Paying Their Respects: Family Visits Brother’s Grave In Normandy
By Rich Place, The Post-Journal, Jamestown NY
POSTED: November 11, 2009
Every year since 1999, Marsha Smith has been able to visit her late-uncle’s grave. Although this may be the tradition of many family members and friends who lost a loved one in World War II, her circumstance is a bit different.
Her uncle, Staff Sgt. Benedict Smith, is buried across the Atlantic in Normandy, France.
Smith, who was a Jamestown native, was killed in action on July 30, 1944, while serving with the 29th Infantry Division at the invasion of Normandy. His brother, Gregory, remembers hearing the news while serving half a world away.
“My mother wrote to me,” said Smith, who was serving on Hawaiian island of Kauai at the time. “In those days, most of the letters were censored, so my captain knew about it and they just left me alone.
“I think I cried for two days,” he continued. “I remember I was in the barracks and we just had little four-man tents. They just left me alone for a day or two. I was devastated. I loved my brother and we were really close.”
In 1945, Greg was part of a dedication ceremony in Jamestown for a memorial stone in Allen Park, which bears his brother’s name as well as other local residents who gave their lives during the war. For decades afterward, Greg made sure Ben’s memory was kept alive and well in the family by talking about him and sharing the memories he had of his brother.
“Everybody knew he was my favorite brother,” said Greg. “We were a family of five – there were four boys and my sister. You’re not really supposed to have favorites, but I did. We got along fine and we were really close.”
In 1996, Greg was given a unique opportunity – the chance to visit his brother’s grave in Normandy. Greg’s daughter, Marsha, was already in Europe, and she asked her father and mother if they would like to meet in France to visit the grave. The three of them met up in France and Greg was able to see his brother’s grave for the first time.
“It was difficult,” he said. “I think I cried then and I am crying right now.”
“My brother got in touch with the 29th Division and they got in touch with some people in France who were able to take us around and really show us where the 115 Regiment – where my uncle had been serving – had been,” said Marsha Smith. “I was just amazed at how the French keep the history.”
“I heard about my uncle all my life and just to see that people honored his memory so wonderfully was so moving,” she continued. “We were there in the cemetery for about six hours, and the only reason we left was because they were closing it.”
The experience was so moving to her that she wanted to give others from the United States the chance to visit Normandy, learn about the history firsthand and pay respects to the Americans who lost their lives in the battle and are now buried thousands of miles from home.
“When I came back, I talked with the 29th Division and I started this group called Normandy Allies,” said Ms. Smith, who lives in Rochester.
Since 1999, Ms. Smith and her group have made an annual trip to Normandy, which is located in northern France. This past summer, Ms. Smith’s niece, who is Greg’s granddaughter, reached the required age of 16 to visit her great-uncle’s grave in Normandy, a trip she had been looking forward to for years.
“I was basically in shock,” Ms. Smith’s niece, Teresa Stubler, said about the experience. “I did hear a lot about my great-uncle before the trip and I have always been waiting until the age of 16 when I could go. It was emotional but it was shockingly beautiful at the same time. This is my great-uncle, and I was so proud to have the chance to visit his grave.”
Miss Stubler noted that although the heroic actions of American soldiers on D-Day seemed to be spoken of less and less each year, the French express their gratitude to the Americans as if they had just landed the day before. During her trip, the group of 28 people included three World War II veterans who were involved with the Invasion of Normandy. The men received medals and other signs of appreciation by the French people.
“I think from our family perspective it’s part of our history,” said Ms. Smith. “But from a national perspective, these were men who made it possible for our world, our nation, our civilization to continue in the face of something that was truly evil. We’ve often talked about my uncle and how he didn’t have to go in but he enlisted; he probably would not have been happy had he not been part of that enormous effort. A lot of people stepped forward simply to do their duty.”
Veterans Day is set aside each year to remember men like Ben who sacrificed their lives in the service as well as men like Greg who served and returned home. People like Ms. Smith, who have set up groups and organizations like Normandy Allies, set examples for everyone, putting forth that extra effort to remember veterans throughout the year.
“I think it’s important for Americans to be aware of what ordinary Americans did in a time that was a very, very trying time for the whole world,” said Ms. Smith.
Now a member of the American Legion in Rochester, Greg participates in Veterans Day services each year, as well as Memorial Day services and parades in May. It’s his way of paying his respects to the veterans who served time in the armed services and to those like his brother Ben who paid the ultimate sacrifice: their lives.
And each year, Ms. Smith is taking groups of individuals passionate about the war – from teenagers like Miss Stubler to World War II veterans themselves – to Normandy to pay their own respects while experiencing where the soldiers fought firsthand.