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Memorial Day in French = la journée du souvenir

the American Cemetery in Lorraine
Today's moving post is by guest blogger and author Nancy Rial (pictured here at the American Cemetery in Lorraine). Monday is Memorial Day in the US. The next post goes out Wednesday.

la journée du souvenir

    : memorial day

Searching for Mon Oncle, Soldier Alan 
by Nancy Rial 

Years ago, we flew past the auto-route sortie to St. Avold, on a fast-paced trip which encircled France and her bordering countries. I immediately thought of mon oncle who was buried there in the Lorraine Cimetière Américain but my companion could not be convinced to turn around, stop and investigate. It would have to wait for another trip.

Years later, I happened to be vacationing in Paris when the WWII 50th Anniversary of the Liberation of that city took place—with a parade beneath the open, elegant French windows of my borrowed apartment. My children were with me, and I was determined this time to take them to visit my uncle’s grave. The short visit en route to our next vacation “destination” was undeniably the most moving experience of the trip to Europe that summer.

The Lorraine Cimetière Américain, like the 10 other American military cemeteries of WWI or WWII, is well marked, and easy to locate. The reception room is comfortable and welcoming, the superintendents are bi-lingual, and one can find the location of a soldier’s grave. It is the visitors’ choice to be accompanied for a brief and moving ceremony, or be left to wander freely among the rows of often unvisited young soldiers.

It is an unforgettable experience searching for the soldier the first time. I searched for the familiar name until I recognized the letters on his croix, (there are many étoiles de David, also). Aha! There it is! Then the thought struck me that this is not the place one wants to find a name, for it means that the soldier resting there did not have the privilege of the long life that we live.

That first visit awakened more questions than it answered about this uncle I had never met. The kindly superintendent looked in his library for answers to some of my concerns. I wanted to know as many details as I could find about this young man’s life; just how much had he experienced? I have been investigating ever since.

The cemetery hosts an “Adopt a Grave” program, which is very important to the family of the soldiers buried across the seas from his homeland. No one in our family knows why my grandmother chose to leave Alan where he had fallen, but it is fitting that he is with his comrades, and that all these forever-young men should not be forgotten. The American cemeteries themselves are fitting reminders of the two countries’ entwined histories that started when France first helped the founding colonies of the New World to independence and was later lent a helping hand in the 20th century.

For a truly moving experience, visit one of the World War II cemeteries on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day (Armistice Day), or a quiet day of your next vacation. The rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David are inspiring and provide a good place to think about the value of life and what it means to be human. If you live in France, consider “Adopting” the grave of a soldier who gave everything so that we all have a good life. Then share the experience with the next


NRNancy Rial has a background in both the fine arts and library science. She is currently a library media specialist at the Cambridge Public Schools. She has been researching WWII for the past 10 years, and travels frequently between her home in Cambridge and France.

Read Nancy's book Alan's Letters 

"This is a personal chronicle of a teen soldier in WWII from basic training to his adventures across northern France on the front lines as a member of the Fifth Division, part of Patton's Third Army." Click here to order.

For more information on American WWII Military Cemeteries please visit here.

For more information about Nancy's uncle, Sgt. Alan Lowell, or how to get started researching your own soldat, please visit: www.alansletters.com



French Vocabulary

la sortie
= exit

mon oncle = my uncle

le cimetière américain = American cemetery

la croix = cross

l'étoile (f) de David = star of david

le soldat = soldier


Poppy (c) Kristin Espinasse

Learn the significance of poppies and soldiers remembrance: read this touching poem.

Poppies in Bollene (c) Kristin Espinasse

If reading this edition via email, you will need to click over the the blog to watch this touching "Day in the Life" of an American who lives in one of the soldiers' cemeteries in France--in order to care for it. Don't miss the video, click here then scroll down to the video.

"Remembrance" by Smokey. Please forward this edition to a friend. Merci beaucoup! 

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Madonna Meagher

Last Sept and Oct my friend and I and also accompanied by my brother toured my father's WWII battle route in the Alsace and Lorraine. We visited the American Cemetery in Epinal and St. Avold. We found the graves of soldiers in my father's company and laid flowers on their graves. We had the story of these fallen soldiers from a veteran in my father's company/division who still lives in Oklahoma. We also made a side trip to the American Cemetery in St. Mihiel because my great uncle served in that battle during WWI. These visits to the cemeteries will never be forgotten. it was a trip of a life time.

Vicki Fitzgerald

I have been to a couple of American cemeteries in Europe. They are such beautiful and peaceful places. I was so touched to find out that all of the headstones are oriented to face towards the United States.

Pat, Roanoke, VA

Many thanks, Nancy, for this beautiful and moving story.  Your perseverence in learning more about your Uncle Alan, sharing this with your children, and now with us, is a fitting and honorable  tribute to him.  

"The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!"

(From  "Remembrance"  by Kipling)

Alas, we do forget, and wars and rumors of wars persists.  Yet, we never forget those who are drawn into battle by the "Captains and the Kings," and bravely answer the call-- we will NEVER forget.  Mille mercis a tous, rest in peace.

Tom from Detroit

Being in religious ministry --a vocation in which people's emotions are many times very close to the surface--I'm familiar with tears (others AND mine). So, perched on a cliff scanning the acres of Omaha beach, it was not unusual to become emotional when my imagination pictured the smoke and blood, visualized thousands of "sitting duck" landing craft, heard the explosions and gun fire. (Lord knows we've seen enough "real life" footage and Hollywood reenactments to fuel our imaginations.) However, nothing prepared me for the emotional tsunami that swallowed me when I did an about face to see 9000+ perfectly aligned croix and étoiles de David on a sea of green in the American Military Cemetery in Normandy. The extraordinary toll of human sacrifice literally caused me to gasp in unbelief. That something so beautifully precise and serene could be born from such chaos and horror is simply unimaginable. I'm so thankful to France for permitting America and other foreign governments to honor the sacrifice of their sons and daughters by maintaining such beautiful military cemeteries.


Thank you for this lovely post. We visited the American Cemetry in Normandy . It was and still is one of the most impressive memories of the trip. My husband, retired from the US National Park Service, discovered that the cemetry is staffed and maintained in conjunction with our Park Service.


Just heard Colin Powell state again that after conquests by the USA:

And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.

Jill in Sydney

A member of my family Harold Pickford Moxham was an ANZAC who died in the Battle of the Somme sometime between 22 and 25 July 1916, just after he had celebrated his 26th birthday. Sadly, in all the chaos of battle, his exact date of death is unknown. He is buried near Pozieres.It took 3 years before his personal effects were returned to his family, they consisted of a small package containing 3 handkerchiefs, a belt, a strap, a Gospel and a bag.

One day I hope to visit Harold's grave - I guess there is a memorial plaque of some sort. Maybe if one of your readers visits the Australian cemetery at Pozieres, they could say a little prayer for this young man buried very far from his family back in Australia, who I'm guessing, like many other families, never got over the loss of their only son.

Julie F in St. Louis, MO

I haven't yet visited the graves in France. However, when I was in Girl Scouts we went hiking in Shiloh National Park in the US. Even in adolescence I sensed the spirits of the men who had died along our beautiful hiking trail. When we hit the cemetery at the end of the day, it was breathtaking to see all the crosses symmetrically spread out before us. At our local veterans cemetery where my father and grandfather are buried, for Memorial Day the Boy Scouts put a small flag on the thousands of graves every year.


A very moving story. I visited the American cemetery in Normandy a few years ago. I was amazed at how meticulously maintained the grounds were. All the visitors were respectful and spoke in hushed tones. It is amazing that such a beautiful and tranquil spot was the site of such horrific violence and death. I will never forget that day.

Tom B, Jersey City NJ

My Uncle Tom was a casualty of WW II and is also buried in St. Avoid. I have taken many members of my family: my dad, another uncle to see their brother's grave, as well as all my nieces and nephews so that they would appreciate the sacrifice. My uncle was a paratrooper in the 101st Batallion and was captured in Bastogne, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. He paid the ultimate price but he is not forgotten.

Herm in Phoenix, AZ

Thanks, Nancy, for sharing your touching story. The grueling battle that was fought along the French/Belgium border left many heroes, both living and dead. It is good that we honor their efforts. It is interesting how the poppy evolved as a symbol of remembrance out of the battle

My next blog posting will have a new poem on that very subject. I’ll reference your story also


As part of a tour of the D-Day sites, our guide took us not only to the American cemetery near Omaha Beach but also to the British and German (yes, there is one) cemeteries. All were moving, but we were also struck by the differences among them. The German cemetery in particular was a gloomy place, the crosses made of dark, rough stone; the British cemetery felt closer emotionally to the American one. But one couldn't also help being struck by the vastness of the U.S. field and the enormous number of graves. It made real the sacrifice we as a country and they as individuals made in the fight against Hitler--a profoundly moving experience.

Audrey Wilson

It is always very moving to see these rows of crosses & to note how young were those who fell.
We once happened on a German cemetry near Sedan . The crosses were black iron & once again the ages of the soldiers were very similar . In the centre of the cemetry was a mound with one cross on it - the grave of the unknown soldiers . I found this pacticullary moving
All one thinks is what a dreadful waste of life & will we ever learn ?!

Eileen deCamp

Hi Kristin and Nancy,
Thanks for this post today. We have visited Normandy several times with the Boy Scouts when we were stationed in Germany. Our son was able to be part of the wreath laying ceremony. My Girl Scout troop also cleaned the white crosses at the Henri-Chapelle cemetery in Belgium. The girls were able to lay a wreath there also. It is very moving.
Thanks so much!

Eileen deCamp

Hi Nancy,
I just ordered your book! Can't wait to read it!

Nancy L.

I, too, have un oncle, buried in France who was killed at the D-Day invasion. I ,too, never knew him and have not yet had the opportunity to visit le cimetière américain in Normandy, (where he is buried) but one day I will. My mother tells the story of how it was she who first received the news and had to be the one to tell my Grandmother & Grandfather. When I think about mon oncle, I am stunned to remember that he was merely 20 years old when he gave his life for his country (younger than my own son is today) and the devastation his death caused my Grandmother and his brothers & sisters. He was often spoken of when I was growing up and my Grandmother could never hear his name without 'tearing up'.
My thanks to Nancy for this moving story.

Chez Cerise

Here's a link to my blog and a poem I wrote about being at the D-Day beaches on the 55th anniversary - and chance encounters with some men who had landed there in their youth.

Marcia Fritch

Thank-you, Nancy, for sharing your experience. It brought back memories for me. My father's cousin was killed just before WW II ended, and dad knew only where he was killed, but not where he was buried. My husband and I talked mom and dad into accompanying us on a trip to Paris with the promise that my husband would investigate the place where Bob was buried, and if possible, we would take a side trip to visit the grave. Bob was buried in the American Netherlands Cemetary near Mastricht, Holland. We took a day trip by train. An experience of a life time. The person in the reception area treated our family like royalty. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. What a terrific price has been payed. They are not forgotten.

Michael F

Ref "No one in our family knows why my grandmother chose to leave Alan where he had fallen"
In the UK it was decided that all those who died would be buried near where they died. Otherwise, the families of the weathy might have decided to repatriate the bodies of the fallen and it was felt that this would not have been fair to all the others.
As a consequence, there are many war memorials in the country - estimates put the figure as high as 100,000. A project is underway to restore and renovate them as necessary as we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. The following links may be of interest:


Thanks Nancy for a beautifully written story. I will never forget my first visit to one of the Normandy cemeteries when I was a student in France in 1967. The patterned rows of crosses and stars of David was staggering. Two years later, in the midst of the Vietnam War, I accompanied Japanese families to a cemetery in the jungle in Palau when the U.S. first allowed such visits. Although both the Normandy and Palau cemeteries were serene, and perhaps because they were serene, they scream a message that we have such a hard time hearing. I look forward to reading your book.


We visited the American Cemetary in Normandy and then visited the grave of my Wife's great uncle in Henri-Chapelle (Belgium), both were very moving. We were particularly impressed, however, at the number of non-American's visiting Henri-Chapelle. It was mid-day on a Sunday in late June, and dozens of non-American's were visiting. We then went to Norbeek, Netherlands, were her great uncle had been killed and visited with the people who established a monument to him on the side of the road just yards from where he fell. Thanks to the greatest generation for paying the price that we might live in freedom!


This is both a moving and beautifully written story;one which brings tears of rememberance for all of those brave men who fell.
Also for our own relatives who now exist forever in our memories.
My father made the first eye witness radio broadcast of the Normandy invasion;later that day his jeep drove over a land mine. He carried injuries from that experience for the remainder of his days,yet always said he would gladly do it again for his country and family. Too many wars have transpired since,too many dead.On Memorial Day (and always) we should bow our heads in gratitude for their sacrifices.

Stacy ~ Sweet Life Farm ~ Applegate, Oregon

Thank you, Nancy, so touched am I by your beautifully written story. A potent reminder for remembrance of those who have served our country. Amen.

Cheryl in STL

Thank you, Nancy and Kristin. I have tears in my eyes as I write. The American Cemetery in Normandy has imprinted itself in my mind and my heart. I was 23 when I saw it first and I was just completely humbled, still am. I have had the same reaction in the other American cemeteries I've been to. I would not be who I am today without the sacrifice of so many young men and women.

Sarah LaBelle near Chicago

The American Battle Monuments Commission web site, the link Kristin supplied (http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/index.php) lets you search to find where a soldier was buried. I stumbled on it by accident in an on line search, thinking my grandfather's younger brother was buried in Chicago. Indeed, there is huge gravestone for him.

Now we know that his real resting place is Meuse Argonne cemetery, and his stone in Chicago is a cenotaph, a memorial stone placed by his brothers and sisters. His parents died before he went to war, so we will never know what the man who was sent to America to escape the wars of the Austrian Empire might have felt about two of his 5 sons joining the soldiers of WWI.

At least in WWI and WWII, I learned it was the practice to bury soldies where they fell. Honorable, and practical. Yes, France has been very wonderful in supporting those cemeteries. A little bit of America in Meuse Argonne, I learned.

Glad you sought your uncle's grave with your children, Nancy



Last year I spent the entire day with your wonderful book, cried tears all the way through it...Alan's Letters will always remain in my heart. Thank you again for the gift of Alan's memory.



Mara in Wisconsin

Working in an American public library, I have received inquiries from individuals in both the Netherlands and France who have adopted the graves of fallen soldiers from my area. Once I could connect the young woman with the soldier's brother, who sent her a photo and information about his personality. I was so honored to play a part in this, and so warmed by the idea of adopting a grave to care for.

Judi Boeye Miller, Lake Balboa, CA

Thank you for such a heart-felt, moving story - and, all your dedicated work. Since I have never been to any of the cemeteries in France, I can only imagine how impactful they must be. I was very moved by Arlington Cemetery in DC and I know it must really be something to see the miles of 'rememberances' in another country - knowing the USA (and other countries) sacrificed so much to help France and England.

Judi Boeye Miller, Lake Balboa, CA

I hit 'send' too soon! (and, noticed I misspelled 'remembrances'- ugh). To continue, my father fought in WWI in France, but was "lucky enough" to get very ill, and spent a good deal of his time holed up in a bakery, near Lemans. He returned home, and so, was one of the lucky ones! I've often wondered exactly where he might have been located and fantasized about finding 'the bakery.' I am keeping all this information in these posts and hope to start a search to see where it might take me - no living relatives to assist - so I might be lost, but want to give it a try. Thank you everyone for all the leads to find out more, the Poppy Story, and the video!


Many years ago, on a trip through France with a large tour group, we made the customary stop at the American cemetery in Normandy. The sheer numbers of crosses stretching across acres in orderly rows was enough to render all of us silent and subdued. The group returned to the bus ready to head on down the road to the next stop when the guide announced that there would be a short detour. The coach drove a mile or two and pulled over onto the shoulder next to a somewhat untidy and overgrown cemetery. One of the ladies and her husband got off the bus with the guide and driver and went into the Canadian cemetery. Some of us on the tour had not been alive during WWII. This lady's brother had died during the D-Day invasion and this was the first time she had been able to visit his grave. Her visit was brief and we could all tell that she had been weeping....but then so were we....all of us. We drove on down the road silently with prayers for all the young soldiers who gave their lives.

Kerry R. Cordis

Enjoyed your story.I'm glad that your 1st visit was with your children. I have been to Colleville-Sur-Mer many times. Each time I am awed by the beauty and silence. I am anxious to read your book. Kerry

Nancy                   , Cambridge

I have been reading all the comments with great interest, as you can imagine! Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read, and reply. And I have so many comments in reply: Madonna- which regiment and division was your father in? The 90th, 95th and 5th worked closely together. Sarah LaBelle, if you forward your info to my address found on my website (so as not to clutter up this column), I would be glad to visit your soldier's grave in the Muese whenever I get there. Mara, thanks for your work with the connections; the world is small, and we are all connected.( Kudos to Kristin for helping to make it smaller) And JULES, where did you get my book in Mexico?

Rich, New York

Very timely that news of your book and all the great sentiments expressed here arrive on Memorial Day weekend. There is no better way to honor our fallen than by keeping them alive in our memories, our hearts and in our prayers. My cousin, a WW II hero is buried in Brittany and to visit him and his comrades there is a very special experience. Thanks to all of you and to the all the wonderful French adults and children who respect and cherish that hallowed ground.


Very nice story and sentiment


Hello Nancy, This was a moving post for our Memorial Day. My husband's step-dad was a photographer with Patton. We have a published book of his photographs. I am wondering if there might be anything of interest to you in that book. I will have to locate it as it is packed away at the moment but if you choose, you may contact me through my website.


Bob Fowler, Monterey Park CA

The American Cemetery at Omaha Beach is indeed humbling, as are the equally well-maintained and manicured Canadian, British and German Cemeteries nearby.

We visited in July 2004, a month after the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing. Banners of American, Canadian and British flags remained strung across the road in every village, and flowers and notes still decorated every memorial.

June 6, 1944 is ancient history to many here, but it appeared that it was just yesterday to people there.



I read your precious book when I was visiting Kristi in France last year. Allan's Letters played a big part in my vacation and will always be remembered with all the elements of France surrounding me as I laid on Jackie's old French bed out near the pool looking over the vineyard, forrest and mountains in the distance. I knew as I read Allan's letters I was breathing the same air as he when he penned his precious letters long ago. I was truly touched by your book Nancy. I treasure that special day I spent with your book.



Sharona Tsubota

It's such a shame that the video of Tom Cavaness wasn't made until he was leaving for Paris. It's such a moving story.

Amber    Peoria, IL

Thanks, Nancy, for this post. My grandmother lost her fiance, a paratrooper, in WWII. She died this year at the age of 90 and still carried his last letter in her wallet.

I too, have been to the American Cemetery in Normandy. It was moving. I would suggest trips to the beaches, themselves, as well. Utah beach, in particular, as well as a visit to Pointe du Hoc are some of the most somber places I have been. Pointe du Hoc brings new meaning to "German Engineering" as the bunkers are still in tact all these years later, despite the bombing that happened to them. There is a great museum at Utah beach as well. Also, the tribute at St. Mere Eglise is lovely. If you know the movie "The Longest Day", you will recognize the paratrooper on the church. We also visited the German cemetery at La Cambe. It's black crosses are a stark contrast to the American Cemetery's white ones. For anyone with any interest, a trip to the North of France is worth it.

Barbara Young

My daughter and I visited Ardennes American Cemetery near Liege, Belgium last year. My uncle Benjamin is buried there, beneath one of the etoiles de David. He was my father's youngest brother, killed very early in WW2. He was, in fact, not even 18 when he enlisted. He forged his mother's signature on the enlistment papers, according to family legend. The cemetery supervisor escorted us to his grave and showed us how to rub sand (from Omaha Beach) into the engraving in the stone so that his name and the dates would look like gold in our photos. He left us at the grave and went back to the chapel building, and soon the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner, followed by Taps, filled the cemetery. On our return to the cemetery office, I learned more about my uncle, his plane's mission, and the others who were shot down with him (five killed in action, five taken as POWs). My daughter and I will never forget our visit there.

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