NORMANDY — One day before the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Morley Piper of Essex spoke to 1,000 people at a crossroads in the town of St. Clair-sur-l’Elle, near a monument to his 29th Infantry Division.
“It does not seem possible now that it was 70 years ago,” he said as daughter Patricia Robert and granddaughter Audrey Robert translated for the mainly French audience.
“The soldiers of the 29th Division, on that gray cold morning of June 6th, 1944, came ashore in small boats in one of the most momentous military engagements in history, an epic battle that changed the course of the war. It was anything but easy. For long hours, the battle hung in the balance. In fact, the Allied Command, at one point during the morning, thought the invasion was failing.”
On bloody Omaha Beach where Piper came ashore, there was talk of withdrawal. Instead, they persevered and began the march inland, one that took them through St. Clair-sur-l’Elle and then to St. Lo and finally all the way into Germany.
“It was a busy day,” said Piper of yesterday’s ceremonies. “And a fulfilling day. A dramatic day.”
A young second lieutenant, Piper had gone off to fight for his country. Ironically, the sacrifices and courage of Piper and his fellow GIs had a more immediate and more lasting impact on the French, who approach him everywhere to offer thanks.
“We met people who had lived here during the German occupation,” he said. “We met people who had been sent to Germany as slave laborers. ... Someone who lost his house in the bombing. Someone who lost a relative.”
In his speech, Piper pointedly recognized the collateral damage from Allied actions inflicted on the Normans.
“The enormous loss of human life, the loss of your farm animals, destruction of your homes, devastation of entire cities. ... We want to acknowledge your sacrifice, the aid you unstintingly gave us as young soldiers,” he said, “and we want to express our admiration for your courage, endurance and resistance during the war years.”