A Grave in Normandy

My father taught at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. David Briggs, Jr. was his oldest son, my brother. My brother was seventeen years old and many of his friends were already eighteen and heading for the army to fight in World War Two. Seventeen-year-olds were not required to join the army, but could do so if they volunteered. My brother volunteered. He finished his training in time to join the massing armies in Ireland and Great Britain, preparing for the Normandy Invasion.

His unit landed on Omaha Beach on June 7th, 1944 – the day following D-Day. They fought in what became known as “The Battle of the Hedge Rows,” finally liberating the port city of Brest on September 18th. In the meantime, our family was notified that David was missing in action. There were long and anxious days of wondering what might have happened. And was he dead, or alive somewhere, or maybe a prisoner of war? My mother dreaded thoughts that he lay wounded and suffering with no help or hope. The silence of the War Department lasted a long, long time. Finally a telegram arrived, on September 27th, saying he had actually been killed more than a month earlier. My father questioned how the hell they could lose track of a soldier for over a month. My mother offered that the circumstances must be terrible “over there” and soldiers fighting for their lives have more urgent matters than sending telegrams.

He had survived 70 days in the hedge rows before his death, and we know nothing for sure about those days other than his general location with the 23rd Infantry. My parents were assured that he had fought bravely. A few of his personal items later arrived in the mail, including a pocket size New Testament stained with his blood. The stain has faded through the years but is still visible. A Gold Star now hung in the living room window, facing the street. His name appeared on a roll of killed service men that hung near the pulpit in our Presbyterian Church. It later appeared in bronze letters on a county court house lawn memorial.  As a young innocent boy, I was not devastated by this event, but my parents were. My father developed severe stomach trouble. My mother had frequent nightmares and felt this loss every remaining day of her life.

After the war, the government offered to dig up the remains of soldiers and bring them home for burial at no cost to the family. My father said this was a senseless waste of taxpayer money and declined the offer. About 60 percent of the other taxpayers thought differently, however. So the military cemeteries that remain overseas represent a minority of the actual casualties. We were notified that David’s grave was in the American Cemetery near St. James, France, and given the row and plot numbers. But neither of my parents ever visited this grave, nor did my older brother, nor did I until recently. After more than 50 years, I made my way there, stopping first at the larger memorial at Omaha Beach, where my brother had first landed. I found it a stunning, sobering place. And after all these years, people still flock to it like pilgrims. Most are very quiet. The rows of graves are very long, and the cliffs are very high.

I started out in the early morning to find the cemetery in St. James, not knowing what to expect. I found the town on an overcast day with a slight breeze stirring. A stranger driving in France appreciates how well even the smaller roads are marked. Most intersections give you distance and direction to three destinations, one closer, another medium distance, and one being usually a large and easily recognized city. A few miles out of town in open country, a small sign pointed to the American Cemetery. I found it easily but almost fearfully. It occupied a large area of high ground, surrounded by a stone wall and with a single entrance. I parked across from it on the 2-lane country road, opened the door, and sighed a deep sigh.

A small, stone headquarters building stood just inside the entranceway. I assumed I needed to see someone and perhaps register or fill something out. The picture shows this building as seen from inside the cemetery, and the man in the suit is the superintendent who greeted me. He was a retired U.S. Army officer. When he learned that I had come from the U.S. to visit my brother’s grave he assumed a solemn tone. He explained that he would escort me to the grave and leave me alone to spend whatever time I wished. When I was finished I should come back to the office and he would show me the chapel and allow me to climb the tower. From the tower I would have a commanding view of the grounds and the surrounding countryside. He looked up my brother’s name in the register and wrote down the address. Then he took a small plastic bucket, poured in a little sand from a stone jar, added a little water, and mixed the two with a flat scraper. He dampened a small sponge and carried these things as he started out ahead of me.

It is hard to describe how serene and beautiful was this place. There was no hint of trash on the grounds or a blade of grass un-mowed. The rows of gravestones were precisely aligned and seemed vast and endless. So many young men, so many names, so many families and towns like ours they had left behind. My brother had written mother not to worry herself about him, he was sure he would come back home from the war. Others here had written their mothers the same. He and these thousands had died as boys, and I had lived on after them my years as a man. These quiet and peaceful grounds were the place where armies had fired on each other, tanks had chewed the earth, shells had exploded, and bombs and bullets rained down from planes overhead. Something like that had ended my brother’s life, and now I was following this gentleman with the small plastic bucket to see where they laid him.

He was watching the little stone markers that told the number of each row, glancing now and then at his slip of paper. Then his steps slowed, although my heart pounding did not. We were there, there at the end of this row, my brother’s row. And his spot was not far in, only six or eight places as I recall. And there on the white cross was his name, my name. His name here in a field in France. The name was weathered by the years, but the superintendent had ways. He explained that the sand in this bucket had been taken from Omaha Beach where my brother landed. He took the scraper and forced sand into each carved letter and numeral. Then he gently wiped off the excess with the damp sponge.  See in the picture (click to enlarge) how this treatment lifted the inscription as compared to the surrounding graves.  He placed a small American flag in the ground, gave a signal, and taps was played. Then he walked off and left me alone.

I know more about my brother from what my parents told me than from what I actually remember. My mother used to talk about how David loved me, his “little brother,” the “baby of the family.” I do remember that we were on the main street of our small town one unsuspecting day, just the two of us. And he took me by the hand, gave some coins to a person behind a window, and led me into a big dark room where we sat down with other people. Up in the front there were cowboys riding horses and making noise. I had never been to such a place or seen such a thing. And I remember my exact words. I leaned and whispered to this future soldier – “Is this a moving picture show?”

I thought of this there, and many other things, and wondered what would have been said and felt if mother and dad were still alive and with me.

The superintendent was a gracious man. He escorted me to the lovely stone chapel and unlocked the stairs so I could climb its tower.  I read the plaques and memorials, then stopped at his office to say goodbye. I learned that the bodies of dead German soldiers were “tended to” by American staff, their graves marked and records turned over to the enemy after the war. I learned that the enemy did the same. My host told of this with some pride. He told me that the French people were still grateful for America’s intervention and sacrifices during the war, that they still came out on memorial days, especially the ones who were older and could remember. And on my drive back to the hotel, I was given an illustration.

The morning overcast had brightened some. I was driving along through open country, passing small, quaint villages and well-tended farms. Now and then I would stop to photograph a church or garden or something of interest like a sign that marked the route of the Tour de France. I passed a small graveyard with a stone fence around it. I was by it and almost drove on, but I turned around and went back. The stones and markers were lovely and ornate. I rested my camera on top of the stone fence and made my shots. Turning to leave, I noticed a stone marker outside the cemetery and beside its entrance.  It was a memorial to an American airman, Lieutenant Conrad Netting, who had died there “in the cause of liberty” on June 10, 1944 and was buried in the nearby cemetery with my brother.  It had been placed by local citizens, not the U.S. government.  The flowers at its base were freshly picked.

3 thoughts on “A Grave in Normandy”

  1. Hi Ed!
       I choked up as I was reading this touching account.  I have such vivid memories of the day my parents received the news of David's death.  Your father was two years ahead of my father at Maryville College.  Also, your father and my father were roommates at Asbury Acres in 1986 and 1987.
    Jim Watt

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