Seventy years ago on the 6th June 1944 the Allied Forces invaded the beaches of Normandy, France, otherwise known as D-Day. It was the turning point of WWII.
At the time I lived in rural Hampshire, in the middle-south of England. We were not far from Portsmouth where most of the invasion fleet set out. I was eight years old, not old enough to fully understand what was going on, but old enough to have clear memories of the events of that time.
I remember the American soldiers coming over to England in the months prior to D-Day. Suddenly appearing one afternoon as I walked home from school, arriving in what seemed to be an endless convoy of army trucks, each full of young men, smiling, waving to us as we waved back.
In the weeks and months that followed that is how I remember the Americans, always smiling, laughing, goofing off, a lot of horse-play and kidding around with each other. At the time they seemed like adults to me, but I now know that most were only 10 or 15 years older than I was.
They were teens or early twenties, goofing around as teens will do. To get it in perspective; if this were today an eight year old would have been born in 2006, many of these young soldiers would have been born in the mid to late 1990s. No age at all, really.
Prior to the arrival of the American Army, roads were pretty much devoid of all motor traffic because of petrol rationing. When the Americans came, there was a constant flow of army trucks, Jeeps, and even Sherman Tanks going up and down the roads.
Soldiers were training, playing war games, in the local fields and woodlands. I saw paratroopers jump from airplanes, and I can still visualize the sky filled with hundreds of descending parachutes. They fired blank rounds during these exercises, and after we would go out colleting brass shell casings.
There was a large US Army camp close by and we would go hang out there at the weekends. The soldiers would give us chewing gum and candy. This was a big deal because sugar was rationed during the war, and we had to make do with 2 oz. of candy a month. I had never seen chewing gum until the Americans came.
Just as suddenly as the Americans appeared, they all disappeared. I came home from school one day around the first week in June 1944 and they were all gone. I went to the army camp that weekend and it was completely empty. It was a surreal experience that I didn’t understand, any more than I understood anything else that went on during that period of my life.
It wasn’t until ten or so years later when I became a young adult myself did I realize what had happened. To an eight year old it was all a game, an experience, and those young men with their happy, smiling faces never led me to believe it was anything else. But after they left and things got serious, they died in their thousands on the Beaches of Normandy, and others in the months that followed.
It had a profound effect on me. Because today I still see the happy faces of those young American soldiers. I will never forget the sacrifice they made; a sacrifice not of their choosing. But one they made none the less so I would never have to do the same.