June 6th is the anniversary of D-Day, the "beginning of the end" of World War II.
If you watch the news, you'll see historic video footage of the Allied landing at Normandy, along with interviews of veterans, now in their late 80s or in their 90s, remembering what it was like. It is good that we can remember, and honor, those members of the Greatest Generation who helped liberate France and the rest of Western Europe from the Nazis, and we are blessed to hear them tell their stories.
But it's important to remember that not all the stories of war are captured on film and shown on TV and the Internet around the world.
Some of the stories, captured in letters, newspaper clippings and old photographs, lie forgotten in a shoebox or file folder at an estate sale.
These priceless stories are in danger of being lost -- unless we rescue them from the trash and get them into the hands of historians who can conserve and study them.
Such was the case of Lou's war photographs and stories. He had to go into assisted living a couple of years ago, and at his estate sale his family sold me a file folder stuffed with little photos, a few newspaper clippings and other scraps of paper. They said they didn't want them. They charged me a dollar. I took the pictures home and started looking at them.
So who was Lou, and what did he do in the war? A newspaper clipping from 1968 in the file folder includes an interview in which the reporter asks Lou, by then a well-known local restaurateur, to recount what happened to him after high school:
"World War II and the Army. We landed at Normandy five days after the initial assault and pushed through to Central Europe. That was with the Third Army."
So much history in so few words.
I look at the photos and I can see why the family probably didn't think they were important. Most of the images are only one inch by about an inch and a half, reduced in size so they could be sent home more economically than a standard-sized photograph. That's probably smaller than this photo appears on your computer screen.
What use are such old, blurry, tiny images to anyone? You have to understand, dear families of veterans, that somewhere out there, there is a military historian who would jump at the chance to see these pictures, analyze them, and add the tiny details they reveal to the larger narrative of the American experience in World War II.
You have to remember that we usually think about wars the way that war leaders and official historians write about them. They tell of Patton's Third Army rolling through France like a mighty machine -- it's the stuff of legend. Lou and his buddies lived this experience, and they took pictures and wrote letters home. By adding the stories of Lou and countless other regular servicemen and women to the narrative, we get a better, more balanced, more poignant and more human picture of World War II. And that's valuable to historians, to students and to the rest of us, because it helps us to better understand.
|Lou wrote on the back of this picture,|
"I am barbecuing meat.
No that's not dirt it's a mustache."
Thanks to the miracle of the desktop flatbed digital scanner and its "crop" function, we can enlarge the tiny photographs and piece together parts of the story of Lou's military service. The backs of the photos bear the stamp of the US Army censor, who approved them for civilian eyes.
Lou wrote on the backs of some, but not all, of the pictures. You can imagine him with his fountain pen poised, taking a few minutes to give his parents some context for the photos before he mailed them home from the battlefield.
|The back of the photograph...|
|...and the front.|
Let's look at some more of Lou's photographs of Patton's Third Army as it moves through France, from Avranches in lower Normandy to Chalons sur Marne (now called Chalons-en-Champagne) in northeastern France, heading towards the German border.
"Machine gunner & myself near Avranches."
"Machine gunmen climbing out of turret."
"Digging a gun position."
|If you look carefully behind the tire, you can see what appear to be |
French children and adults watching the American soldiers.
"40 mm dug in and ready for action."
Some of the photographs show the French countryside as the troops passed through.
"Picture taken from the truck. Young French girl passing out cider to men in the trucks."
Lou must have been driving when he took pictures as his unit passed through some parts of France. He simply wrote "bombed buildings" on the back of this picture. The destruction in the cities and towns was horrific.
Other photos have no writing on the backs. They don't need words.
Other photos Lou sent home show scenes of life in camp.
"I am holding a Jerry rifle. The coats and hats are captured sheepskins & are they warm."
"C-47s coming in with supplies."
"I am pinning a good conduct medal on my machine gunner."
Lou also sent pictures home of the soldiers of the Third Army playing baseball. He made no mention of what the French citizens thought of this odd game.
I searched online to see if I could find any other mention of Lou's military service, but I couldn't. Other than a few U.S. Census references to places he and his family had lived, I wasn't able to find out anything else about him that wasn't in the file folder from the estate sale, except for one website that had been updated recently. It listed only his name, the date April 5, 2014, and the words IN MEMORY OF....
Thank you, Lou, for your service, and thank you for saving those war pictures so we could see a bit of your side of the story. I'll find them a good home with some historians who will add them to the larger story of D-Day and the Liberation of France in 1944-1945.