Word War II memories still linger across the Atlantic
By Terri L. Spilman
Each year on Sept. 11, while most Americans reflect on the deadliest attack on U.S. soil, the people of Flavigny, France, are celebrating freedom. A hard-won freedom paid for with the ultimate sacrifice of the American soldiers who fought and won the Battle of the Moselle River – a battle instrumental in ending the occupation of France by Nazi forces during World War II.
“These types of remembrances are healing to the veterans’ families who come to visit,” said Paula Evans Baker, a woman who said she dedicates her life to helping families take pilgrimages to the Lorraine region. “Even if the men returned home, they have lost their youth. For the French, they are healing also. They get to say ‘merci’ to representatives of their liberators. They also receive healing from the trauma of their experiences in these gatherings.”
And it was that experience that Donna Thomas of Carmel and her granddaughter Morgan Thomas were seeking when they decided to make a pilgrimage to the Normandy and Omaha beaches in the Lorraine region of France in commemoration of her late husband Chuck Thomas’s service during WWII.
Chuck Thomas served in the 110th Medical Battalion, part of the 134th Regiment of the 35th Infantry. He also entered the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector – someone who refused to carry a gun or kill another human being because of religious beliefs.
His first day of combat was on the beaches of Normandy with his ambulance in tow as a medic. Chuck Thomas, 22 at the time, would be part of the deadliest conflict in human history and one of the more famous battles of the war. He was one of only 10 to survive out of his unit.
Thomas’ granddaughter and Baker became acquainted through the chat line of the American WWII Orphans Network that’s based in Indianapolis. The group offers support services for veterans and their families. And after that connection was made, Baker arranged for a day of commemoration through her contacts in France. Donna Thomas and Morgan were honored during a reconciliation ceremony complete with the raising of the American flag at the Moselle River bridge monument built in honor of those who died during the battle.
The monument bears the symbol of the 35th Infantry uniform patch and is inscribed, “For those who fought in this area and died for our peace and freedom.”
“I felt like the Queen of England,” Thomas said. “Who am I? I’m just Donna Thomas, the wife of a soldier in the 35th Infantry.”
They continued their journey to the Espace de Mémoire where they were met by a group of Espace Association supporters for a tour and dinner. The group included former resistance fighters, former prisoners of war and a Jewish man who lost everyone in his family except a brother in the Holocaust.
General Patton’s French translator, 95-year-old Isabelle Mangin, was also a part of the group, and she said she is very involved in the work of the Espace Association. She told Donna Thomas was particularly interested in adding her remembrances of the WWII era to educational projects.
According to Baker, the opportunity to share experiences has become so important to the Espace members that they meet at the unheated museum even during the “closed” months.
Thomas’ granddaughter brought along pictures of her grandfather taken during his service time.
“I didn’t know how they would be used or if they would be appreciated, but it turned out to be a huge deal to the guys at the museum to have my grandpa’s pictures and copy of his itinerary,” Morgan said. “I also didn’t know that we would get to meet Isabelle, which was probably my favorite part.”
Chuck Thomas became a pastor and long-time missionary after the war. He also adopted a motto his family remembers well: “When you find a door shut, you don’t give up; you search for another way to achieve your goal. You don’t give in to adversity; you use it as a challenge to find another way.”
Donna Thomas, also a long-time missionary and published author, now leads writing workshops for veterans of war to help them deal with their grief.
“They should write one story they remember, then another story, then another, until they get to the most painful ones and write those too,” Donna Thomas said. “Show them to their wife, their son or daughter, or their pastor or counselor.”
When reflecting on what her husband would have said about her pilgrimage she replied, “Glad you went. Why not? Also he would have been delighted to know this all happened. But he is looking over the balcony of heaven and saw it anyway.”
In person: Donna Thomas will give a speech, “Addressing the Future, One Day at a Time” at The Stratford retirement community in Carmel on Sept. 20th at 2 p.m.