Amidst the olive trees, we saw the rows of men who were taken by death. Ms. DesRosier took us through the big gate with a bucket of sand that was brought down south all the way from the beaches of Normandy.
When we arrived at Plot B, Row 9, Grave 16, she rubbed the sand in the engraved words on his headstone so they would stand out. There it was:
David M. Matthews
S SGT 303 SO 442 TRP CARR GP
NORTH CAROLINA FEB 2 1946
In my last column, I ended with my family’s project for when we were in France. We found, as we had hoped, the grave of my great-great aunt Sara’s husband David, who was killed in World War II.
He is buried in Rhone American Cemetery, one of many overseas American WWII cemeteries, this one located in the town of Draguignan in southern France. It was originally an olive grove, and olive trees are still scattered among the graves and around the perimeter.
We arrived at Rhone Cemetery and walked into the visitors’ center, where we were met by Joy DesRosier, the acting superintendent.
She led us to Uncle David’s grave and rubbed it with the Normandy sand. After we had taken lots of pictures, she took us around to the chapel.
The inside of the chapel contains an incredible mosaic designed and created by a French artist. On one of the walls is a picture that features a mother figure in heaven holding a fallen soldier while the soldier’s parents are weeping below.
On the opposite wall is the American eagle grasping arrows in its left talon and an olive branch in its right. Below the eagle in both English and French it reads “This chapel has been erected by the United States of America as a sacred rendezvous of a grateful people with its immortal dead.”
As I sat in the chapel looking at the pictures and designs, a lot of thoughts ran through my mind.
I thought about the young men buried in this cemetery, most of whom had died liberating southern France.
I thought about my father’s father and mother’s grandfather who fought in the war, and how lucky they were to have survived. I thought about Alfred Kirkland and the late Homer Tapp, lifelong members of our church who are also veterans of the war.
And I thought about Aunt Sara, wishing that she were here to see this beautiful place where her husband lies.
My mother’s grandfather was a foot soldier in the Battle of the Bulge. My father’s father flew a B-24 in the 389th Army Air Corps and was a part of the Ploesti oil raids in Romania, later flying bombing missions over Germany.
Both of them were very lucky to have survived. I met both of them when I was an infant but regret that I never was able to talk with them about what they did.
I have gotten to know several World War II veterans at church, one of them being Mr. Kirkland. Just recently, I was talking with him about what he did during the war.
He was trained to fly a B-25 and was set to fly over Japan, but the atomic bombs ended the war before he had to go. People will always be debating whether or not President Truman made the right decision, but among the countless lives that the bomb saved were people like Mr. Kirkland.
While in France, we also visited the beaches of Normandy. We climbed inside of some of the Nazi bunkers and also saw the craters that are still nearby from the explosion of the bombs.
I had always known that D-Day was a horrific day in American history. but it really came to life for me when I saw the beaches where the soldiers were shot at from the high ground and the rows upon rows of graves of fallen soldiers. The sacrifices they made were beyond my comprehension.
Recently, a local friend of ours, Craig Samuels, went to Normandy and was stopped by a German lady who said, “Go home and thank your grandfathers for saving Germany, as well as the rest of Europe.”
In our part of the world, World War II is not always at the forefront of our minds, but over there people still have a vivid memory of the sacrifices made by our soldiers.
As we exited the chapel at Rhone Cemetery in Draguignan and were taking a few more pictures, it was getting late in the afternoon. Ms. DesRosier invited my younger brother Shafe and me to lower and fold the American flag, something Shafe has learned as a Boy Scout.
We hope that Aunt Sara would be pleased.