GRUELING GLORY – The March on Carentan | The Girl Who Wore Freedom

When I began writing my new novel, Fragments of Light, I knew I wanted to explore the word ‘Brave.’ I did so by contrasting two stories taking place in different time periods—one woman’s battle to cope with the fallout of severe illness in the present day and a D-Day paratrooper’s impossible decision following a jump into Normandy in 1944.

The hardest part of the novel to write was the WWII portion. I didn’t know how to create a believable character from the sterile information I’d gathered in my research. Then a serendipitous invitation to be the translator for The Girl Who Wore Freedom materialized. I eagerly accepted it and embarked on a journey of discovery that breathed life into history. As I witnessed the expressions of veterans standing on the parapet overlooking Omaha Beach and listened to them telling their stories, a heroic and imperfect image of ‘Brave’ began to emerge.

Michèle Phoenix in Normandy with Staff Sergeant Rice of the 101st AirborneOne of the most impactful moments of my time in Normandy was an event the town of Carentan calls Liberty March. On one morning every year, hundreds of WWII reenactors from around Europe gather on Utah Beach in full vintage gear. From there, they retrace the steps of the Allied troops who came ashore on June 6th, 1944. One of their stops is always at La Barquette—an unremarkable but critical location American forces needed to secure in order to move further inland.

Thankfully, The Girl Who Wore Freedom’s cameras were there that afternoon, documenting an encounter that gives me chills even two years later. The article I wrote to memorialize the march became the video we’re releasing today. It tells the story of Tom Rice, an American veteran who fought at La Barquette. It follows the reenactors who met him there in 2018. And it introduces viewers to the town of Carentan—a history-saturated place that embodies the love of Norman people for their liberators.

Most importantly, Grueling Glory expresses the warmth and emotion of the D-Day commemorations that occur every year all over Normandy. One cannot witness them firsthand without coming away both convicted and moved.

The March on Carentan

It’s the sound of their boots I heard first, as I stood among pastures on the outskirts of Carentan. Not the ordered, rhythmic thumps of troops marching in formation, but the shuffle of soles over dirt and stone, and unintelligible words spoken by hushed voices. There were probably two hundred men in this group, dressed in period military garb, faces painted with clay and fatigue, bodies wearied by the hours they’d already spent walking under a beating Normandy sun.

La Barquette ReenactorsThey’d started their trek on the beach, several hours before, following the trail of the heroic GIs who’d survived the fire of German artillery from cliffs and the sky, then spent days trudging across treacherous marshlands, cutting their way through hedgerows, hoping they would see the enemy before it saw them.

When the modern reenactors reached a boggy place called La Barquette, they took a few moments to stand still and regain their strength, speaking little, their faces guarded, their expressions intense—as if their tiring trek in vintage boots, uniforms, and gear had plunged them back into the battles that had scarred this land.

I saw their posture change when the siren of an approaching military jeep reached their ears. They straightened, looked toward the sound, and something fierce seemed to come over their faces. Fierce honor. Fierce purpose. Fierce love.

Staff Sergeant Rice of the 101st Airborne shaking the hands of the reenactorsStaff Sergeant Rice, of the 101st Airborne, stepped down from the jeep and was ushered toward the path where the civilians-dressed-as-soldiers had morphed their ragtag ranks into two straight rows of strong-spined warriors—an Honor Guard for the ninety-six-year-old veteran who had walked and fought on this sacred patch of ground. Their silence was powerful and moving.

Staff Sergeant Rice’s gait was unsure at times, but his eyes… There was pride in his countenance, the kind of satisfaction that comes from knowing the enormity of what was accomplished, through sacrifice and valor, for the sake of the many nations represented among the men lined up to honor him.

The veteran walked slowly, shaking each hand, receiving the words of reenactors who had come from across France and Europe to immerse themselves in the grueling glory of history revived.

Tom Rice with 101st ReenactorsThen the soldiers huddled closer to hear the details of Tom’s story, the tale of a young man who had lost his way on a dark night in the fields of Normandy and somehow still helped to pave the path to Freedom. His memories were vivid. His voice soft as he spoke, his hand shaky as he pointed to the place where he’d set up a perimeter, the tall grass where a German soldier had died, the direction his unit had taken as it moved on toward the town of Carentan.

The gathered men clapped for Tom when it was over, and he clapped too. But the faraway look in his eyes told me that it was his comrades he was remembering. The young, the old, the strong, the frail, the courageous, the fearful. The heroes who had fought and fallen at his side.

Hours later, I was in Carentan when these same men marched into town, now nearly four-hundred strong. They were preceded by others in period costumes—women, children, and the elderly—all reenacting the exodus of the city’s population, lives piled high on rickety carts to escape the kind of horror we can scarce imagine.

Carentan Liberty MarchThe soldiers who followed were in formation now. They chanted as they marched, pride on their faces and power in their steps. They looked straight ahead as crowds saluted them, invigorated by the welcome of a grateful town freed from oppression—decades before—by the courage of men who looked just like them.

The historic day in Carentan left me both moved and shaken. It crystallized in my mind the character and courage of the American soldiers who had fought there. And it demonstrated, in honor and remembrance, the visceral love Normandy extends to its liberators. It embodied what the French call “Un devoir de mémoire”—the duty we all have to simply remember.

Normandy loves our American veterans. And it’s so much more than the flags in every storefront, the banners strung across streets and the 1940s music blaring from loudspeakers in town squares. It’s the warm welcome of its population—an intentional, tender, celebrating force that captures the spirit and gratitude of the Liberation. It’s the kindness of its citizens and their painstaking focus on embracing, honoring, and thanking their liberators well.

The Norman people understand the high cost of freedom, perhaps because their elders lived without it for so long. They are French today in part because of the sacrifice of women and men—heroes like Tom Rice—who were willing to give their lives to fight on foreign soil for a population they didn’t know in what was broadly considered an unwinnable war.

The French of all ages who gather every year to celebrate and embrace our frail and worthy veterans—they still live, as they have since June 6th, 1944, by a motto we Americans have too quickly forgotten. “N’oubliez jamais”—never forget.

 

Michèle Phoenix

Novelist and Translator for The Girl Who Wore Freedom Born in France to a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is an international speaker and writer. Two of her five novels have been Christy Award finalists. A prominent advocate for Third Culture Kids, she travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. Michèle is a three-time cancer survivor who understands the gift in every breath and milestone. She is inspired by good conversation, investigative travel, and paths to healing. www.michelephoenix.com 

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