Memorial day 2013

“Boys don’t cry,” my aunt Naomi would say. So when I had to, I used some concealing strategies. That was a long time ago. But I knew Naomi would pop up, the moment I said:”Dear Day.” I had arrived in Wilkes-Barre the day before Memorial Day 1992, to honor the memory of Sgt Day G. Turner, who fell during WW II in Luxembourg. At my hotel I had rehearsed my speech for the following morning, and I had choked up every time, exactly there, when I addressed him with his first name “Dear Day.” I took a deep breath.

Aunt Naomi and my childhood had invaded my mind. There was no television in those days. Neighbors would spend evenings together, under starry skies during summer, at the fireplace in winter. There would be my mother Marie, my father Nicolas, my five sisters Naomi, Cecile-Liliane, Lucie, Irene and Nicole. There would be my cousins Josephine and Leo. And our neighbor Nicolas, his son Nicolas, his grand-son Nicolas, our other neighbor Nicolas and his neighbor Nicolas. How come my name was not Nicolas? My original birth certificate has a stamp “Deutsches Reich” on it, together with an eagle and a swastika. My name Egide was changed by court order into its Latin form “Aegidius” to sound more German. My sisters’ names were suspiciously too French to translate and were changed into Erika, Monika and so on. My father was an outspoken anti Nazi. He had defeated a German attempt to enlist our town’s cultural society into the German SA. Then he went into hiding. My oldest sibling, Jean-Pierre, who became Hans Peter, had refused to join the Hitler Youth. At age 17, he was kicked out of high school and was drafted and sent to the Russian front. A cousin who had deserted, was dragged through town and shot. My sister Naomi (then Monika), got her marching order to join a Krupp ammunition factory in Essen as a slave laborer in the RAD, the forced labor department.

On September 10, 1944, while the family was fearing deportation for its anti-German leanings, a light aviation plane with a white star on a blue field on its wings flew over. Of course at an age of 7 months, I didn’t realize that I had chosen miserable times to be in this world. But later, during those long evenings, I heard the stories a hundred times. I was able to finish the adults’ sentences. There were all of a sudden GI’s around, all for sure much taller than 6 feet. They carried rifles, chewing gum, chocolate and a dictionary. They had medications. My mother’s sore throat went away and never came back.

Then all of a sudden the battle of the Bulge broke loose. A whole squad was in and around our house. “We take the boy,” my first baby sitters ever would say, while my mother tried to improve on the few combat rations. I know she also would bake pancakes. There was Kelly, who had written “Kelly loves Nelly” on a pre-war 5 Francs note. There was Fritz who had organized an impromptu patrol, because he had heard suspicious noises. When the patrol came back, they had identified the noises as not really coming from Germans, but from squealing pigs at a neighboring farm. That was such a relief: confusing Germans with pigs in those times was the most hilarious possible thing to happen. Kelly was killed in action two weeks later. Those old stories rushed through my head, but this now was Wilkes Barre, PA, and I was the Consul General of Luxembourg and I had to deliver a speech and choked up.

So I tried to get past the critical “Dear Day.” … The silence seemed endless. I was trapped in an unmanly situation. I couldn’t hide. A TV camera was whirring. In the front row, Sgt Day’s five sisters, were almost silently sobbing, when I said “Dear Day”. There was the Governor, the Mayor, the veterans. I had to say something, fill the silence: “I’m sorry, it is…a little overwhelming” When I got to the facts, that helped. “Dear Day: I know now that in the early December days of 1944, up there in the small Ardennes village of Dahl you commanded your 9-man squad. It turned out to become a critical mission. You were effectively going to defeat a German force so overwhelming in numbers and weaponry that the outcome was a miracle. The enemy was supported by artillery, mortar, and rocket fire. You had to withdraw into a nearby house, but you were determined to defend it to the last man. After hours of fighting, 5 of your men were wounded and 1 was killed. You would not give up, even boldly flinging a can of flaming oil at the first wave of attackers. They dispersed, they got into the house and you fought them room to room in some fierce hand-to-hand encounters. You hurled hand grenade for hand grenade, bayoneted 2 who rushed a doorway and you fought on with the enemy’s weapons when your own ammunition was expended. The savage fight raged for 4 hours. Finally, when only 3 of your men were left unwounded, the enemy surrendered. Twenty-five prisoners were taken, 11 enemy dead and a great number of wounded were counted.

Sgt. Turner, Sir:

Your heroic leadership, determination and courage freed me when I was a baby. You earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, but I never even could thank you. I’m frustrated and inconsolable that one month later the enemy took you away from us.

Now, 17 years after honoring you in Wilkes Barre, dear Day, I just want to follow up on that speech. I wanted to tell you that things are fine. Certainly better than the prospects I had the year I was born. But then you came along and made the ultimate sacrifice for us. As you may know, I’m now a grandfather of three little Americans. I’ll tell them about you. And one day, when they are old enough, I’ll take them to the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg. We’ll walk down the alley from General Patton’s grave, among the sea of 5,000 crosses and David’s Stars. Then we turn left at Plot E, Row 10, Grave 72 that says: Day G. Turner, SSGT 319 INF 80 DIV, Pennsylvania Feb 8 1945, Medal of Honor. You’ll recognize us: Morganne, Emilie and Alexander will carry Forget-Me-Nots.

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