By Spencer Brooks
We hear the phrase “never forget” all the time, but actions speak louder than words. As time goes on, events to which we once paid homage fade into the distant past. In 2016, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down, the 25th anniversary of the end of Desert Storm, and the 41st anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, the memories of the last true world war might not be at the forefront of our minds. But for some, remembrance is a never-ending mission. In particular, the people of Sainte-Mère-Église, a small town nestled off the coast of Normandy, France, have made it their duty to honor World War II veterans.
A town that never forgot
The villagers of Sainte-Mère-Église witnessed the Allied D-Day invasion in 1944. In fact, the village was the first in Normandy liberated by Americans on June 6. The film The Longest Day depicts the story of Pvt. John M. Steele of the 82nd Airborne who was caught in the spires of the Sainte-Mère-Église church tower before getting captured by Germans, escaping, and finally rejoining his division. There remain constant reminders in the town of that fateful day, including a parachute monument to Steele, stained glass windows in the church with insignia of various Allied military units, and an Airborne museum. Even the town’s coat of arms contains two paratroopers. When veterans come to visit Sainte-Mère-Église, villagers open their arms and homes. Veterans are treated like celebrities, oftentimes unable to take five steps because they are being swarmed for autographs. In 2014, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, 1,000 paratroopers reenacted the Sainte-Mère-Église jump out of a restored C-47 U.S. military transport plane in front of huge crowds of American, French, Dutch, and German veterans.
The church of Sainte-Mère-Église, where Pvt. John Steele was caught during the D-Day invasion, now exhibits a permanent paratrooper monument
These daily reminders of the war fill the town’s citizens with a tremendous sense of gratitude, which extends down to the youngest residents. Local students learn about World War II and the significance of the D-Day invasion; although they were born in the new millennium, they understand the importance of these events.
Painting for peace
After World War II, two organizations were formed to help the war-torn villages of Europe: Amis des Vétérans Américains (Friends of American Veterans) in Normandy, and Operation Democracy in Locust Valley, N.Y. (the sister city of Sainte-Mère-Église). In the years that followed, both organizations vowed to recognize and honor the memory of soldiers from World War II. Together, they currently run “Painting for Peace,” an annual art project in which young students from Sainte-Mère-Église and Locust Valley participate.
Since 2011 in Locust Valley and 2012 in Sainte-Mère-Église, students put on art expositions as part of the remembrance celebrations. Each year, as part of “Painting for Peace,” students depict their understanding of peace through artwork. During the memorial celebrations, art is displayed in a large tent next to the tourism office on the Sainte-Mère-Église town square just opposite the famous church.
The program has been a huge success. In 2012, five schools made unique panels that served as “pages” in a giant book about peace. The book was displayed at the Sainte-Mère-Église book fair, then displayed with artwork made by Locust Valley students. Another year, a German middle school participated by visiting middle schools around Normandy.
For the 71st anniversary of D-Day in 2015, mail art, a popular trend from the 1950s and ’60s, was the theme. Students from ages 5-11 decorated the fronts of beautifully colored envelopes, into which they put a thank you note to a veteran. Some students followed a standard template; others exercised a bit more creative license. Many of the letters contained hearts around the word “paix” (French for peace) with flags of the world. Some children drew doves and olive branches, and even the church where Private Steele got stuck. The students included their return addresses in the hopes the veterans would write back.
Four examples of the outside of the envelopes children created for American veterans as part of the “Painting for Peace” project.
The letters first were displayed during the International Painting for Peace exhibit the week of June 6th. Then they were distributed to various organizations to give to World War II veterans. (For example, many letters have been taken and delivered by Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.) Col. Ana Smythe, USMC (Ret), director of MOAA’s Member Service Center, learned about the program while visiting the beaches of Normandy with a World War II veteran who had landed there years ago. She immediately volunteered to deliver letters to veterans back in the U.S. To this day, organizations have mailed out over 300 envelopes thanking veterans.
To continue connecting children and the community with these events, Operation Democracy and the Amis des Vétérans Américains will maintain the strong relationship between Locust Valley and Sainte-Mère-Église through similar projects in the years to come. The projects will continue to spread the message of peace and freedom and ensure the sacrifices of these veterans are never forgotten.