June 7 2012
Yesterday was the celebration of the liberation of the first big town in
Normandy - Bayeux. And the liberators? The Sherwood Rangers, of course -
those same fine British gentlemen I interviewed last month in England. You
remember! The ones who fought in Africa against my friend Charley but who
are now the best of friends with him.
Boy, those Sherwoods sure got around. After Africa they came home and
learned how to swim Sherman tanks (you didn't know Shermans could swim?)
into Gold Beach for D-day. After liberating Bayeux they fought through the
hedgerows in Normandy, helped close the Falaise gap, then supported the 82nd
and 101st Airborne Divisions in Holland. They were the first British armored
unit through the Sigfried line into Germany. They were certainly the
popular ones (with Allied infantry buddies - if not the opposition).
Yesterday, three of these great Sherwood fighters came to partake of the
celebration held in their honor in Bayeux, and I had the great plea sure of
continuing my conversation with Graham Stevenson.
Graham lasted only a day in Normandy when while stepping out of his tank
with his Commander to do a reconnaissance under heavy mortar fire (that had
sent their infantry escort running in the wrong direction) he was hit by
machine gun fire. The bullets ripped through his brachial artery, missing
his chest narrowly.
Soft-spoken, modest and sweet, Graham was a tall lad who had convinced the
army he was old enough to join, when he wasn't even close. Only 17 when he
fought in Africa, Graham was a seasoned 19-year-old combat veteran when his
wound in Normandy took him out of the war for good.
It was hard to have only a couple of hours with Graham and the others and
then to have to leave them in a rush. I delayed my departure and then
finally had to go. As I drove towards Brittany I travelled through the
cities they had fought bitterly to liberate after Bayeux - Tilly Sur Seulles
and Villers-Bocage - and in each of the places I was very sad that I could
not have them with me there.
After three hours of driving I reached Plage Bonaparte in Normandy, Robert
Sweatt's midnight departure point for his return back to England in Motor
Gun Boat 503 in March, 1944. The ceremony honoring the French Resistance and
Allied forces was just ending when I arrived, but it was not too late to
meet Dominique - a French researcher who has met a lot of Resistants.
Dominique is passionate about finding the stories of Allied aviators who
crashed in his town north of Paris, and he started with the B-17 crewmember
Robert Lorenzi his great-grandparents sheltered during the war. Since 1999
Dominique has compiled an amazing amount of information on the entire crew
of Lorenzi's plane and brought the survivors, widows, children, and
grandchildren together in a special bond that they truly treasure.
Dominique helped me immediately meet a Resistante and ask her for an
interview, which she agreed to on the spot. We went to the town hall
straight away, and I set up my equipment. Since my French is a bit rusty at
the moment, Dominique generously conducted the interview in French. What a
Dominique will help me interview another Resistante tomorrow and then has
agreed to drive all the way to Paris with me to interview a Resistant who
helped Lorenzi and other Allied aviators in the Shelburn line (Robert's
escape line) as well. An unbelievable opportunity I would never have had on
my own. Truly, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Dominique, possessed
of a good nature, and an immense desire to help others.
There are always breaks for enormous meals with new a whole mishmash of
French, American and British friends, and spectacular views of gorgeous,
uncrowded (and somewhat freezing) Breton beaches. Despite the cold, wind,
and a serious lack of what Graham calls "bijou" lodging, because of the
wonderful hospitality of our French hosts, things couldn't be going better.