John Kelly's Washington
World War II veterans honor Allies in liberated French towns
In February 2005, Monika Stoy and her husband, Tim, sent letters to the mayors of more than 250 cities in the south of France, towns that ranged from the Mediterranean playground of St. Tropez to the tiny village of Urschenheim, in Alsace. As varied as the towns were, they had one thing in common: All had been liberated in the late summer and early fall of 1944 by members of the 3rd Infantry, the same division that the Stoys, both U.S. Army officers, were part of.
The letters weren't official Army correspondence. Instead, they were a labor of love. Each bore the same message: Our World War II veterans are dying. It would be a sign of respect to display a plaque in your town in memory of the sacrifices they made. If you provide a plaque, we will guarantee that U.S. soldiers will be there for the dedication.
The Stoys made three requests: That the towns fly the U.S. flag at the dedication. That they play the U.S. national anthem. That there be children, who could keep the memory alive.
Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery, the latest chapter in the Stoys' efforts to remember these veterans took place under a broiling sun reminiscent of the weather on Aug. 15, 1944, when the first paratroopers tumbled from the skies over southern France. Francois Rivasseau from the French Embassy bestowed the Legion of Honor on four veterans: Lloyd Ramsey of Roanoke, Douglas Dillard of Bowie, Sherman Pratt of Arlington and James Welsh of Baton Rouge.
The Stoys are kind of like the Johnny Appleseeds of Operation Dragoon. Often called "the forgotten D-Day," Dragoon was the August 1944 invasion of southern France by Allied forces, an event often overshadowed by Operation Overlord, which landed troops on Normandy's beaches on June 6. Their letter-writing campaign was inspired by a souvenir map handed out by the French ministry of defense in 2005 labeled "Routes of Liberty." It showed only French units taking part in Dragoon. While the French did take part, the bulk of the force was 90,000 U.S. troops in parachutes and gliders from the 3rd, 36th and the 45th Infantry Divisions.
"That's when we asked the French colonel, 'What's wrong with this picture?' " Monika Stoy said.
The couple pored through division histories, noting the names of towns liberated by the 3rd. They went online to find contacts in those towns: Who was the current mayor? What was the address of city hall?
"Out of those 250 letters, we probably got 70 responses," said Tim Stoy, a lieutenant colonel who lives in Springfield with his wife. Twenty-five percent of those said no, the Americans hadn't liberated their town. Another quarter said it might be nice to have a plaque, but they couldn't afford it. The rest said, "Tell us more."
The Stoys were only too happy to.
The town of Les Mayons put up the first plaque, a handsome design on etched glass. The plaque in Salon-de-Provence is enameled metal. The one in Kaysersberg is a bronze tablet. Since those first letters went out, 61 French towns and villages have put up plaques in memory of their liberators. The Stoys have attended nearly every dedication, sometimes with an Army color guard, sometimes with some of the veterans themselves.
Monika Stoy retired from the Army as a captain, though more than one speaker Tuesday referred to her as a "field marshal," given that she had wrangled not just two dozen members of the Greatest Generation, but also representatives from France, Canada, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland and Britain, the U.S. Army Band and at least two generals: Gen. Carter Ham, current head of U.S. Army forces in Europe, and Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips, deputy commanding general-rear of the 3rd Infantry Division.
"Not one of them thinks they did something special," Ham told me after the ceremony. "They all say, 'I was just doing my job.' Even after all these years."
There were little glimpses into those days 66 years ago. Doug Dillard of Bowie, who went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam, remembered the paratrooper whose rucksack clinked as he loaded it onto the airplane. He had replaced its Army-recommended contents with a case of beer.
Jim Welsh was raised in Canada and said he got tossed out of school for refusing to learn French. "I said, 'If they want to speak to me, they can speak in English.' Little did I know," he said.
As the old soldiers reminisced, I said to Tim: You must be about done, right?
"No," he said. "We're still sending letters out every year. Mayors change."