When I put out a request for unusual stories about the war two weeks ago, I was contacted almost immediately by Marine Hannon, who wanted to share a very special story about her connection to the war and those who fought in it. Though her story has already been covered online (link) (link), I wanted to interview her and hear her thoughts about what it’s like being a young woman for whom the Second World War still very much dominates the present. Marine grew up with a clear idea of the war as an antecedent to her own life, not just something that happened a long time ago, but an event that made the world what it is today and continues to touch millions of lives. Her parents were very serious about the duty of memory and making their children realise how lucky they were to be free.
Marine first visited Normandy when she was 9 years old; her parents took her to the British cemetery in Bayeux, and she remembers being shocked at the young age of the soldiers in the cemetery. “The white gravestones gave me chills,” she says. “I didn’t like the experience. I loved to visit everything else, but not the cemeteries. I was only 9.” I have a similar vision that was imprinted on me at a young age: my parents would take us to visit my grandfather’s grave on Sunday every now and then, and I remember staring at rows upon rows of identical white headstones, marking the graves of Russian POWs who perished in nearby Kamp Amersfoort, a major German transit camp during the Second World War. There weren’t that many of them, I realised when I was older, but when I was a child, the rigid uniformity of the stones, their row and grave numbers engraved on the side like apartment numbers, made a deep impression on me.
Les Fleurs de la Memoire
Cemeteries aren’t pleasant places at the best of times, but when I visited Coleville-sur-Mer in Normandy two years ago, it seemed downright eerie. A thick fog had drifted in from nearby Omaha Beach, shrouding the cemetery and muffling the sound of our steps on the gravel as we walked around the monument at the entrance, the wall of the forgotten, bearing the names of those whose bodies were never found. At Coleville, it’s not an illusion: the white crosses and stars of David really stretch back as far as the eye can see. And, on closer inspection, the stones aren’t quite uniform. Some of them have their names filled in with golden sand from the beach; others bear flowers, and most Jewish headstones are covered with stones, as per Jewish custom. I had already encountered some Americans who were here specifically to pay tribute to a father or grandfather who had fallen in the battle of Normandy, but the number of decorated graves was really quite large, so I knew there had to be some other reason; surely not all descendants made the yearly trip to Coleville?
As it turns out, there is an organization called Les Fleurs de la Memoire, which ensures that the graves of the war dead are properly cared for. Marine first heard about them from a Belgian friend who took care of a WW1 soldier’s grave, and, being a Band of Brothers fan, put in a request for a paratrooper’s grave at Coleville. From an early age she had been taken t o Coleville and other places in Normandy by her parents, instilling in her a sense of duty to remember the sacrifices these people had made so that she could live in freedom. By taking care of a soldier’s grave, she could give back to him and his family, who might not be able to travel all the way to Normandy to tend to it themselves. However, she was told she’d have to wait a long time to get a paratrooper’s grave, because these were very popular. After seeing Fury in the cinema, Marine decided she’d like to take care of the grave of somebody belonging to a another division with plenty of history, allowing her the opportunity to do a little research, and landed upon the US Army 7th Armored Division. The grave she was assigned belonged to private Vivian L. Ward, whose death is something of a mystery: he is the only member of the 7th Armored to be buried at Coleville, having died on August 21 1944 while driving a general’s jeep towards Paris. He was eighteen years old.
Eager to let Vivian’s living relatives know that his grave was being cared for, she sent a letter to his son in the United States, not knowing whether she had the right address or the right person. Two weeks later, she received a reply from Rodney Duderstadt, Vivian’s son, who lives in Texas and has been unable to travel to Normandy because of his health. He was over the moon that his father’s grave was being properly looked after, and he and Marine have kept in touch ever since. A few years ago, Vivian and her family even travelled to Texas to meet Rodney and his family, the result of a very special cross-cultural bond, showing once more how the war still brings together people from different walks of life. Marine visits Vivian’s grave every year, brings him roses and fills in the name engraved on his headstone with golden sand from Omaha Beach. “I always bring his photo to take a picture of him with the flowers. We talk to him, and we talk about his son.”
Remembering the war
“Not many 23-year-olds have a heart like hers,” Rodney said about Marine. Though now, at 25, she is the same age as many of those who died fighting in Normandy, she recognizes that their life was completely different to hers. I asked her whether she thinks that makes identification with the victims of the war more difficult for people her age. “It’s certainly an obstacle,” she agrees. “People have often told me that ‘the war was so long ago, we should just forget about it’. But it wasn’t that long ago, and to forget about the war is just impossible.” Furthermore, she says that older people often don’t take her seriously because she is young, and a girl. “Sometimes, in museums, men look at me with disgust because I am wearing something WWII-related, and some of them assumed I like Band of Brothers just because of the actors, not because of the story. But now I’ve learnt that I can shut them up by knowing more about the war than them!” she laughs. “On the other hand, some people find it really good to be interested in war at my age, and they are relieved that people my age can pass on the knowledge to the next generation.” I have often heard the same thing, and it makes me realise that it is a serious duty that we have to carry on the memory of the war. Pretty soon, there will be no survivors left, and it will be up to those who didn’t experience the war to continue to remember it and remind people of what happened.
I ask her if she thinks having a personal connection to the war is a prerequisite for maintaining a respectful attitude towards it. “Not necessarily. It starts with education,” she replies, “seriously discussing what happened, and moving away from the ‘heroes-and-villains’ aspect of the war. If we grow up to be respectful towards those who died, and have a basic knowledge of what happened, something can then spark your interest and drive you to know more.” Marine reads about the war on all sides to expand her point of view, including the lives of women and civilians. Her grandmother, too, is a source of knowledge, as she witnessed bombings and the occupation as a child. “What keeps me interested,” Marine says, “is the variety of topics in World War II. When you think you’ve read everything about a battle, a place or a division, you can still learn more.” She acknowledges that to try and understand war and reflect on it, it’s necessary to approach it from different sides. Movies and series can help to picture the war, books can help to understand what goes on in the minds of soldiers and civilians, and by visiting the battlefields, it’s easier to piece together what was seen and read and project this on the surroundings, so the site acquires more meaning.
The difference between WW1 and WW2
The image of victorious Americans was imprinted on Marine from very early on, and it was movies like Saving Private Ryan, Fury and Band of Brothers that piqued her interest in the battle for Normandy, which took place not far from where she lives. Like many of us, Marine feels invested in the fate of the Americans in Normandy, because they have given us the strongest visual clues about the conflict, and continue to do so: Utah and Omaha have enormous signs by the side of the road, but the beaches where the Canadians and the British landed are hardly signposted at all. More than fifteen nationalities took part in the battle of Normandy, including Poles, Greeks, Norwegians, the Dutch and the French, a fact that to me often seems to be eclipsed by the Hollywood image we have of the conflict.
“I feel bad for them, to be honest,” Marine says, employing a charming French idiom: “They don’t have good promotion like the Americans.” She’s glad Band of Brothers shed some light on Normandy: “I know some people tend to say this casts a shadow on other division, but to my mind, the show wasn’t about Normandy and D-Day, but about the link between soldiers during war. I have made an effort to educate myself about the other countries who took part in the battle; I’ve visited most of the museums in the Canadian and British sectors, which are smaller and less popular compared to the American sector. Band of Brothers is a good place to start, but if you really want to know more about the history of Normandy and D-Day, you have to look further.”
Promotion is the right word. She repeats it when I ask her about the memorial culture surrounding World War I, much of which also took place in the north of France. Less attention is given to it, she acknowledges: “Hollywood didn’t give us good promotion about World War I.” It’s true; with the exception of a few action flicks like Wonder Woman and Flyboys, the recent tearjerker War Horse and blockbusters from the 1950s like Paths of Glory and Gallipoli, the First World War is mostly a small blip on our visual radar. In Wonder Woman, the clichéd image of evil Nazi scientists was basically copy-pasted on World War I Germans, showing that by now we associate certain sides of the conflict with a very strong visual and topical language. Still, remembrance for WW1 is very much alive in France.
“We honour the war dead on 11 November, Armistice Day,” Marine says, “and this year there are the centennial celebrations. Also, the latest Paris-Roubaix bicycle race ran past some of the former battlefields and re-enactors were invited to the event, and the events of WWI were talked about.”
Do you have an interesting story about visiting the battlefields of World War II, or any other locations? Would you like to weigh in on the difference in remembering World Wars I and II, or on the way the war is remembered where you live? Let us know!