Sixty-nine years after Corporal Cotton served in World War II, his son, Guy, visited France, retracing his father's journey from the Cherbourg Peninsula to the small town of Dauendorf in Eastern France.
When Guy arrived in France, he hired a tour guide to show him, and his family, the places my battalion had backed up the infantry as we took the city of Cherbourg. The tour guide asked if Guy had any memorabilia from me.
Guy showed the tour guide, Geert Van Des Bogaert, my newspaper clipping from 1944 and it sparked an interest. The guide suggested sending the newspaper clipping to one of his friends, Jacelyne Papelard, who worked on stories related to WWII in the Alsace Lorraine area.
Joselyn requested I return to France in December 2014, 70 years later. I was invited to meet one of the children I had given a toy to all those years ago. The time and energy Joselyn put into setting up the whole trip, was nothing but phenomenal.
There were five memorable highlights:
The first, and most important, is the fact my two sons and three grandsons were able to join me on my journey. Traveling with them, made the trip much more special and meaningful.
Second, our visit to the Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial was very moving, as I remembered the 5,255 military dead buried at the cemetery, who lost their lives in campaigns across northeastern France to the Rhine and beyond into Germany. Remembering those fallen soldiers, I felt the desire to kneel and honor them.
Third, we were asked to attend a luncheon meeting at a hotel in Lutzelbourg. The luncheon was held in the hotel’s restaurant, which is considered one of the finest restaurants in all of the Alsace area! During the time the Nazi’s were in control, Hitler was known to dine there. We were greeted at the door by the owner Marc Carriger. He escorted my family and me inside, where we were welcomed by the Mayor of Lutzelbourg, council members, the military and the media! The media asked me and four members of my family to come outside and wave an American scarf that looked like a flag, while they took pictures!
Fourth, I was finally reunited with a lady who was one of the three children in the family that I had given the toys to all those years ago. Maria Martz had been four years old, and I was a 19-year old soldier the first time we met. Meeting Maria after 70 years, gave me satisfaction that everything I did as a soldier, was incredibly worth it, and at that moment, I believed my mission was completed, as "Santa Claus had returned to France.”
We were all swarmed by national and local media, who asked questions about our feelings of the reunion. The mayor of Dauendorf was also present! He had a great smile, so I told him I liked his smile and that he had my vote! He got a big kick out of this!
Later that evening, I was invited to address the City Council of Dauendorf! Once we arrived at the council building, it looked dark from the outside, but once we proceeded in and opened the door, there stood some members of a high school band. I was met with nothing but excitement. I walked up the steps, surrounded by a French high school band playing music. There were many people there; council members, celebrities, children and adults dressed in French costumes. I got to the podium and addressed the mayor of Dauendorf, council members, the military, the media, and the people of Dauendorf!
In my speech, I closed with the following words:
“In closing, Mr. Mayor, council members, people of Dauendorf and the Alsace area, I want you to know that I consider it an honor to be among you. I certainly admire the way you handled the German occupation, believing always that right would win out. My prayer is that God will bless each one of you and that our two countries will remain governments of the people, by the people, and for the people. From the bottom of my heart I say, ‘Vive le France.’”
Lastly, we returned to Paris and visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower. We attended a mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral and I couldn’t help but feel incredibly blessed. I thanked God that I had the opportunity to have spent my time as a soldier; helping people that were a defeated nation, come back to life again.
These moments of time that I spent in France are memories that I will never forget as long as I live.
Read PART 1: A Hero's Journey.