Reflections on “The Greatest Generation” and D-Day in France

Reflections on “The Greatest Generation” and D-Day in France

My relationship with the D-Day invasion began before I was born. My father landed on Omaha Beach in June, 1944 and I came along later as part of the ‘post war Baby Boom generation’.

Dad was a Seabee, an engineer in the Naval Construction Battalion Corps, whose mottos are ‘We Build, We Fight’ and ‘Can Do!’; their mascot, a bee, carries a drill and a gun. He spent five months on the cliffs above Omaha Beach where, after he supervised the construction of the navy camp, he then organized the rebuilding of bridges, the carving out of roads and whatever construction and engineering projects needed doing.

Dad’s stories about his time in France were as much a part of my childhood as the yellow Formica table we crowded around each evening, and the glasses of frosty, whole milk from the local dairy we drank with dinner.

He’d describe how his high school French made ‘s’il vous plâit’ come out sounding like ‘silver plate’, but would smile when he told how patient the French were with his efforts.

The Seabee unit of Diane Covington-Carter’s father (back left) in Normandy, 1944

As a lieutenant in charge of the mess hall in the camp for two months, he’d load up pans of fresh food that would have gone to waste and take them to a different farm house each evening. “Oh, they would be so grateful,” he’d say, and his eyes would shine remembering the happiness of the farmers at this simple gesture of goodwill.

Dad also became close to an orphan boy Gilbert, who lived near the camp, making sure that Gilbert came through the lunch line with Dad every day. Dad even tried unsuccessfully to adopt Gilbert and bring him home. In my childhood, I felt curious about this French boy who could have been my older brother. He hovered in my consciousness, slightly out of focus.

I studied French in high school and college and worked hard to keep it up in my adult life. It was as if I had a connection to France through my father, and, though I couldn’t explain it, it felt deep and true.

Johnson and Gilbert. courtesy of Diane Covington-Carter

Near the end of my father’s life, his body weak with cancer, I noticed how when he spoke about his time in France during the war, his eyes shone, he sat up straighter and his voice came out clear and strong. It was if he regained some of the youthful vigor of his part in turning the tide of World War II.

He even mentioned Gilbert again, his voice becoming quiet, wistful. “I wonder what ever happened to him?” My father died in 1991.

For the 50th anniversary, June 6, 1994, I traveled to Normandy where I accepted a medal in my father’s honor in a moving ceremony for veterans and their families. I spent a day touring the invasion beaches and learned that Dad had been a part of the largest land and sea invasion in the history of the world.

I had adored my father and thought I knew him well. But there was so much that he’d seen and experienced that he hadn’t talked about. Why hadn’t I encouraged him to come back to France again? Why hadn’t I asked more questions and paid more attention, before it was too late?

Though I wasn’t even sure how to spell his last name, I put an ad in the Normandy paper to look for Gilbert. By a combination of miracles and providence, I connected with Gilbert on what would have been my father’s 80th birthday.

Diane with four generations of Gilbert’s family on a recent visit. Photo courtesy of Diane Covington-Carter

Gilbert had told his wife, his daughter and his grandsons about the kind lieutenant who had wanted to take him home to America and that someday, someone would come. In our emotional reunion, when I told Gilbert that my father had never forgotten him, he wept.

My father’s stories led me to France and to Gilbert. They also created a deep connection to the D-Day anniversaries that didn’t end with the 50th. I have stayed close to Gilbert and his family, and attended both the 60th and the 70th anniversaries of D-Day, working as a translator and guide for returning veterans. The French locals would swarm around them and we’d all be wiping away tears as I translated their words of gratitude.

Now I will be in France again for the 75th ceremonies in France, the last time that veterans from D-Day will be alive for the events. I’ll be staying with Gilbert’s widow, who has become like a sister to me.

My heart is pulling me back, for my father, for Gilbert and for all the men of ‘The Greatest Generation’ who risked their lives in France, fighting to preserve our freedom.

And standing there with us, unseen, will be all the men who never came home. The words from the cemetery chapel above Omaha beach in Normandy express it well: “Think not only of their passing. Remember the glory of their spirit.” We will remember them that day and, I hope, from now on.

Diane Covington-Carter’s book is available on Amazon at the link below:

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Diane Covington-Carter’s award-winning memoir, "Finding Gilbert, A Promise Fulfilled," tells the story of finding her father’s French orphan. The book recently won the Gold award in a Society of American Travel Writers competition.

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  • Lois Heist
    2019-05-09 03:53:14
    Lois Heist
    Bruce, I agree with your comment about Diane Covington-Carter’s beautifully written piece. And I too would value more information about Operation Dragoon. My father’s younger brother lost his life flying a reconnaissance mission in an open bi-plane launched from the cruiser Philadelphia taking part in Operation Dragoon. He lies in honor in the Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignon, the youngest and the only enlisted man there to have received the Distinguished Flying Cross.


  • Bruce Funk
    2019-05-09 02:47:07
    Bruce Funk
    What a totally moving story. I spend a number of months months every year in the lovely seaside village of St Raphael. A second invasion of France took place, on August 15th 1944, That few people know about, Operation Dragoon. I wonder if anybody has written some sort of meaningful story as yours. Your writing was beautiful. Most sincerely, Bruce Funk


  • Marg
    2019-05-08 23:23:06
    Hi Diane Loved reading your story with tears in my eyes. Just curious is that Gilbert in the family photo as he doesn’t look old enough or is Gilbert taking the photo? Thank you for sharing such a moving and loving memory as I too have researched my father’s war history in Bougainville. Warm regards Marg


    • Diane Covington-Carter
      2019-05-10 20:22:00
      Diane Covington-Carter
      Hi Marg, Thank you for your kind words. Gilbert passed away in 2008 and I was able to be at this funeral and place a photo of him and my father on the coffin. That is his widow, Huguette, next to me, their daughter Cathy, standing in the back, grandson Benoit and his partner Marion, and great grand children Tim and Lya and dog Fracas. Vanessa, mother of the two children and wife of Roman, another grand son, took the photo.


  • Paula Hogan
    2019-05-08 18:53:13
    Paula Hogan
    My own connection with D Day is stikingly similar to Ms. Covingtons. My father landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach as part of the US Army Infantry. On the morning of June 6th there were 100 men in his company and at the end of the day there were two—my dad and one other man. He told us many war stories—including getting separated from his unit and poking around a ruined Norman farm house where he found two sausages and 2 bottles of Calvados sequestered in the chimney, I drink Calvados to this day in his honor. A medic, he went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and was stationed briefly in Nancy . There he made life long friends with two families—the Vadons, the father being the hospital administrator, and the Montemonts, whose pretty daughter, Hughette, was his war time romance. About five years before his death in 1986 he reestablished contact with them and Hughette’s son visited my dad and mom in there home in Milwaukee. After my dad passed away, I maintained contact with these families. My husband and I visited them often in the Alsace—a region we have come to love. Hughette passed away last year but I am still friends with her neice. My big regret is that, as a child, I took my father’s experiences for granted. I should have paid more attention and written things down. Since his death I have paid a researcher at the Army War College to fill out the holes. My father never returned to France. He and my mother had a trip planned when, several weeks before, he suffered a heart attack and was to ill to travel. He died a year later, leaving me—among other things—his bronze star.