and my father had one of those minor squabbles that brothers so often have and when they parted company angrily their tempers had not yet cooled down. And then in July 1944 my father got the dreaded telegram that was sent to so many families during those momentous summer months. Cyril had been killed in Normandy.
My mother used to tell me this story because I was too young to remember any of this. My father, she told me, shut himself up in a room and wouldn’t talk to anyone for six months, so deep was his grief. He had doted on me, but the joy he had in his toddler son now left him. Later, when I was a teenager, I often wondered if this had had an impact on my relationship with my father. He always was so quiet. Not warm or affectionate. Not exactly cold, but somehow distant, aloof, withdrawn.
Now, as we were about to drive to Normandy I wondered to Marie-Camille if my uncle was buried there. We located the telephone number for the American Military Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer in the Lonely Planet Guide to France and Marie-Camille called them.
“There’s a lot of Youngs buried here,” a woman on the other end of the line told her, “do you know his Division or anything more specific?”
“Only his name,” Marie-Camille said, “Cyril. Cyril Young.”
“Un Moment.” She put us on hold. But a few seconds later she was back on the line.
“Yes,” she said, “he’s here. Cyril Young, 90th Division, 357th Infantry.”
A nervous tremor suddenly swept over me. “Are you coming to Colleville today?” the woman said.
I was silent for a moment. I nodded to Marie-Camille.
“Oui,” she said.
“Since you’re family, identify yourself at the office when you arrive. We’ll escort you to the grave.”
From 1969 to 1978 I had lived in Europe, first in London, then in Bremen, Germany. For some reason it had never occurred to me to visit Normandy, never occurred to me to find out exactly how my uncle died. Perhaps it was my anti-Vietnam War stance, perhaps it was the peace-and-love atmosphere of the time, perhaps I just did not want to be reminded of America’s flexing of its military muscle at a time when I had lost my faith in the American Dream and my trust in America’s ideals. But as we drove to Normandy I found myself becoming increasingly nervous and increasingly introspective and wondering why I, a historian, had never thought of doing this years ago. I watched the landscape rolling by; the softly undulating hills giving way to the smooth bucolic pastures and fields delineated by the dense, brambly hedgerows of Normandy. It was the last Saturday in May and the overcast morning clouds had dissipated and the blue, sunny sky was now dotted with high-flying cumulus clouds. By the time we pulled into the parking lot at Colleville I was totally preoccupied with thoughts of the uncle I did not remember and my father’s profound grief which had colored my life.
Still, I was not prepared for what awaited me. The attentive and courteous Frenchwoman in the office handed me a computer print-out with the information they had about my uncle. Name, rank, serial number, and division. That was all. She introduced me to one of the American officials in charge of the cemetery. After exchanging pleasantries he led us out of the office and into the cemetery.
We all fell silent as we skirted the edge of the green expanse where the crosses stretch on seemingly forever. It took several minutes to get to the section and row where we began moving along the flawlessly-mown grass until we arrived at the plot. Our escort set down the bucket of sand he was carrying (which I had briefly wondered about) and began rubbing sand into the inscription on the white marble cross in order for the letters to be legible in a photograph. When he was done he asked me to position myself next to the cross and he took my picture. After that he left us.
Of course, like most Americans, I had seen pictures before of the regimented rows of tombstones in American military cemeteries, but nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of actually standing at the foot of one of these graves that, until now, had always seemed “nameless” to me. Everywhere I looked the crosses, with the occasional Star of David thrown in, stretched out in perfect geometrical patterns. Ahead of me, behind me, to the sides, in all diagonal directions stretching away, away. The illustrations in books and documentaries never give the full story, never give the full impression. The silvery glimmer of the English Channel beyond the bluff to the left, the sounds of the water lapping onto the sands of Omaha Beach, the rustle of the leaves as the wind softly whispers through the trees, the songs of the birds fluttering from branch-to-branch, the satiny fragrance of honeysuckle intermingling with the robust, earthy redolence of freshly-cut grass, rustling leaves and the verdant carpet covering the graves of 9,386 fallen Americans.
The ineffable moment overwhelmed me. Left me speechless. Choked me up. I knelt on the grave, reached out and touched the cool Italian marble of the marker, letting my fingers slowly glide over the inscription, tracing his name, the date he was killed:
PFC 357 INF 90 DIV
New York June 27, 1944
Two flags were planted at the foot of the cross. The American stars and stripes and the French tricolor. A half-forgotten snapshot flashed through my mind that my mother had once shown me when I was a child: my uncle, a smiling twenty-two year old man in his Army uniform, an infant in his arms. The infant, of course, was me. I touched the grass covering his grave almost as if to try to reach out to him and hold him in my arms. I wondered was he scared? What did the invasion mean to him? What was it like to cross the channel and land at Utah Beach where the 90th Division came ashore? What did he experience during those first hours and days of the invasion? And then, during the next three weeks, as the 357th Infantry advanced across the Cotentin Peninsula, liberating Ste-Mère-Église and other Norman villages as they moved westward cutting the German LXXXIV Korps off from Cherbourg, I wondered if he had any time to experience the extraordinary joy that the Allies brought to France. Did a villager give him a bottle of wine? Did a French girl kiss him? Did people cheer the 357th Infantry as they passed through? Or was it all work, routine, battles, fatigue, endurance, fear?
As I knelt at his grave I understood that I was visiting him, not only for myself, but also for my father. My father, who had died in 1972, had never visited Europe. He never talked much and the few times he had ever mentioned his lost youngest brother to me I could see in his eyes how deeply he felt the loss. And so, as I knelt at Cyril’s grave, I told him how much his brother had loved him. I had become the conduit, so to speak, connecting their spirits. And just as deeply as I sensed Cyril’s spirit in that place, so too did I sense my father’s. I had expected none of this. I had no inkling how deeply moved I would be in Colleville-sur-Mer. I glanced around at Denise, who sat pensively nearby. Marie-Camille and Bruno were behind her, in prayerful posture, themselves noticeably moved by the sea of graves and the French and American flags.
As I continued meditating at the grave site I also realized that, the rational, historian side of my personality was still very much present with me. As a history professor I have often lectured on the Second World War and D-Day and the Battle for Normandy and the Liberation of Paris. I “fully understood” the pivotal nature and magnitude of this the largest invasion in the history of the world. I fully understood the importance of the battle for Normandy as the first step in the liberation of France and subsequently of Europe. The Nazi tide had turned on the beaches of Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha, and Utah. And as I gazed, through misty eyes, over the crosses stretching away, and at the flags of two countries planted at the heads of these American youths, symbolic in a way that every one of them was a citizen of two countries, I fully felt, for the first time—as corny as it may sound–the real price of our freedom that we all, invariably, take absolutely for granted.
Since returning from Normandy, I have become nearly obsessed with finding out more about Cyril Young’s last three weeks of life. Probably the historian in me. But this time with the difference of really connecting on a personal level with the subject about which I’m researching. At the cemetery office when they gave me the portfolio about the cemetery and the meager information they had in their records on Cyril Young, they also gave me the address of a French historian who lives in Normandy whose research specialty is the 90th Division. If I wanted to learn more I should contact him. So, when I got home, I wrote Henri Levaufre.
Levaufre responded quickly. He has an enormous archive of primary sources, the originals of which are in the National Archives, dealing with the 90th Division. Along with his letter he graciously sent me photocopies of a number of pertinent documents and maps. PFC Cyril Young was in Company G and according to the terse casualty report of 27 June 1944, was one of seven men KIA.
There’s a lot of tantalizing material in Levaufre’s files. Tidbits of information that make me want to learn more. On the 27th of June Company G was 1200 yards east of the village of Saint-Lo-d’Ourville near the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. I looked it up on the map Levaufre sent and saw how far they had progressed in the three weeks since the 90th Division had landed at Utah Beach. One of the most interesting documents, written by one of the Company officers, details the movements of G Company during the two weeks leading up to Cyril Young’s death.
The following day, June 14th, we attacked by fire only, firing continually until 1400 in the afternoon. We drew heavy mortar fire and 88mm upon us. This continued all day, and we suffered heavy casualties for a defensive position.
An orchard which was located in our positions, was completely wiped out. Not a tree was left standing. Dead cattle littered the fields. The enemy barrage continued throughout the night. Sleep was impossible.
Before daylight the next morning, we drew back to a Battalion assembly area.
There was a four-day respite from action during which time G Company was ordered to the vicinity of Le Ham to fill a gap between the right flank of the 90th Division and the left of the 4th Division.
Everything in general was quiet and normal here. We remained here a few days, and the men had a chance to get a good rest and a chance to catch up on their correspondence. We also received some more replacements.
We had one casualty, when a man was shot while returning from a patrol. He was shot by one of his own men.
On June 18th, we left Le Ham, moving out by truck. We rolled to the western end of the Peninsula to an area near Port Bail. We were to relieve a unit of the 9th Division, which had almost completed the cutting off of the Peninsula. It was now dark as we moved into their positions.
The cutting off of the Cotentin Peninsula was absolutely crucial to the success of Operation Overlord. If Rommel could be prevented from reinforcing his troops in Cherbourg then the Allies would capture this important deep-water port which was vital for the landing of matériel and troops. With Cherbourg in Allied hands, Normandy would be secured and the Allies could then move on Paris. Rommel, however, was not going to cave in without a tough fight.
The following morning June 19th, we moved forward to complete the cutting off of the Peninsula. In completing this, we ran into some enemy tanks. In one instance Jose J. Ortivez knocked out an enemy half track with a BAR, killing all its crew members. The 2nd platoon which was far in advance of the rest of the Company was withdrawn, and a defensive position was organized. We lacked three hedgerows of cutting off the last north south road and escape route for the heinies trapped in the Peninsula. With all around security, we set up for the night.
During the morning of June 20th, we tried to improve our positions, to cut the last escape route of the Nazi’s. We were knocked back once again. Throughout the day we repulsed several counterattacks. Once again we secured our positions and set up for the night.
On June 21st, we patrolled vigorously in the area to locate the heinies. They were very strongly emplaced to our front. We tried to contact F Company which was practically wiped out, having only two platoons left.
After another tense night they were ordered, on June 22nd, to abandon their defensive positions and attack.
During this action, an enemy medium tank fired right down the middle of our sector, splitting the Company in two. Lt. Regn then moved the Company C.P. to a safer location, with Lt. Brotherton in charge. We maintained contact with the C. P. through the 536 radio. With the Company being split in two, Lt. Regn took control of the left half and, Lt. Lovett took the right half. Again the same lone tank came down the narrow road in our sector. Lt. Lovett stood on the right of the road, receiving orders from Lt. Regn on the other side, while the enemy tank fired its 75mm and Machine guns down the path between the two. Despite the heavy fire the two Lts. were able to control the Company by yelling across the short space of road to one another. Shrapnel and machine gun fire were flying all around the 15-yard gap in the middle of the Company.
Lt. Regn called for artillery fire to our front. We soon heard the whining of shells which landed about seventy five yards in front of us. Lt. Regn called back to shorten the range fifty yards, in order to drive off the tank which was inflicting many casualties and holding us up. Battalion, knowing our position, refused to shorten the range. Lt. Regn insisted upon it and finally convinced them of the necessity. Again the shells were heard whining overhead. The men hugged the ground as the missiles landed between us and the tank. The artillery did the job, the tank withdrawing. The crisis was over. The Company reorganized it’s positions and was able to control the road and last escape route of the Krauts in the Cherbourg peninsula.
We held that position all that night and the next day. We received several casualties from enemy shell fire, which they continually poured into us all day. Remaining in this position until the 25th of June, we were relieved by B Company, and returned to the vicinity of the Battalion C.P. Here we dug in, and spent a rather restful day and quiet night.
It was now the 26th of June, the last full day of Cyril Young’s life. Though the officer writing the logbook occasionally refers to individual soldiers Cyril’s name is not mentioned until the casualty report of June 27th. However, it is possible to infer his fate from the next entry which accounts for the 27th through the 30th.
The following day we returned to a position near the area we had just left, to relieve F Company. We organized and improved these positions, which we held for a few days. During this time we received a continuous shelling, and suffered a few casualties. During our stay here, we sent out several patrols, consisting of reconnaissance and “hell raising affairs.” On one of these patrols, Sgt Bob Levick was killed. He volunteered for this patrol with the statement “it’s too damn quiet around here, I think I’ll go around and stir up some excitement.”
Ironically, it was on the 27th, the day that Cyril Young was killed, that the Cotentin Peninsula was finally cut off and Cherbourg fell to the Allies. As soon as this was accomplished the 357th Regiment went into reserve for several days in order to rest up for the next offensive which would be a swing to the south and then to the east-toward Paris.
It seems most likely from this report that Cyril Young was either one of the “few casualties” Company G suffered during the continuous artillery shelling it received, or he was one of the men killed on one of the “hell raising” patrols. The June 27th casualty list for the 357th Infantry shows that only two of the seven men killed that day belonged to G Company—Cyril Young and the soldier mentioned in the report above, Bob Levick. Perhaps Cyril was on Levick’s patrol.
And still I wonder. What actually happened? What thoughts were going through Cyril’s mind during the last days before he died? Did he write a letter home during the respite in Le Ham? What was his state of mind? Was he frightened during the constant shelling? Or did he put up a brave front? Was he one of those reckless soldiers overflowing with bravado and brash talk? Or was he a pensive, introspective man? And so my mind goes on and on, thinking about the past, thinking about how the past has shaped us as a country, and me as an individual.
In the United States we tend to emphasize the study of mathematics, physics, computer technology, and all the other more scientific and technical studies that we consider vital to our survival as a nation. As a society we profess to be concerned with the soaring rate of illiteracy and cultural ignorance that pervades our land. Yet when school and university programs need to be cut because of budgetary constraints it is the arts, and literature, and philosophy, and languages, and history that usually fall by the wayside. Somehow they are not as important to us as a society or as individuals because, let’s face it, they don’t make us much money, or do much for the balance of payments. But we are our history and our history, in the end, is what we make of it. History is not merely the story of a dead past. Historians know that history is not so much a “was,” as an “is.” It is an ongoing, organic process and continues to shape us as it shaped the people of previous generations.
Whether it is the distant past, the more recent past, or simply yesterday, history is us. September 11th has shown us, in the most ominous way possible, that we cannot escape history. And if we make the attempt to understand that then we are taking the first, vital and fundamental step to knowing ourselves as individuals, as Americans, as citizens of the world.
When Levaufre first sent me the information he had about my uncle’s experience in Normandy I was again transported back to France and that grassy knoll above Omaha Beach. Again I could see the marble crosses gleaming whiteley in the sun, stretching as far as the eye could see and the heart could bear. Again I could smell the honeysuckle and hear the murmuring of the May breeze in the leaves and the rustling of the flags of two nations fluttering over the graves. “Many thanks,” Levaufre wrote at the end of his letter, “for what your family did for our Freedom. Here we don’t forget.”
Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters, and Make Art Not War: Political Protest Posters from the Twentieth Century. Find the details to his books here.