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Visit to French cemetery stirs memory, emotion

Rhone American Cemetery
The World War II Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan, France.

On a two-week tour in France, I didn't expect to be moved to tears and left with a memory etched on my heart forever—but there, at a cemetery memorial, it happened.

After a day and a half exploring Nice, our group of 42 Americans boarded a motor coach to travel to a river cruiser for the next leg of our trip. Our program director announced that we'd be making a stop at the World War II Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan, where 861 U.S. soldiers are buried. The soldiers died in this part of France during the August 1944 invasions.

The southern invasion of France is not so well-known as the D-Day invasion along the beaches of Normandy in northern France. The invasion from the Mediterranean Sea began in August of 1944 and holds its own important place in the history of the war and with the French people.

We were informed that there would be a wreath-laying ceremony for our group of older adults, many of whom remembered those war years as veterans or children of vets. I was a small child during the war years, but I remember many little things about our life at the time, and I have read a great deal about this period in history because it feels personal to me.

We filed silently through impressive iron gates. The brilliant blue sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds, and the sun warmed us. The rustle of leaves in the many stately trees that surround the cemetery was the only sound as we gazed at the rows of white crosses and Stars of David. No one spoke as we moved among the graves on the pristine grounds, reading names until the cemetery director arrived.

He told us that the soldiers' families were given the choice of having their loved one's body repatriated or buried near the place where he had died in battle. How difficult, I thought, such a decision would be. Sometimes no parents were left at home, or a young wife had already moved on with her life and needed no reminders of an earlier marriage, so the fallen soldier never went home.

Everyone strolled slowly along the path that led to a large stone memorial depicting an angel. It served as one outside wall of an open-air chapel.

Inside the chapel, a stone altar was dwarfed by the huge mosaic that towered above it. The mural-like picture, predominantly in shades of blue, featured an angel in the center. My eye was drawn to her first, and although I studied the other, smaller, figures, my gaze kept returning to her. The angel was seated, cradling the body of an American soldier. Gazing at the two figures, I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes brimmed with unshed tears. Yet I could not stop looking.

I thought about my uncle, who flew missions over Germany but came home. I thought about my friend's uncle, who spent half of the war in a prison camp. I thought about my dad's cousin, who died in a plane that exploded on a runway. I thought about the memorial plaque at my grade school, that listed the names of graduates who had not come home. The angel and soldier in the mural spoke for all of them.

Our program director held a large bouquet of fresh flowers. She asked whether veterans of any war were present to participate in the wreath laying. The red, white, and blue ribbon tails on the floral piece fluttered in the soft breeze that swept into the chapel from the two open sides.

Three men stepped forward. I learned later that two were veterans of World War II, having been very young men in the final days when they were called up. The third appeared to be a bit younger, although all had gray hair. He had been a pilot in the Korean War. Their shoulders were a bit rounded, and wrinkles creased their faces.

As they neared the altar, they stood side by side and the rest of us gathered behind. The trio marched forward and laid the floral tribute between the Christian cross and the Star of David. The three men snapped to attention, standing taller than perhaps they had in years, and saluted the soldier lying in the angel's arms. For one magic moment, they were young soldiers again. Even these many years later, they shared a common bond.

The gentle breeze of only moments earlier turned stronger, and the now-frantic rustling of the leaves surrounded us on both sides of the chapel as we were invited to sing our national anthem. One or two people began slowly, and soon others joined in.

I tried to sing, but the emotion of the moment blocked my throat so thoroughly that I could not have sung had my life depended on it. Instead, I listened to the strong words of the song that is the pride of our nation.

As we retraced our steps through the cemetery, passing row upon row of graves, I thought of what so many Americans had sacrificed during that war fought on foreign shores during my childhood. Lives were lost and families grieved, but others lived freely because of it.

I thought of a well-known quote that seemed to fit this small cemetery: All gave some, some gave all.

French cemetery outside wall

We who lie here died that future generations might live in peace.