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From Normandy with love


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I heard on the television recently that President Barack Obama and England’s Queen Elizabeth plan to visit Normandy, France, to attend the 70th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944 — the day that changed the course of the world.

Queen Elizabeth was a princess then and wore the uniform of one of the women’s services. I remember seeing her picture in the paper. She was about the same age as me, and the activities of the two princesses (Elizabeth and Margaret Rose) were news, just as the comings and goings of current royalty are news.

 

I was 19 years old and living at home with my parents and older sister and her baby. Her husband was in North Africa in the British Tank Corps, and my brother was in Palestine.

Home was a small, picturesque village in northern England in the county of Berkshire called Lambourn. The American air base, called Membury, was three to four miles away — walking distance for the many American soldiers who came to the village for an evening in the pub or to a dance that was regularly organized by the local authorities in Memorial Hall.

The base also organized dances, usually held in a hangar or sometimes in the Red Cross building and would send a truck to pick up local girls that had been invited. Girls from nearby villages were also invited.

It was at one of these dances that I met Staff Sgt. Jesse K. Kellar in October 1942. I met him again at a local dance in March 1943. It was there that he told me his father had recently died.

I felt so sorry for him. On the spur of the moment, I asked if he would like to come home with me for a cup of tea. He said, “Yes.”

On the 10-minute walk to my home, I began to wonder what my parents would think of me bringing an American soldier home. Dad was listening to the wireless radio as we entered, and I quickly introduced Jesse to Dad and said, “Jesse just lost his father.”

Dad stood up, shook Jesse’s hand and said, “Let me be your father for a while.”

From then on, Jesse was always welcome in our home.

A year later he proposed; and on April 9, 1944, we became engaged and set the wedding date for June 8, 1944. The excitement began.

I woke up the morning of June 6 and immediately became aware of a low, steady hum.

Jumping out of bed, I ran to the window. The sky looked full of planes. Dad and the neighbor were standing in the garden below, and I called to him, “Dad, what’s going on?”

I’ll never forget his answer, “I think we are seeing the beginning of the end.”

We hadn’t seen any American soldiers in the village for some time, and it was generally thought that “something” was going on. I hadn’t heard from Jess for several days and really wasn’t sure where he was.

News came of the invasion. The wedding had been scheduled for 2 p.m. June 8 in the old Norman church, built in the 10th century. I began to dress in the pretty wedding gown lent by a neighbor. Clothing coupons were too precious to be used on a dress worn only once.

Mom and Dad tried to dissuade me from getting ready. Dad said Jess was probably in France by now and that it would upset me to go to the church, wait in vain and then come home alone.

Children in the village were out looking for an American when word came that a jeep with four Yanks had arrived — Jesse; Basil Kerr, the best man; chaplain Julian Lindsey; and photographer Sgt. Praino.

And so, we were married on time. Jesse went over to Normandy three weeks later.

I never think of our wedding day without thinking of D-Day. I often think of all the young and friendly American GIs I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to their stories of “back home.” Most of the stories were very much the same — Mom and Dad, the dog, the high school prom, the girlfriend and ice skating on the pond or creek, although I didn’t know what a creek was.

They were homesick. I know that now, and I am glad I listened.

I wonder, too, how many did not come back.

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