My own experiences in Normandy were greatly enhanced by a local tour guide, Francois Gauthron, who took a friend and me to the major sites connected with D-Day. A veteran of the French military and native of the area, Francois has been leading tours in Normandy for the past decade. He has taken thousands of American veterans back to the sites where they fought in the war, helping them retrace their steps across the beaches, down country roads, and across fields where cattle now graze. A number of times he has been able to reunite veterans with locals who remembered them from the war years. Showing up unannounced in a village, they will be warmly welcomed by people who still remember the young American soldiers who liberated them during the Normandy campaign.
One gets the sense from such anecdotes that a pilgrimage like this can complete a story begun long ago. For many of these men, the last time they saw France was when it was under attack, ravaged by bombs and gunfire. For them the prosperous farms and tidy villages of Normandy today likely seem like a vindication for the sacrifices and hardships they endured as young men, proof that peace can flourish after the horrors of war.
The most touching story told by Francois took place about ten years ago, a time when many veterans were returning to Normandy for the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. Because most were in their 70s, the men knew it would likely be their last chance to make the journey.
Francois’ story took place during a reunion of an American bomber squadron, which hired him to take them to sites connected with their war experiences. One evening Francois ended a long day of touring by taking the men to a local bar. The room already contained quite a few people when they entered, most of them men about the same age as the veterans. When Francois heard that they were speaking German, he guessed that they were veterans from the other side of the conflict.
Conferring with the group’s guide, he received confirmation of his surmise. “Your guys dropped bombs on my guys during the war,” the other guide told him. “This could get interesting.”
As the American vets entered the room, Francois watched with a bit of apprehension. It didn’t take the Americans long to overhear the conversations in German and figure out who the men were. There was a period of awkwardness as the veterans found seats, and then finally one of the Americans went over to a table where some of the elderly Germans were sitting. He introduced himself in German and struck up a conversation. Soon another veteran did the same.
“After about ten minutes, everybody in the room was talking to each other and sharing stories,” Francois recalled. “The Germans talked about what it was like to be young and scared that the next bomb was going to land on them, and the Americans told them what it was like to be young and scared as they flew planes amid anti-aircraft fire. For two hours they talked non-stop, and at the end of the evening they exchanged addresses with each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are still corresponding to this day.”
For those men, Americans and Germans alike, their war finally ended over glasses of beer in a French bar, more than fifty years after the armistice had been signed.