Rededication of a historical monument
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 19, 2003
Special to the News-Herald
I’m back in England again, at least in my mind. Thought travel is currently cheaper and less of a risk and gives me a chance to go back in time to April 28, 1944. I’ve told this story before but it’s my column and I want to take you back with me. It was a beautiful night, no moon, and we were practicing landings on English beaches similar to those awaiting us across the channel in France. The British had evacuated all the people and animals from the villages of Blackawton, Chillington, Allington, Stokenham, Strete, and Slapton. The reason being that we were going to blow those villages to bits over several nights of practice invasion. On that April night eight German &uot;E&uot; boats caught three of our seven LSTs unprotected, sank two, taking over 700 American soldiers and sailors with them. This was kept secret until 1974; for 30 years they were reported as missing in action. Only a few citizens eventually returned to their demolished villages.
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The American military brass eventually erected a monument to the citizens of those villages, honoring their contribution to the war effort. It would be 1992 before both governments held memorial services for the American victims. An Englishman, Ken Small, I’m proud to say a friend of mine, spent eight years piecing the story together. At great expense to him he had arranged to pull to shore a 52-ton Sherman tank from 60 feet down and a mile out at sea. It was covered with fishing trawler nets. Painted black, it’s on the beach near the English citizens’ monument and it will be there long after Ken Small is gone. Relatives of those Americans lost in the tragedy still visit that site to this day.
In November 2001 a furious storm on the English Channel destroyed much of the beach, the monument to the English villagers and nearly a mile of the only road down to American memorial at Slapton Sands. Many feared that it would never be replaced; it was far off any beaten path in that part of Devon and would cost thousands of pounds.
But with great effort by local citizens the road was rebuilt and every piece of stone and marble from the monument was recovered from the sea. A year later, Nov. 15, 2002, hundreds gathered in the rain on that lonely windswept beach to hear British Navy officers rededicate the 20-foot tribute to the people of those villages of long ago. Those 3,000 &uot;victims&uot; had been given 16 days to leave with their goods, livestock, and any salvageable crops. Most were old and only hundreds returned.
The people of England have not forgotten what America did for them, especially the young men and women who went overseas to save their country from possible invasion. In 1992, after 48 years, I went back to the small town of Totnes and my wife and I were made honorary citizens. Just recently another American soldier returned and the nearby village of Berry Pomeroy turned out to greet their returning American hero, James Lockhart, now 80. He was presented with a certificate, which read, &uot;We, the parishioners of Berry Pomeroy, wish to express our gratitude for the bravery and dedication Of James Lockhart and his countrymen who served with the 115th Infantry regiment.&uot; Lockhart was one of those few survivors who were in the very first landing crafts on Omaha beach. When asked if it really was as bad as it was depicted in the movie, &uot;Saving Private Ryan,&uot; he said it was 10 times worse but would say no more.
There were more than 2 million American troops down in that corner of England with every kind of equipment and supplies for several divisions. We were assembling there in late December 1943 and it was necessary to change a lot of English landscape in order to move our huge trucks and tanks around. They referred to us as the Magic Army because we materialized almost overnight. They forgave the damage done to their narrow roads and sharp corners and even forgave us for the amount of English girls who went to the United States after the war, married to American G.Is. We had helped preserve a foreign country, and America, by most living there, is treated like a true friend.
And then there is France. I like to think I helped save that country and I never saw a French soldier. John McCain, when asked recently about France, said, &uot;France is like an early ’40s movie star who thinks she can still dine out on her good looks but hasn’t got the face for it.&uot;
Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular columnist for the News-Herald.