Three weeks ago, this reporter discovered an extraordinary way to celebrate our independence: in Normandy, France where untold thousands of Americans died fighting for our country's continued freedom 66 years ago.
My trip to Normandy was triggered by the story of Greenwich's Lee Davenport -- as told in these pages -- who participated in a unique way in the Allied invasion in Normandy in 1944.
To learn more background for my story, set near the site of the famed St.-Lo Breakout, I accepted the hospitality of the Count Denis de Kergorlay, owner of Château de Canisy, which is located near St.-Lo.
The Count came to Greenwich three years ago to meet with the press to drum up interest in Greenwich families coming to his 1,000-year-old château and he extended an open invitation to experience it first-hand.
It wasn't until the 1990s that the Count began opening the château to paying guests when his family was not using it. It can accommodate up to 30-- 50 guests on special occasions -- but over the weekend of the Fourth of July, I was the only guest!
On that day, the Count kindly set me up with a British military historian who came to the château for lunch. Major General Graham Hollands, a retired British soldier stood at least 6 feet, 4 inches and is a noted guide of the D-Day battles who often lectures aboard the Queen Mary II.
He spoke with intensity about the Normandy campaign. "It was not just D-Day," he said. "It went on for 77 days with an average daily casualty rate of 6,700 a day." He had with him an impressive tour and research notebook he was preparing for an American family coming to Normandy to retrace the steps of a father's journey from Omaha Beach to the place he died.
But Hollands regrets that more American visitors "don't find the time to explore D-Day," he said. They seemed caught up in playing the new video games featuring D-Day. There is also an ongoing parade of movies about the D-Day invasion they can watch.
Being where it actually happened is another experience altogether.
I also was introduced to two French men, teenagers during the war, who not only shared their personal experiences, but also introduced me to their two unique museums centered on the Normandy invasion.
It took Roger Portier, now 84, 15 years to assemble his Operation Cobra museum in the town of Marigny next to Canisy. It opened in 2002. "I lived through it," he said. "I escaped death three times. I felt I had to recount what had happened." A memorable photo at the exhibit's end showed a French man hugging an American soldier with the word "Merci" in tall letters. (That image stuck in this post-Iraq War era.).
The second museum was created in 1995 in the town of St.-Lo, which was devastated by Allied bombing even before the St.-Lo Breakout bombing blitz. The now 80-year-old Jean Mignon, deputy-mayor of St.-Lo, managed to survive in his home in the middle of the town, though half his house was hit. Mignon's museum commemorates the 29th and 35th American Divisions that set St.-Lo free and is set dramatically within the surviving 800-year old Chapelle de la Madeleine.
Mignon said he is surprised to see, though the war veterans are aging, that "their families are continuing to come, sons and daughters and grand nephews." The ones not coming, he said, were those of the younger French generation.
It was many years ago that I took my two youngest children to France on a house exchange when they were 8 and 12. I took them to Normandy to the famed American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. They were too young to grasp the significance.
A visit to Normandy is an important history lesson for every American, no matter what age. Not everyone can be based in a château, but these grand houses are living history. Just driving along Normandy's roads and seeing the markers on which is written Voie de la Liberté - way of liberty - that are set every kilometer, all the way to Germany, gives the heart a tug.
I was taken to the site of the horrific bombing of the St.-Lo Breakout. A simple monument marks the site along the St.-Lo-Periers road. Set on a ridge, it overlooks the bucolic countryside of Normandy. A farmer nearby showed my small party the detritus of war he continually turns up in his farming -- mortar shells, bomb fragments, and grenades -- 66 years after the event on July 25, 1944.
When talking with these men who lived through the invasion, I heard often the phrase "the fog of war." Mignon told of his surprise as a teenager in coming upon the American patrols. "I thought they would be British," he said, "coming from Britain." "We didn't know a million and a half Americans would be coming," he said. It was their packs of Phillip Morris, Camels and Hershey Bars that were their giveaways. An American soldier had given him his first piece of chewing gum.
The civilians of St.-Lo and surrounding towns, including Canisy, were warned of the forthcoming Allied bombing, said the Count. "The Americans were dropping messages they were coming, but the wind took the messages away. Nobody in the population of St.-Lo was aware until the Allies started bombing the train station. They were still going and buying their bread. They hid in their cellars."
Hundreds of refugees hid in the cave of the Château de Canisy, the Count told me over dinner. Bombs hit the building's center tower, injuring some of the refugees. Up until the invasion, the Germans were living there, while his grandparents were forced to live in a small portion of the château. The Germans had taken meticulous care of it, he said, as it was a valued spoil of war. But with their desperate departure, the interior fell into disarray.
The liberation brought a tent city of American GIs to the château's great green lawns. All during those months the château had housed two great generals of the war, first German General Erwin Rommel and then General Omar Bradley.
On the eve of the Fourth of July, I was tucked up in my grand bedroom with its copper bathtub -- in a bathroom copied after that of a family friend, Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. I was reading about the Ninth Tactical Air Force command in 1944 when the sound of explosions broke the silence outside my window. It was fireworks!
The French were celebrating America's day of independence, I thought. I learned later it was the annual fête in the nearby village of Canisy. And yet, seeing those fireworks light up the night over such a landscape of history, so far removed from my homeland, I felt the price of America's independence like I have never felt it before.
Anne W. Semmes is a staff reporter at the Greenwich Citizen.