ahhh, the life of a diplomatic princess . . .

Archive for the tag “Normandy”

An American Hero and the Journey of a Lifetime

My grandfather is my hero, I straight up, no holds barred, adore him completely. Everyone who knows him knows that he is a hero, not only because he served in WWII and in Korea, but because of the way he served–with valor, determination, and by putting the well being of his fellow soldiers above his own time and again. He’s also my hero because, through all the battles and the horror, he never lost his kindness and compassion, his gentle nature and goodness. These things are incredible, and some of the strongest memories I have from childhood are sitting and listening to his stories about WWII, especially about D Day. From the moment it all began … when he jumped off the boat and was so top heavy with gear that he flipped upside down in the water, unable to right himself and feeling fairly certain he was going to drown, he felt someone cut his heavy baggage off and help right him, that person was his Sergeant, Sergeant John Weaver. To later on the beach, after his Sergeant had been shot. My Da had risked his life to find a medic for the Sergeant but, in the end, he couldn’t be saved, and Da wouldn’t leave his Sergeant, so amongst the gunfire and the blood, Da stayed until his Sergeant passed, and then he fought on. This is my Da, an American hero

I.L.Harper-Holland-1944 Liam-Da-WWII


So much more could be written about everything he experienced during WWII, everything his young wife who waited for him experienced, and I kind of touched on it here, but today, on the 70th anniversary of D Day, I’d like to focus on a trip we all took last May to Normandy, France. My grandfather was granted a wish by a non-profit that gives back to seniors for everything they have given to us called Wish of a Lifetime. His wish was to take his oldest great-grandson, my Liam, to Omaha Beach. Liam is the only child I know who has spent more time than I did listening to Da’s stories about WWII and, not surprisingly, Da is his hero as well. Never in a million years did we think this wish would be granted because it would be such a big undertaking, but the foundation decided it had to be done (you can learn more about the details here) and we decided we had to go as a family. We asked the foundation to please give Liam’s plane ticket to my Nana, we would pay for Liam’s ticket and then all meet in Paris to make our way to Normandy. The foundation was incredible in helping to organize everything, and, eventually, this huge thing happened and we ended up in this minivan–that’s the seven of us with two walkers about to drive from Paris to Normandy, we were a bit scrunched!

Dublin, France, Vista 019

We arrived in Normandy, decided to grab some lunch after we got Nana and Da checked into their hotel, and what should have been an easy breezy bite to eat ended up in a trip to hospital for my Nana. All the travel fatigue, and the cobblestone streets, caused a bad fall but , thankfully, we were very near to a hospital. Ultimately Nana, while very bruised and bloodied, was given a clean bill of health from the doctors but they wanted her to spend the night so they could observe her. Eric, my husband, had been the one who was back with her while we sat in the waiting room because they only allowed one person at a time with the patient and he speaks French. Before we left he talked the staff into letting me bring my Da back to see Nana. The memory of the two of them when they greeted each other is still so strong, Da reached out and took Nana’s hand, his face absolutely lit up with love, they spoke, she patted his hand, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. The love my grandparents have for each other, after decades together, is simply amazing and they are never happier than when they are together.

It was decided that Da would come back to our B & B with us rather than stay in the hotel on his own, and the very nice B & B owner who arranged for him to stay in the one room that was on the ground floor, and the very nice people who had originally been in that room and gladly moved upstairs to accommodate Da, will always have a place in our hearts. Eric and I decided that one of us should stay with Da, especially since the rooms we’d reserved were in a different building of the B & B, and Eric volunteered. So my 6’4 husband, who loves my grandparents as if they were his own, spent the night on the small couch outside Da’s room and, before daybreak, quietly went into Da’s room to check on him and to make sure he was there when Da woke up so he could help him get ready. Have I mentioned how much I love my husband? I stayed with our exhausted children in their room

Dublin, France, Vista 076

The next morning we had breakfast with Da and, by the way, if you ever find yourself in Normandy …

Dublin, France, Vista 078


do stay at La Ferme Du Pressoir B & B, it’s spectacular

And we still talk about how scrumptious the breakfasts were

Dublin, France, Vista 077



Then we started our whirlwind of a day, which included a ceremony in Saint Lo where there is a church that has been turned into a museum dedicated to the American soldiers who helped to liberate France, the mayor of Saint Lo presented my Da with a certificate of thanks and granted him honorary citizenship of Saint Lo.

Dublin, France, Vista 105

We also visited the church where the body of Major Howie, my Da’s Major who was killed, was placed …


and the children got to lay down in hedgerows and learn all about the important part the rows played in the battles.


We stopped for lunch with our wonderful tour guide, Dale Booth

Da talking to my daughter, Aisleen (can you tell by the look on her face that it was a very full day?)

Da talking to my daughter, Aisleen (can you tell by the look on her face that it was a very full day?)


Somewhere in the midst of that Eric was able to go to the hospital and get Nana checked out so she could join us for the rest of the tour, and we continued on to Omaha Beach, which was a pretty incredible experience. To finally be at this place we’d been hearing about for so many years, and to be there with Nana and Da, is something I won’t even try to put into words because words just can’t contain it. We sat there, listening to Dale talk about the battle of D Day, finally seeing where the men had landed, where the Germans had been with their guns, finally seeing the beach that had shaped so many people in so many ways. Our youngest, who was six, had wandered off to play on the beach. I watched him dig his fingers into the sand, jump over puddles of water, search for shells and rocks, and I was thinking of how this beautiful, peaceful beach had seen so much carnage, how so many men had lost their lives here; and there was my baby, playing  in the sunshine on this almost mythical beach. Omaha beach, once a place of horror, was now a place of joy where children were free to run.

Riley on Omaha Beach

Riley on Omaha Beach


Da, Eric, and Liam listening to Dale talk about the battle.

Da, Eric, and Liam listening to Dale talk about the battle.


Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach


Our day drew to a close in a very emotional visit to Normandy’s American Cemetery, where my grandparents took part in the lowering of the flags

Dublin, France, Vista 167


After the ceremony we were chatting about the day, making sure Nana and Da were holding up okay, when an American approached Da and asked if he could shake his hand, Da held out his hand and the man thanked him for his service, Da was visibly touched. One by one, surrounded by the silence of this sacred cemetery, American tourists and French citizens came up to Da to shake his hand and speak quietly to him–“thank you for your sacrifice,” “thank you for helping to liberate my country,” “thank you for being part of the greatest generation.” My children and I had eyes that were filled with tears at this outpouring of love and respect. A reporter came up to us and asked if she could interview Da and Liam, Liam had a hard time keeping it together because he was so emotional but he explained it was because this was such a dream come true for him, to be in Normandy with his great-grandfather, who was his hero.

Dublin, France, Vista 178

Then he took a few minutes on his own to pay his respect to the men who had made the ultimate sacrifice

Dublin, France, Vista 182

For so long, men who served in WWII felt that they couldn’t talk about what they experienced because, they believed, nobody cared, I’d heard this from men that Da had served with. Many years have passed since the time when Da could no longer hold his stories and experiences inside, I was lucky enough to be there when he decided he needed to start talking about it, and Da has always known that his family cares deeply about what happened in WWII and, specifically, on D Day; each stranger who expressed their thanks and respect to Da showed him that we are not alone in caring and in being grateful and we, in turn, were grateful for their kindness and for helping to make this journey of a lifetime complete.


From Da, on the 70th anniversary of D Day: “70 years ago I, with a small detachment of men from the 111th FA BN of the 29th Div. landed on Omaha Beach on the Normandy Coast. We were attached to the 1116th Inf. Bn. of the 29th Division and came in with the 2nd Wave at 7:30 in the morning. We faced German firepower, shrapnel, land mines, barbed wire, Tetrahedrons. I lost my BN commander, Thornton Mullins, my Sgt., John Brown Weaver, among others on that beach that day. To them and my comrades who survived D Day, my heart has been with you since that day. We did the job we had been trained for and did it well. ’29 Let’s GO’.”


The Wish of a Lifetime

A few hours ago I got some startling news, I’m thinking maybe writing about it will help me process it a bit because, at this moment, I have tears in my eyes (the good kind) and I am simply overwhelmed.

In a previous post I wrote a letter to my grandparents on the 68th anniversary of D-Day, the anniversary of when my grandfather (whom I call Da) and other young soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy. The anniversary of D-Day has always been a huge deal in our family. Growing up I spent afternoons sitting and listening to my Da tell his stories about WWII and I was fascinated (it should be stated, I worship my Da and anyone who has ever met him will know why, he’s a remarkable man). Our oldest son, Liam, has grown up fascinated by his Da’s stories as well, he takes every opportunity he has to talk to Da about WWII and, in particular, D-Day. When Liam was very young Da gave him the dog tags he wore in WWII and, years later, they are still Liam’s most treasured possession. The care he takes with those dog tags exemplifies the love and admiration he has for his great-grandfather–it is limitless and Da is truly his hero. Not only because he bravely fought for his country but also because, in the midst of all the suffering and pain of war, he never lost his humanity and gentleness, for Liam, that is heroic.

So, on to the news. When we were in Minneapolis a few weeks ago Da was told about a remarkable non-profit foundation called “Wish of a Lifetime,” an organization that works to give back to seniors by helping their greatest wishes come true. Da decided this was something he wanted to participate in and, as it has been a dream of his for many years to take Liam to Normandy, he submitted that wish. He wanted to go with him to the beach where so much happened, the beach Liam has always seemed to understand the significance of, even when he was very young. I was extremely touched that this would be his wish, as was Liam, but I kind of put it out of my head because I just couldn’t imagine that it would become a reality. Then today I received an e-mail saying that Wish of a Lifetime had chosen Da’s wish as one they wanted to help make happen. Airfare from Minneapolis for two people, train trip to Normandy, six days in France, tours arranged by the foundation–the whole package. I sat staring at the computer screen, I came just short of pinching myself back into the present, I was completely blown away. Since we’re in Costa Rica this will be a logistical challenge for us but my husband and I are determined to make this once in a lifetime experience happen, whatever we have to do. Going to Normandy with Da is something my family and I have talked about doing for as long as I can remember and, frankly, I am kind of in a state of shock and disbelief that it is actually happening–and that my children will be there to experience it. See? There I go, with the tears again.

When I close my eyes and picture my Da and Liam, his namesake, standing on that beach together, I can’t even articulate the feelings I have; awe, profound love, an overwhelming sense of being grateful not only for such a stunning experience but for having those two in my life. What a gift, just, what a gift. My grandfather, my son, coming full circle together to a beach that once was hell, to a beach that became sacred, to a beach that will become a place for a remarkable connection to history, to each other, to passing on what is important in life–the love of a great-grandfather for his great-grandson and the love of a great-grandson for his Da. The two of them, standing hand in hand, staring at the sand and the sea that was once covered in the bodies of young men who sacrificed everything, young men who were my Da’s friends, young men he risked his life for time and again. That lesson, the touching of what has gone before us, of what has been sacrificed for our freedom, of what a young man was willing to go through in order to protect his great-grandson who would one day stand with him on that beach–it is a circle, it is sacred, it cannot be severed after it has been closed. Those two will close that circle together, as it should be.

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