From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

American Eagles

I met Geoff in the summer of 1995, when I was visiting the village of Portmeirion in Wales. Geoff appeared to be about my age, and I noticed him often as I walked about the area. Whenever our eyes met, we would smile at each other.

Once, as I walked toward the beach area, I saw him going in the same direction. When he saw me, he came over and began walking with me. We exchanged the usual pleasantries of introduction, and our conversation was routine until he asked if I had come directly to the U.K. from the States. When I answered that I had just come from Normandy in France, where I had been retracing the combat path of the Thirty-fifth Infantry Division in memory of someone very dear to me, I could tell that I had said something that affected Geoff deeply. He motioned for me to sit with him at a bench near the water. After a time, he began to speak in a voice filled with emotion, relating his own war story.

Like me, Geoff had been a young child during World War II. He’d lived in a small village in the interior of England, one that was of no strategic importance to the Germans and, therefore, never touched by bombing. The effects of the war were felt in his village in other than the usual ways. Vast meadows near his home had been turned into tent accommodations for American GIs.

Everyone in Geoff’s village had something to say about the Americans, not always complimentary, but the children worshiped them. To Geoff and the other boys his age, they seemed like gods. They were handsome, rugged, and, unlike the “stiff-upper-lip,” reserved British men the boys were used to, the Yanks were extremely outgoing and friendly.

Geoff rode his bicycle to the GI encampment every day. He grew particularly fond of three of the GIs, young fellows who shared a tent together. They would give him chocolate and chewing gum, and on weekends, when he would run errands for them in his village, they would even give him coins. The gift he prized most of all, though, was the patch each man had given him. Three patches— just like the ones they wore proudly—all bearing the 101st Airborne Division emblem: the Screaming Eagles. Geoff and the GIs exchanged addresses, and the soldiers promised to keep in touch with the English boy when they returned to the States after the war.

One day when Geoff rode his bike to the American Eagles’ campground, he found the meadow deserted. The field was so entirely bereft of men, tents and machines, it was as if they had never existed. He rode his bike home, told his mother and cried. He did not understand how they could vanish completely in the middle of the night.

Within weeks, the invasion began, and everyone in the village knew where the men had gone. Geoff was very excited about the role of the 101st Airborne. He sent letters to each of his GI friends by way of their home addresses in the States. Even now, he can still feel the awful sadness he experienced when he received word from the soldiers’ families that each had been killed in action on June 6, in Ste. Mère Eglise.

This, he told me, was why he was so interested when I said I had been tracing the combat sites of the Thirty-fifth Infantry Division in memory of someone dear. Every sixth of June for the last forty years, Geoff has gone to the American Military Cemetery in Normandy and placed flowers on the graves of each of his three friends. It is a tradition he plans to continue for the rest of his life.

Two years after our talk by the beach, I visited Geoff at his home in England. He showed me the area of the encampment, still a lush green meadow. After dinner, as his wife washed the dishes, Geoff went to the attic and came down with an ordinary shoebox in his hands. When he opened it, I saw three patches with Screaming Eagles, looking as if they had never been touched.

“I don’t show these to many people,” Geoff said, “but I knew you’d understand.”

He was right. I did.

D. W. Jovanovic

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