A Mission to France For D-Day Fraternite
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page C01
PARIS, June 5 -- When the French came calling last month, offering the Legion of Honor -- their most prestigious decoration, first bestowed on a soldier by Napoleon himself -- Arthur Van Cook was unmoved.
Sixty years ago, he risked his life for them, wading ashore on a beach reeking of death. Now he had no patience for them.
"When the time came for France to get behind us in Iraq, they took a walk," said Van Cook, a retired career Army officer from Springfield. "I know firsthand what we sacrificed for France. What I sacrificed for France. I think they owed us more than that."
So keen was his sense of betrayal that last year, Van Cook, now 85, wrapped up a stack of decorations France had pinned on him during the 50th anniversary of D-Day and mailed them to the French Embassy. The ambassador mailed them right back, with a note saying that he could not accept them because the honors came not from him but from a grateful French nation.
It was only grudgingly, at the urging of the Department of Veterans Affairs, that Van Cook finally agreed to return to France. On Saturday, as he stood on the cobblestone plaza outside Napoleon's tomb to receive his red ribbon, he leaned in and whispered to the French general that he was accepting it on behalf of his fallen brothers.
"This is for them," he said.
Still, like many of the 100 veterans from across the United States selected by France to receive the honor, Van Cook's feelings about the country he shed blood to liberate have steadily thawed. This weekend, he and the others have been direct beneficiaries of a massive charm offensive that the French have orchestrated, not only to commemorate the sacrifices of D-Day, but to start to restore damaged relations with the United States.
"It's important today to go beyond the little hurdles, the difficulties of last year," said Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to Washington, who conceived of the plan to fly the veterans to Paris and decorate them with medals. "During this week, we forget about Iraq, and 60 million Frenchmen will simply be saying thank you."
The courtship began in earnest Thursday, when the veterans arrived at the embassy in Washington, where wall-sized banners were emblazoned with the slogan, "France will never forget." From there, they flew together to Paris. They were met on the tarmac by French cabinet ministers and led down a red carpet to the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
With wives, children and grandchildren in tow, they were whisked from the airport in luxury coaches flanked by police motorcycles, and traffic stopped for them the entire way into Paris. The veterans checked into gilded hotel suites priced at as much as $3,000 a night and dined at the finest restaurants, all as guests of the French government. On Sunday, they will join President Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and more than a dozen other heads of state for ceremonies in Normandy.
The most surprising aspect to Van Cook was not the movie-star treatment, he said, but the sentiment repeated over and over by French dignitaries and citizens.
"We are fully aware of what we owe you," Hamkaoui Mekachera, the French secretary for veterans affairs, told the Americans. "To the French people of 2004, as in 1944, you are, and the word is not too strong, you are true heroes."
There is hardly any other conclusion to draw from what these 100 Americans did on this day in 1944.
The group included former U.S. representative Sam M. Gibbons, 84, of Florida, who parachuted into northern France through a hailstorm of antiaircraft fire on the eve of the D-Day invasion. Upper Marlboro resident Howard Grant, 85, took almost constant fire as he scrapped his way through France and into Germany.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Arthur Van Cook stands in front of the military museum in Paris where he and 99 other U.S. veterans were awarded the French Legion of Honor.
(Stuart Isett For The Washington Post)