It was going to happen one day. We all understood – us Brits who have only ever known one head of state, one face on our banknotes, one constant in a fast-changing world. We knew she would one day breathe no more, yet still it came as a profound shock to realize that the Queen, the monarch of our entire lives, was not immortal after all.
I shed tears as I heard of her death on 8 September. I was watching television in a silent hotel in England. I had arrived in the UK from the US, where I have spent half my life, just a few days before. Suddenly, I felt blessed to be back in my homeland, to be able to mourn with my family and friends in Queen Elizabeth II’s realm.
I knew that the Queen had played her part in WWII, most notably by serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army. Indeed, she had arguably been the most famous of Britain’s “Greatest Generation.” In the weeks after her death, as her very long life of public service was celebrated, it was often pointed out that her death marked the end of a remarkable era. Her passing was also a reminder of how few from her generation remain.
I was in England to prepare for a journey through the WWII battlefields of Europe. Thankfully, I managed to see my mother briefly before my odyssey began. She is close to the end of her life. Frail, in pain, yet resilient. She was not even a year old when her father, Neville Lee, died aged 23 in 1944. He had served in the Royal Navy for three brutal years as a telegraphist, in the cruel seas of the North Atlantic on convoy runs, in the Arctic, and in the U-boat-infested Mediterranean.
My mother had told me how his ship was torpedoed and how he had been pulled out of the water and placed on another ship which was also sunk. Wounded, he was lucky to be taken to a hospital in Malta. It seemed as if he would recover but, alas, he became one of the 384,000 members of the British military to die in WWII. 70,000 civilians also lost their lives, mainly due to bombing during the Blitz. My mother’s life was of course forever changed by her father’s absence. To my mum, in her dying days, the war is not history. It has shaped her entire life.
From my mother’s home, I traveled to the South Coast, where I explored the training areas for the Bedford Boys, the group of young men from Bedford, Virginia who belonged to Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment. On then across the gray English Channel in the wake of the Allies, to Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach, where nineteen Bedford Boys died in the first wave on 6 June 1944. I scooped up sand and let the grains fall through my fingers, recalling the relatives and widows I’d interviewed while telling the story of that one small town’s immense sacrifice.
I walked through the perfect rows of crosses in the graveyard at Coleville sur Mer, and then arrived in Paris, liberated on 25 August 1944, where I took a high-speed train to the golden shores of the Cote D’Azur. My first stop was a vineyard where Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated soldiers in US history, earned the DSC after losing his best friend, Lattie Tipton. Next stop - the American graveyard at Draguignan in Provence. It was a short stroll to the final resting place of Tipton.
We laid a wreath in the deserted graveyard’s chapel. It was of blue and white flowers – the colors of the Third Infantry Division, to which Murphy belonged. A minute’s silence, tears, Taps. The fall was upon us, leaves turning yellow in the hills skirting the Rhone River as we followed the 7thArmy’s advance in September 1944, toward Germany. Finally, we arrived in the Vosges Mountains, ominous, cold, drenched in rain.
The closer we got to the German border, the more stories there were to tell. It was here, in the Vosges, that Lt. Colonel Felix Sparks, subject of my book, The Liberator, lost all but two men from his battalion of several hundred, which had been surrounded by the SS, during that unending winter of 1944-45. Sparks would never fully recover from the grief.
The days grew shorter. On a deserted road in Alsace we stood at the very spot where Audie Murphy earned the Medal of Honor, aged 20. That same afternoon of 30 September, we laid a wreath, again of blue and white flowers, atop “Bloody Hill” near the town of Sigolsheim. It was here that Lt. Colonel Keith Ware, like Murphy a member of the 3rd I.D., also earned the Medal of Honor. Ware would die in 1968 in Cambodia, the only draftee in US history to become a general officer.
We listened to a bugler play the US national anthem. Germany loomed in the distance, across the Rhine. Smoke drifted from chimneys in a nearby village, high into the crisp air. I thought of another American who fought with immense courage to set Western Europe free. He too belonged to Ware and Murphy’s division. He also wore a patch with blue and white stripes. His name was Michael Daly. Like Audie Murphy, he was just twenty years old when he earned the Medal of Honor. He did so in the ruins of Nuremberg in April 1945, as a company commander responsible for two hundred beating hearts.
Daly was shot in the face in Nuremberg. He pulled a pencil from his combat jacket and stuck in down his throat to clear his windpipe of blood. Somehow, he survived. He returned to Germany long after the war and spoke before young soldiers from the unit he’d fought with decades before. His message was simple. Do not forget us. Please remember us. He believed that true contentment lies in serving others, in finding a cause greater than self.
They will all be gone before we know it. There will be no-one, like the Queen, to remind us in person of what was given, what miracles of endurance occurred, how every hillside, every village, every mountain top in Nazi-occupied Europe had to be taken, often from a savage enemy…. how day after day men like my mother’s father, Neville Lee, gave their lives so that others could be free.
I raised a toast to the US Army on my last night in Europe. I was in a restaurant in Alsace, in the town of Colmar, birthplace of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty. I had already told my fellow travelers, who had laid wreaths and shed tears beside me, that we must make sure future generations know what was done for them - the enormity of what they have been given. Long then may the greatest story of modern times be told. Long then may the Queen and her generation continue to inspire young men and women to dedicate themselves to helping others, and to democracy and peace.