by Kerry Dougherty

My most memorable Memorial Day did not take place on Memorial Day at all, but a few weeks earlier. In May of 1982.

But then again, every day is Memorial Day when you stand on those beaches at Normandy. It was a glorious spring morning on the coast of France. The sky was the deepest shade of blue. A gentle wind made the American flags flutter. And I was there with 52 Irish boys. Bad boys.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Forty-one years ago, I lived in Dublin, where I attempted to eke out a living as a freelance writer in the dingy offices of the now-defunct Irish Press. While back home, American newsrooms were swapping their IBM Selectrics for computers, this one was stuck in another era. Manual typewriters created a chattering cacophony, cigarette smoke turned the air blue, greasy chip wrappers littered the floors. Everyone was known by their last name.

Except me. I was The Yank.

I was toiling away on some forgettable story, dutifully reminding myself to spell gray as “grey” and harbor as “harbour,” when I overheard two of my editors talking.

“Ask the Yank,” Muldowney said. “She’ll go anywhere.”

“Hey, Yank,” O’Kane shouted. “How’d you like to go to France for the weekend?”

“Yes, please,” I begged.

I’d never been to France. I was weary of the endless Irish gloom. The unexpected offer of a weekend in sunny France was so seductive I never asked if there was a catch.

There was, of course.

All I had to do, O’Kane said, was accompany a group of schoolboys on a trip to Normandy. Great fun, he grinned.

What O’Kane neglected to tell me was that these boys were 10- to 13-year-olds from Ballyfermot. Everyone in the newsroom knew what that meant. Except me. Dublin toughs. O’Kane also omitted details of my role on the trip. Not only would I write a happy feature about the boys and the beaches, but I also was to be a chaperone. The teacher sponsoring the trip had found himself at the last minute with more than 50 boys and no other adult willing to make the journey. A trip that would begin and end by chartered bus, with two overnight ferry trips between Rosslare and Cherbourg.

By the time I learned the truth, it was too late. I was packed.

We gathered on a Friday morning in the parking lot of Mary Queen of Angels School. Everywhere I looked were boys, bigger than me. Standing nearby were their mothers. Weather-beaten women. Teary-eyed, too. Sipping sherry from paper cups.

“A toast to your trip,” one mom said, proffering some of the amber liquid.

“Thanks, but no,” I said, gesturing toward the boys.

“Ah, but you’ll be needing it,” she said knowingly.

Ah, would I ever.

The boys were in high spirits as we pulled away. I expected them to be as enchanted by the Irish countryside as I was. These underprivileged, urban urchins had seen little of their tiny country. But a lively poker game in the back of the bus immediately captured their attention.

At our first stop, less than an hour out of Dublin, I realized to my horror that I was traveling in the company of young kleptomaniacs.

The boys swarmed into a shop where they purchased candy and pilfered more costly items, leaving the teacher and me to bark at them until the booty was returned.

Once we boarded the ferry, the boys were assigned to bunk rooms, while I, the lone female, had a small stateroom of my own. Not that I’d spend any time in it.

The ferry was late departing. To make up for lost time, the crew pulled in the stabilizers. An hour or so into the trip, passengers were retching from the motion. Our boys were especially queasy. They’d smuggled along a stash of cigars. Those smokes went well with the cocktails they manufactured from the dregs of drinks they’d collected in the bar.

Disgusting, but clever, their teacher and I agreed.

By midnight, we were busy. Holding the heads of sick boys and praying that we’d make it to France. Soon.

As we pulled into the little harbor at Cherbourg on Saturday morning, we counted heads and found all of our hung-over charges unsteadily on deck.

So far the trip was a success.

“How’s your French?” the teacher asked.

“Awful,”  I confessed.

“Here,” he said, handing out printed cards to the boys, “You’ll need one of these too.”

Je suis Irlandais. Je suis perdu. Veuillez me diriger vers le bateau, Saint Killian II.

I am Irish. I am lost. Please direct me back to the ship, Saint Killian II.

The indignity of it all.

As we set out toward Normandy, the teacher stood in the front of the French tour bus and reminded the boys of D-Day in June of 1944. We passed German bunkers. We stopped at Utah Beach. And Omaha.

Then we went to the American cemetery.

Pausing a moment, the teacher somberly reminded the boys of the more than 9,000 American soldiers who were buried there. He told them that there were more than 1,500 graves they wouldn’t see. Those of the men who died that day and whose bodies were never recovered.

“Silence and respect,” he cautioned as the boys disembarked.

No need.

When they caught sight of the rows of thousands of snowy crosses, our 52 boys fell silent. So did I.

I’d like to tell you that the boys were changed after their visit. Perhaps they were, but changes weren’t immediately evident. The trip back to Dublin was much like the trip away.

A couple weeks later, a letter arrived for me in the newsroom. It was a brief thank you from the teacher, who had enclosed a couple of notes from the boys.

One said he’d always remember his trip to Normandy. He especially liked seeing the Yank cemetery and it had made a big impression on him.

I knew just what he meant.

It made a big impression on me, too. Because, there, every day is Memorial Day.

I first wrote about this Normandy trip for The Irish Press in 1982 and have published revised versions several times since. My apologies if it seems familiar. kd

Republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed and Unedited. 

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11 responses to “Every Day is Memorial Day in Normandy”

  1. I remember seeing the French workers walking among the crosses one early morning wiping the night dew from each cross. How could one not tear up seeing those crosses and that dedication to keeping their memory alive? God bless our willing men of courage.

  2. Nathan Avatar

    Thanks. I appreciated the story and lesson.

    Those who stormed the beaches that day knew what real fascism looked like, and had the courage to fight it. We owe them a great debt.

  3. HB Atkinson Avatar
    HB Atkinson

    Thank you, Kerry.

  4. Matt Adams Avatar
    Matt Adams

    I have never had the pleasure, but I feel the same awe of deed and sacrifice when I gaze upon my brothers and sisters in arms at Arlington.

    All gave some, some gave all.

    1. Nathan Avatar

      “All gave some, some gave all.”

      Indeed. My father was in the Navy and served in the Pacific during WWII. That theater of war had its share of horror and sacrifice as well.

  5. WayneS Avatar

    Thank you.

  6. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    We are going back this summer. First time we visited Omaha, and this time we’ll visit one or two of the Commonwealth landing beaches. I’m sorry my father never got to go there, as the French have long made a big fuss over the American WWII GIs, even if not among those in the invasion force. Given the 29th Division included so many western Virginians, he knew plenty who had crossed that beach under arms on D-Day or after.

    We were told that cemetery at Sur Le Mer it is still a trip taken by all, all, French school children. The photo below is a memorial on the beach itself. If we get back to the cemetery, I’ll try to find the two Roosevelt brothers, Kermit killed while a pilot in WWI who was moved there to be buried beside General Theodore, Jr. who had a heart attack while deputy commander of the 4th Division in Normandy.

  7. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Great story. Thanks for sharing

  8. Tom B Avatar

    My dad, now 104, spent his first 2 years in the Army Engineers at Belvoir, and was headed to the Pacific when the bomb was dropped. My uncle served with the Marines and fought from Guadalcanal up to the end (somehow missing Iwo). Then went back for Korea. After that, my aunt said choose her or the Marines – the Marines lost that battle. He delivered mail on Long Island until he retired. Just ordinary men who became heros. You can’t say enough good things about those guys, and gals who served.
    Thanks, Kerry.

  9. Donald Smith Avatar
    Donald Smith

    I am determined to take my son to the American cemetery at Normandy. It is such a moving experience.

  10. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    Thank you for not politicizing the day, Kerry. Well done.

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