D-Day plus Chewing Gum and Cigarettes

By Michel Jeruchim

D-Day. Was there ever a shorter and more modest name for a battle, not just any battle, but the most monumental and momentous one in modern history. Actually, D-Day also had a last name, Operation Overlord. But I like D-Day. It has a strength to it, sinew, short and to the point. But to me D stands for Deliverance.

On that day, I was a couple of months past seven years old, and I was living with a French family, Marcel, Suzanne, and Gaston Leclère in a Norman town called Saint-Aubin-lès-Elbeuf, about 75 miles northwest of Paris. To locate that town in your mind, it was also a little over a hundred miles due east of Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the five landing beaches shown on the graphic below. But the landing beach that figures more into my story is Juno beach.

On today’s roadways it’s about 86 miles but fewer miles as the crow flies, and the crows then would have been military planes.

The D-Day landings have been documented in minute detail, so I’m not writing or re-writing history. But even after all these years, I’m still stunned by the scale and daring and, even more so, by the courage of the ordinary soldiers. The beach landings spanned about 60 miles and the forces arrayed included some 7,000 vessels, among which were 1,213 warships and 4,127 landing craft of various types and sizes. Of the troops, 23,000 airborne were dropped and 132,000 men landed on the beaches. It’s difficult even to imagine such a colossal assemblage. And let’s not forget the deception campaign that fooled the Germans into believing the landings were going to be in the Pas de Calais. It is also known as the Dover Strait, and is the shortest sea distance between England and France, about 21 miles.

Each beach was assigned to a different military group, as you can see from the illustration. Omaha Beach was the responsibility of the US military. The Canadian landing was on Juno Beach. Fourteen-thousand Canadians stormed Juno Beach on that day.As happened at Omaha Beach, the initial assault decimated the Canadian troops, gunned down en masse by Nazi artillery. The casualty rate was estimated at 50 percent. But the Canadians persevered and finally pushed beyond the beachfront and chased the Germans inland. In the end, the Canadians at Juno captured more towns and territory than any other battalions in Operation Overlord and they were the first of all the Allies to advance farthest into France. When I think of their bravery and those of all the other soldiers on that day, I get an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach about the loss of so many young men.

As I said, I’m only stating what is well-known, but I’m writing this just to remind myself of this extraordinary commitment to rid the world of the Nazi menace. Unfortunately, I think that nowadays this sacrifice is little appreciated or even recognized by most people, especially younger adults. There is a reason the men and women who fought have been dubbed the greatest generation; they had a sense of selflessness seemingly unknown today.

Fifty-two brutal days after D-Day, on the 28th of August, 1944, Canadian troops, specifically the Second Canadian Army Corps, entered our town, and we were officially liberated. It had taken them nearly two months to travel 86 miles. That’s approximately 1.7 miles per day or 0.07 miles per hour. Of course, I understand these rates of motion cannot be put in the same category as a Sunday drive, but what I intend is to highlight that every inch of Norman land had to be scratched for, through the hedgerows and through the Germans, and paid for in blood.

When the Canadians arrived in St. Aubin, euphoria broke out. Freedom was inebriating. The soldiers paused for a little while. I don’t remember exactly how long. Perhaps it was only some number of hours or perhaps a day or two, but they were mobbed by the grateful population, and the “kids” one of whom I was, climbed on their tanks and trucks. We had played with toy soldiers, but here was the real thing. Of course, at our age we didn’t understand the real toll of war, except perhaps some of the kids who had lost a father. The photo below, which was taken in a neighboring town, illustrates my own experience.

We would ask the soldiers for chewing gum, which we pronounced tchwinggum, because we didn’t know that it was really two words. We would ask for cigarettes pour papa. Cigarettes were especially prized because tobacco had been rationed during the war, and probably most Frenchmen smoked. My father smoked Gauloises and my brother relates that my mother would barter ration coupons with a neighbor, exchanging one for tobacco with some item we could do without. American cigarettes were much superior to the harsh local types. At the time, I’m not sure we (the kids) knew the difference between the American and the Canadian troops, but the Americans had maybe more of a top billing and we may have thought we were begging for American cigarettes. I don’t remember if I was successful in extracting one or the other – tchwinggum or cigarettes.

What was I doing in Saint-Aubin-lès-Elbeuf, about 75 miles northwest of Paris, where I was born. I was a hidden child, sheltered secretly from the Nazis whose obsession it was to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe, France included. In July 1942, when the Nazis staged a round-up of Jews in Paris and surrounding areas, where we lived, my brother, sister, and I escaped the dragnet though a chance event that I described elsewhere.[1]Through the same contacts, my siblings and I were placed in different locations in parts of Normandy, where St. Aubin is located. Through a series of my parents’ connections, around the end of July 1942, I was sent to the French Catholic family in St. Aubin, whom I introduced earlier, the Leclères. And there I was when D-Day dawned. About thirty years ago, my wife, Joan, and I visited the American cemetery, a pilgrimage I should have taken before. Overlooking Omaha Beach, over 9000 graves of soldiers who died that day or soon following are arrayed with simple markers. There are a number of inscriptions engraved in several locations in the cemetery. The one that made me cry was:

NOUS N’OUBLIONS PAS, NOUS N’OUBLIERONS JAMAIS, LA DETTE D’INFINIE GRATITUDE QUE NOUS AVONS CONTRACTEE ENVERS CEUX QUI ONT TOUT DONNE POUR NOTRE LIBERATION.


Today’s pandemic makes us realize how vulnerable we are to forms of assault never previously encountered. In this case, the “attackers” are microbes, who infect us with no ill will, but are simply following their natural impulses, programmed by nature. Last century we were assaulted with a different kind of virus – Nazi ideology. It was just as deadly, perhaps even more so, but the evil was intentional. D-Day eradicated the Nazi regime. But unfortunately, like the biological virus, which returns year after year, perhaps modified, ideological descendants of Nazis emerge in a different form and in different places than Europe – Charlottesville, for example.

Dear Master of the Universe, please make another D-Day unnecessary, and help us develop another vaccine, this one to neutralize prejudice, hate, and other-phobia. Amen!

“Peace is the only battle worth waging” -Albert Camus 

[1] The full story is in, Out of the Shadows, a Memoir: Survival in Nazi-Occupied France and Making a Life in America, Tree of Life Books, 2019

 

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3 Replies to “D-Day plus Chewing Gum and Cigarettes”

  1. Hello – I am a friend of Simon and Cecile and I thank you for your poignant words. I have visited Normandy twice – so sadly remarkable! Your bravery and resilience is so commendable.
    Be well –
    Donna Lennane

  2. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.

    I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is magnificent blog.
    A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

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