A Trip With a Purpose
Gilbert King George and his wife Tallis live in the Pacific Northwest, just outside Seattle. Until September 2011, they had not traveled abroad and had no desire to see the usual sights. However, in April 2011 they started planning a trip to France, more specifically Normandy.
Gilbert King George is a Muckleshoot Tribal Elder. A respected commercial fisherman with experience in many areas, he wondered all his life about the father he had never known, trying to imagine through books, movies and army records what his war had been. As he grew older, Gilbert, “Hoagie” to his friends, decided he would like to know for himself the land where his father had died. A skilled researcher, Tallis endeavored to assist her husband in his quest to better understand his father's story. In the course of her research, she found the France Homestyle website.
Personal and War History
As the other story posted below shows, the bond between the United States and Normandy runs deep. This region of farmland and pastures was turned into a war zone by the German Army: bunkers along the coast, caches of ammunitions, armed defense of supply railroad lines and crossroads. One well-known communication hub was Saint Lô, a town so heavily bombed that its reconstruction was uncertain after the war. Another strategic point was Sainte-Mère Église, a beautiful village twenty-five miles southeast of the Cherbourg harbor.
The Allied bombings alone were not enough to win the war. Close to 20,000 American paratroopers were dropped over Normandy in order to regain it in preparation for the landings. Chester Courville, Gilbert King George’s father, was a paratrooper in the regiment whose mission was to capture and hold the Sainte-Mère Église sector. The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the Army 82nd Airborne Division, was well-trained and capable. All the men in the Parachute Infantry Regiment intended to survive and fight on the ground. Sadly, few did; they were easy targets for the enemy. The heroic paratroopers became the symbols of the liberators. Chester Courville was killed in action in the Sainte-Mère Église drop zone on D-Day.
Chester Courville Gilbert King George
Henri, Personal Normandy Guide
Henri is my brother. He lives in Cherbourg, not far from the Landing Beaches. He has a reputation for creating highly personalized tours, and he put his heart and resources into the mission of fulfilling Tallis and Gilbert’s wishes. The itinerary he put together focused on the sector of Sainte-Mère Église, liberated by the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Wanting to ensure that their time in Normandy would be full of meaningful visits, Henri contacted the people in charge of the American cemetery, war museums and the mayors of the small towns around Sainte-Mère: Colleville, Sully, Blosville and Carquebut. He picked them up at the airport, saving them the chore of driving in France. His presence resolved language problems and allowed them closer contact with the population. Consequently, Gilbert and Tallis were received with empathy and warmth everywhere they went.
Henri recounting to Gilbert the history of these German military bunkers
Places and People
First they visited the Colleville American Cemetery overlooking Omaha beach. The Director knew they were coming and invited Gilbert to help retire the colors at the sound of Taps. They were then received by the Director of the Paratrooper Museum at Sainte-Mère. The current Mayor showed them the American flag that was raised over the town hall at 6:30 am on D-Day: Sainte-Mère was the first town liberated in France. The flag has 48 stars, as it did until 1959.
The King Georges had received official army records proving that the body of Chester Courville had been buried for four years on a French farm before being repatriated. They wanted to see that farm, that field. The graves are no longer there, but a monument commemorates the temporary burial ground where Chester Courville’s body lay until it was repatriated to Enumclaw, WA. Henri had arranged for the Mayors of Sainte-Mère and Carquebut to be present. Gilbert and Tallis lay flowers at the base of the monument.
Gilbert stands beside a monument to 6000 fallen American soldiers that fought for France's liberation,
including his father
The wife of the former mayor of Sainte-Mère, Madame Simone Renaud, had devoted her life to caring for the graves of the paratroopers. Gilbert and Tallis wanted to meet her middle son, Henri-Jean Renaud, who was 10 years old in 1944. Renaud joined them at the former cemetery monument and took Gilbert and Tallis to his family plot where they laid flowers on his mother’s grave. For 40 years, Simone Renaud had placed flowers on the tombs, sent letters, photos, and flower petals to families in the US. (1) The banner they posed on the grave read: “Thank you, Madame Renaud, for laying flowers on the graves of our paratroopers. The Courville family.”
Henri-Jean Renaud with the King Georges at Simone Renaud’s tomb
Henri and the King Georges explored the area, stopping at La Fière bridge to get a better feel for the drop zone of Chester Courville’s regiment. The setting has since returned to its rural state: lush farmland with a river running through it. Gilbert, with his sharp eye and poetic turn of mind, noticed a lone fisherman and was tempted to join him. The conversation between two men raised 10,000 miles apart would have been interesting. Instead, Gilbert prayed for the all the men who fell there, perhaps his father among them. He would never know.
One of the people the King Georges had wanted to meet most was Monsieur Yves de la Rue, a man who, at age 17, had helped dig the paratroopers’ graves. Their wish was fulfilled by pure chance, destiny. De la Rue had been away travelling, so they had arranged for the mayor to present him with a Native American gift blanket in their name. They still decided to drive by de la Rue’s farmhouse with Henri, and saw a car parked in the courtyard with its doors open. Henri’s son ran to the car and came back shouting: “C’est lui!”
The field where 5700 men were buried belonged to his father and is now part of his farm. De la Rue invited them in and shared with them old letters, photos, mementos. The King Georges had gained another friend.
Left to right: Yves de la Rue and his wife looking through wartime documents; Gilbert and Yves
Finally on their last day, as they were getting ready to drive back to the airport and fly home, good fortune was with them again. They met François Courville, Gilbert’s distant “relative”, again by pure chance. As they were leaving, François happened to be walking near the Mayor’s house. Seizing the opportunity, the Mayor invited him to a last minute encounter with Gilbert, his cousin. Standing by the van that was about to take Tallis and Gilbert back to Charles de Gaulle airport, the two men were deeply moved as they exchanged greetings and stories.
François Courville and Gilbert King George make an uncanny connection
As it sounds, the name Courville is French, in fact there is a town named Courville in Normandy. François knew some of his ancestor had migrated to Canada, and Chester Courville, Gilbert’s father, belonged to a tribe that moved from Canada to the Pacific Northwest. The recognition of this long lost bond was one of Gilbert’s many emotional experiences during his visit.
Their trip must have brought some degree of closure to the King Georges’ quest. At one of the town halls where the couple was so warmly greeted, they were inspired to renew their marriage vows!
Tallis and Gilbert having their vows renewed by the Mayor of Sainte-Mère Église
Gilbert and Tallis are now home after a well-spent ten days. Tallis remembers many other highlights of their trip: visiting Giverny, pastry shops, outdoor markets, the Bayeux tapestry. Hoagie will not forget the beautiful countryside and the bread! Says Tallis: he is hooked!
Henri and I are deeply aware of the debt of gratitude we owe Americans for liberating our country. Amazingly, Hoagie and Tallis did not go to France expecting gratitude but to give thanks. In a profoundly spiritual attitude, G. KG explains: “we traveled to Normandy, guided by our old teachings, to honor those who helped my father on his final journey.” From our first contact, I was struck by Tallis and Hoagie’s graciousness. Tallis wrote: “we want to be respectful and courteous visitors”, knowing how idle curiosity and insensitivity hurt. Wherever they went, they went bearing gifts, bringing flowers and expressing gratitude. Amazingly, their intention was not to collect tributes to Hoagie’s and his father’s sacrifices but to give thanks. In this day of self-absorption, Tallis and Gilbert’s journey stands out.
Seattle, December 2011.
(1) Those interested in more details can read Jeff Stoffer’s book, “Mother of Normandy, the story of Simone Renaud”. It was published in 2010 by Iron Mike Entertainment to accompany a documentary film they produced.
(2) Gilbert King George grew up using his mother’s last name but always remained attached to his Courville family. His father’s people went from France to Quebec with Jacques Cartier then came out west with Hudson Bay and married native women. Chester Courville’s family had come to the new world from France; when he returned there as a liberator his world view was that of an Indian man.
(3) The gift blanket that Gilbert and Tallis presented to Yves de la Rue is the Grateful Nation blanket made by Pendleton Mills, in honor of the men and women who have “defended freedom through the history of the United States.” A portion of the sales of each blanket goes toward a foundation that assists veterans worldwide.
Clients Experience French-American History in Normandy
“I think you should visit Normandy,” said Claudette, who happened to be visiting Paris while we were there. My husband and I had just completed several days of meetings at the Sorbonne. Then on July 14, we watched the Bastille Day Parade, where German soldiers marched for the first time since before World War II. We had missed the 50th anniversary ceremonies of the June 6th D-Day invasion and had not planned a visit there. However, we did know that we should trust Claudette’s advice.
So we took a train to Bayeux, admired the tapestries, rented a car and drove to Ferme de Vacqueville, our farmhouse home away from home. The following days, we visited the beaches and shed tears as we wandered the cemetery. We learned what we should have known before: France was not won in a day. The Normandy area was recaptured bit by bit as allied forces slowly made their way through the countryside. In the summer of 1994, each village and town was celebrating its own day of freedom. Strung high above the entrance to each village were British and American flags and a white sign with large letters, “Welcome Liberators.”
As Americans, we were deeply touched.
We learned that Saint-Lô was honoring its day with a concert. We made our way to the town and sat in a crowded cathedral that still bore the marks of wartime destruction--deliberately left in disrepair as a memorial to the fallen. As a tribute to forgiveness, the orchestra played the Bach Requiem. In the silence of the cathedral when all was done, we heard bagpipes playing in the darkness outside. With others, we looked over the edge of a cliff to a street below. There, bagpipers lead hundreds of children dressed in white, carrying white balloons. We followed them to a park. Although we did not understand the long speeches, a reenactment on the hillside above explained the town’s capture and eventual liberation.
It was 1 a.m., and we were preparing to leave when we heard Glenn Miller orchestra sounds coming from a previously unseen bandstand. To those of us too distant remember its horrors, this was our sound of the war years. “String of Pearls.” Tuxedo Jct.” “American Patrol.” People began to dance. We joined them. And then as if blanketing us all in a safety net, it began to rain, gently. Soothing us. We were overwhelmed by the meaning of this American sound in this beautiful town in France. I always cry when I tell this story. As Claudette had said, it was important that we go to Normandy.
Mary Ann, A, Seattle, WA