The long rows of markers at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Photo by Author
On our recent trip to France we did as most Americans do and visited Normandy, the site of the World War II D-Day invasion.
Besides the beaches where the landings took place the most moving stop we made was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Although the cemetery and memorial are a peaceful and a reverent tribute to those that had made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, not much is told about those resting there.
In this post I’ll tell three stories of heroes that rest there: one of the Sons of a famous American President, one of two brothers whose story inspired an Academy Award winning movie, and the story of a wife’s unending love, and her search for the love of her life.
But first here’s a little information about the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
Thousands of visitors come each year to walk among the rows to shining white markers, but what most visitors don’t know is that this beautiful cemetery on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach is actually the second resting place for those soldiers killed in the D-Day invasion.
The location of the first cemetery of those American’s killed during D-Day.
As you drive along the Omaha Beach road you’ll see sandwiched among the rows of summer cottages is a small white memorial that reads, “THIS MARKS THE SITE OF THE FIRST AMERICAN CEMETERY IN FRANCE WORLD WAR II SINCE MOVED TO AMERICAN CEMETERY N.”I.”
Site of the first American D-Day cemetery. Photo by Chris Coffin
It was here on June 8, 1944, two days after the invasion, that those killed were laid to rest. After the war ended their remains were moved to the current cemetery and memorial.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
The Memorial at the Normandy Cemetery. Photo by Author
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial occupies 172 acres on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel. From different areas within the cemetery you can clearly see the English Channel and Omaha Beach below. There was once a path you could take down to the beach, but that’s been closed.
“The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” Photo by the Author
There are 9,387 American soldiers buried there, and although most are from the D-Day invasion there are also those from other World War II engagements as well. Not all those resting there are men; three American service women are interred there. There’s also one World War I hero buried there, which I’ll cover later.
The center piece of the memorial is the statue by Donald De Lue entitled, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”
Along the inside walls of the monument are maps depicting the D-Day invasion, and behind the memorial is a wall that’s engraved with the names of those who are still missing in action. Some of these names now have a bronze star next to them; this denotes that the soldier’s remains have been found and identified.
Among the notables buried at the Normandy American Cemetery are three Medal of Honor recipients, and two sons of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt Jr.
Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt Jr. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain
My first story is of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Eventhough his father was one of the most a famous American presidents not much is said about Theodore Roosevelt Jr. But in doing the research for this post I found that in some ways “Ted” Roosevelt was more heroic than his famous father.
Ted Roosevelt already had an outstanding career, not only in the military but also politically, by the time World War II broke out. He had served in World War I and after he had served as the Governor of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. When America entered World War II Ted was one of the first to step up again in helping to defend his country, even though he now suffered with a heart condition, which he kept secret from the Army.
At the time of the D-Day invasion Roosevelt was a Brigadier General. On that terrible morning of June 6, 1944, Roosevelt commanded the 8th Infantry Regiment on its assault on Utah Beach. Roosevelt was the only general to take part in the landings, and at 56 years old he was also the oldest person.
Roosevelt was one of the first off the landing craft, wadding to the beach leading his men. Once on the beach he discovered that they had landed at the wrong position, and that’s when made his famous comment, “We’ll start the war from right here!”
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. grave. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain
Another interesting fact about the D-Day invasion and the Roosevelts is that just down the coast at Omaha Beach another Roosevelt was also leading his men ashore. Captain Quentin Roosevelt II, Ted’s son and Teddy’s Grandson, was among the first wave to hit Omaha Beach.
Ted’s heart condition, and other health problems caused by his WW I injuries, along with the stress from the D-Day assault, finally took their toll on the warrior. On July 12, one month after the invasion, he suffered a heart attack and died. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and a promotion to a two-star, Major General.
Quentin Roosevelt’s grave, next to his brother Ted. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain
I mentioned that there is also one World War I soldier buried at the Normandy Cemetery, and that’s Ted Roosevelt’s younger brother, Second Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt. Quentin was a fighter pilot in World War I, and was shot down over France. The Roosevelt family had his body moved next to his brothers.
The Niland Brothers: Preston Niland and Robert “Bob” Niland
In the foreground the graves of the two Niland brothers, Preston and Robert, side by side. Photo by Author.
2nd Lt. Preston Niland. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain
Preston Niland was a Second Lieutenant in the 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. Preston was killed on June 7, 1944, during the second day of fighting, near Utah Beach.
Sergeant Robert Niland. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain
Robert “Bob” Niland was a Technical Sergeant with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. On June 6th, 1944, while his company retreated from Neuvilli-au-Plain during a major counterattack by the Germans; Bob, with two other men, volunteered to stay back and hold off the Germans with machinegun fire. Although the other two men survived, Bob Niland was killed in action.
Both brothers are buried side by side, and their graves are one of the most visited at the cemetery; the reason is because their story was the inspiration for an Academy Award winning film about World War II.
Bob and Preston were two of four brothers from Tonawanda, New York. All four brothers: Bob, Preston, Edward and Fred “Fritz” had joined the service to fight in World War II.
After both Bob and Preston had been killed, and it was believed that their brother Edward had also been killed by the Japanese in Burma, the Army pulled the last brother, Fritz, from the fighting. They did this so that at least one brother would survive. Fritz would spend the rest of the war as an MP in New York City.
The story of the Niland Brothers would loosely be used by Director Steven Spielberg’s in his 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan.”
The story does ends somewhat happily when it was found that Edward had only been captured by the Japanese. He was released on May 4, 1945.
Fritz died on November 1st 1983, and his Brother Edward in February of 1984.
A Wife’s Unending Love
Peggy and Billie Harris on their wedding day. Photo from DoDLive, public domain.
Peggy Seale had finally met the love of her life, 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris, while she worked at Altus AFB Oklahoma. They had been exchanging letters for some time, but that meeting in the base hanger was their first face-to- face. It was love at first sight.
In 1943 Peggy and Billie married in Florida, where Billie was finishing his fighter pilot training. However, their honeymoon was short lived; six weeks later Billie was shipped off to England, and the war.
Lt. Harris was assigned to the 355th Fighter Squadron/354th Fighter Group, whose missions were to fly as escorts for bombers supporting the Allied retaking of France.
Because of the high secrecy needed during the war Peggy only heard from Billie very sparingly, and when she did it was only in short notes. Peggy knew that she would have to wait for Billie to finish his tour of duty before she could see him.
Lt. Harris had completed from 60 to 100 missions, and was eligible to be sent home. However he took one more mission. On July 17, 1944, Harris was again flying his P-51 fighter as an escort when his plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire.
As his plane was going down Billie had more than enough time to bailout, but ahead, directly in the path of his plane, he saw the French Village of Les Ventes. Billie then made the choice to use his time instead of bailing out, to steer his plane away from the town.
The people of Les Ventes were outside, after hearing the anti-aircraft fire, standing in the town’s main square, when out of the black night sky they saw an Allied plane on fire heading directly towards them. As they watched, knowing that sure death was coming, the plane slowly banked away, crashing in a nearby woods.
Some men from the village ran out to the crash site were the found the pilot dead. After the Germans released Harris’s body the villagers buried him in the town cemetery’s war heroes section. The whole village attended his funeral, and the flowers that covered his
1st Lt. Billie D. Harris’s grave. Photo by Author
grave were said to have been knee deep. In 1946 Harris’s body was moved to another cemetery, and then finally to the new Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mar.
Believing that Billie was on his way home Peggy sat in excited anticipation, but he didn’t arrived. Peggy contacted the Army and was first told he was already back, and then on his way home, and then missing in action. These changing stories would continue throughout the war. Even after the war Peggy couldn’t get a direct answer as to what had happened to her husband.
For 60 years Peggy would try every avenue to find out what had happened to her Billie, and all she ever got was the same bureaucratic run around. But still she persisted. Someone had to know something on what had happened to Billie. She searched and waited, but never remarried.
Each year, for 60 years, the Village of Les Ventes had honored the pilot who had sacrificed his life to save theirs. They even named the village main street after him, “Place Billie D. Harris.” And each year they’d hold a parade to celebrate his sacrifice.
Even though Harris was no longer buried in the village cemetery, the town continued to visit and decorate his grave at the Normandy American Cemetery, thinking that he had no family to remember him.
As the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of France drew near, the town wanted to do something really special for their hero; the problem was, they really didn’t know anything about him, except his name. What was his family like, and what part of Canada was he from. Yes, they thought Billie was Canadian.
It was an article about the towns 60th Anniversary celebration for their Canadian hero that caught the attention of Mr. Huard, president of the Normandy Association of the Remembrance of Aerial, who contacted Les Ventes Village Councilwomen Valerie Quesnel to inform her that Billie D. Harris wasn’t Canadian, but rather American.
Quesnel then visited the Normandy American Cemetery to talk to Huard and confirmed what he had told her.
Now knowing that Harris was an American Quesnel knew what country to go to get the correct information they were looking for. Quesnel wrote to the United States National Archives were she was sent copies of 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris’s military file.
Meanwhile, Billie’s Cousin, Alton Harvey, had come to Peggy’s rescue to help her find Billie. Instead of making more useless calls Alton decided to personally go to the National Archives himself to see if they had anything on Billie. When he requested information on his cousin he thought it would take months to get anything, instead it only took a few minutes. The secretary was able to find Harris’s file quickly because someone else had recently requested those records, Valerie Quesnel.
This was unbelievable! Alton contacted Valerie, who then contacted Peggy. Finally after 60 years of searching, wondering, and praying Peggy knew what had happened to her Billie, and where he rested.
Peggy Harris, after so many years of not knowing, finally visited her husband’s grave. While in France Peggy also visited Les Ventes, where the citizens welcomed her with
Peggy Harris at her Billie’s grave. Photo from DoDLive, public domain.
open arms, the wife of their hero.
Peggy was taken to the site where Billie had crashed, by the last living member of the village who had witnessed it.
Every year that she was able Peggy would return to visit her Billie’s grave. And when she wasn’t there she would have flowers sent on their wedding anniversary, Billie’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, and other occasions.
On November 12, 2012, at a special assembly honoring Veterans, the Altus AFB Blue Knights Honor Guard performed a flag folding ceremony in honor of 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris. The flag was presented to Peggy Harris by Col. Ted Detwiler, 97th Operations Group commander.
Also for his service, 1st Lt. Billie D Harris was awarded two Air Medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross and 11 oak leaf clusters.
When asked why she hadn’t remarried Peggy would answer, “Billie was married to me all of his life, and I choose to be married to him all of my life.”
Just three stories of many
What seems to be endless rows of shining white markers, also holds thousands of stories of the heroes lying there. These are only three of the many.
If you’d like to visit these graves from my post you’ll need to ask at the cemetery office for their location, because there is no special identification on them.
Gorstein, Ethan. “The story if the vanishing husband.” kiwi report, kiwi report, 23 July 2017, http://www.kiwireport.com/story-vanishing-husband.
Wittkop, Erin. “WWII Widow Finds Husband’s Resting Place 60-Years Later.” DoDLive, DOD Social Media, 20 Nov. 2012, http://www.dodlive.mil/2012/11/20/wwii-widow-finds-husbands-resting-place-60-years-later.
“Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.” WIKIPEDIA , Wikipedia , July 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normandy_Amereican_Cemetery_and_Memorial.
“Niland brothers .” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, July 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niland_brothers.
“Theodore Rossevelt Jr.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 16 July 2018.
“Theodore Rossevelt Jr.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 16 July 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Roosevelt_Jr.