Through my podcast, Screen Thoughts, in which Emily O’Toole and I (using the alias, Justine Hollister) talk about all things on the screen, I was invited to a rough cut screening of Return to Normandy, a short film about Colonel John J. Wessmiller’s return to Normandy, more than seventy years after he landed there on D-Day. You all remember D-Day—we learned about it in high school. We learned the date when it took place, that it was a surprise, that lots of men died, and that it was the beginning of the end for the Germans because the Allies had no intention of turning back.
I haven’t ever thought much about D-Day. Then there was the 70th anniversary, and Obama and some other world leaders celebrated our might yet again and that was the end of that. Not so fast.
Colonel Wessmiller didn’t get to go to Normandy on the anniversary. Team Wessmiller was told that The White House chose someone local to go after stringing him along for quite some time. They ‘chose’ someone else? I have not yet uncovered the underbelly of that part of the story, but I assure you I’m not done trying. There are five men still alive who were there that day. Five. I have to move on now to the good part of this tale because I’m just not sure what to do about the injustice of “no room at the anniversary inn” for the Colonel, who was actually there.
The Colonel’s war story is not really that unusual, I would guess. He lost a lot of men and friends when they turned a corner and mistakenly headed east instead of north and ran into the German army – literally. He dove into the bushes and then crawled through the window of a small cottage, where he stole a bicycle with two flat tires to ride to get help. He was the sole survivor of his group of warriors that day, and 70+ years later he carefully crafted a list of their names to pay tribute at the cemetery in Normandy (which looks remarkably like Arlington). But to watch his telling of it, and to see his determination to go back and pay tribute to it all, is a gift that keeps giving. This short film must be seen by all. It’s about compassion, commitment, and courage. You remember compassion, commitment, and courage. They used to be three tenets of our great nation. The Colonel reminds us all of what we ought to be to the world, and I for one want him around telling it for years to come. His grandson’s film will ensure that he is.
Forty years after the war ended, Colonel Wessmiller sent a new bike to replace the one he’d stolen, and now thirty years later still, everyone in the theater watched on the screen as the man whose bike he’d stolen thanked him for being an American, and for coming across the pond to save another nation because it was the right thing to do. Then the granddaughter of that Frenchman kissed the Colonel, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Money had been raised, and the Colonel made the trip back to Normandy to pay tribute to the fallen and to be thanked by those who tell him, “but for you we would be Germans!”
My husband, H2 (Husband #2), is French. He and his family escaped to America through Portugal after the Nazi’s invaded. He was lucky—they were Jewish, and the end would not have been good for him. He took me to Normandy on one of our monthly trips to France, and I walked the beach on which the Colonel had stood. But now I was seeing it through new eyes, and I really understood better. It made me wish I’d stood with a straighter spine when I looked out over it twenty years ago. That stretch of beach will forever mark that time in the world’s history when thousands of men ran into harm’s way because they were asked to. Each soft wave whispers “thank you” forevermore.
I have so many questions for the Colonel, and it appears I may actually get to ask them, as we’ve invited him to join our podcast about his film and his remarkable history. Lucky, lucky me. I want to ask him why he and his band of brothers didn’t seem to suffer when they returned home the way in the way that our men now do? Did they just keep it in? What is the difference? I want to ask him what he would say now to those friends he lost that day, about the life he lived after they were gone. I’d like to ask him about his thoughts on the trip over to Omaha Beach in the boat the night before D-Day. Mostly though, I just want to thank him for his service.
Five men remaining. Don’t we need to make sure we hear from all them of them before they join the rest of their brethren? Each and every one of them.