The Last Word: Celebrating America’s legacy of courage
By Tony Chavonne
As we were leaving the gym, my friend Joe Johnson wished me good luck on our upcoming trip to Normandy for the anniversary of D-Day. He handed me a crumpled photograph of some sort of dike in Normandy where his dad had seen combat during the war. He suggested that we might look it up if we had the time.
Little did we know that this crumpled photograph would lead us on a remarkable journey – one that resulted in not only finding this remote French canal lock and the compelling story of heroism surrounding it, but also rediscovering the positive way America is perceived by people in this part of the world.
We spent a day while in Normandy to try to find the dike with hopes of perhaps getting a picture of it for Joe. With nothing more than the crumpled photograph and our limited knowledge of French, we embarked on our journey. As we encountered French residents, we would show them the picture and ask if they knew where it was.
Finally, after hours of searching, we saw the dike in the distance. As we walked around the site, we found a French national historic marker. The marker included a photograph of Col. Johnson, Joe’s father, and told the story of his heroic actions there. Joe had never mentioned any marker or the remarkable heroism and leadership his father had demonstrated.
Col. Howard Ravenscroft Johnson was attached to the 101st Airborne and jumped into Normandy on D-Day. The next day, elements of the 501st Parachute Regiment, led by Colonel Johnson, wiped out an entire German battalion at La Barquette, consisting of a hamlet of three
buildings and a lock on the Douve River. The lock had been opened to flood the farmland to help thwart the paratrooper assault. Met by intense enemy artillery, mortar and small arms fire, Col. Johnson overcame superior enemy forces and captured the lock, saving hundreds of American lives and preventing a German counterattack. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest military decoration, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations that night.
Soon afterward, he parachuted into the Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden. In October, he was mortally wounded, leaving his wife and two children, including my friend Joe Johnson. Col. Johnson was never able to tell his family about his service at La Barquette. They had never visited the site and were not aware of the special recognition that France had provided for him there. Our trips over the years to France to St. Avold, Fayetteville’s Sister City, and to the Normandy area, revealed an exceptional appreciation for America. Everywhere we went, we saw an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the American forces in WWII.
Nearly every village had markers and monuments honoring the Americans, many often had American flags flying on the streets. The Lorraine American Cemetery, the largest American World War II cemetery in Europe, is in St. Avold. We participated in a wreath-laying ceremony for the 10,489 people buried there and were amazed by the hundreds of visitors, who came to thank America for her sacrifice at the event.
People shared stories of their grandparents’ appreciation for the millions of young men who came from across the ocean to liberate complete strangers and how thousands of them would never go home. This sense of gratitude is now passed on to a third generation, and many Frenchmen volunteer at the cemetery and work as guides in the area. The French take care of our heroes, while we Americans only visit them on occasion.
We visited a high school while in St. Avold and were able to talk with the students. They shared some of the letters that every eighth grader writes to the United States each year to express their gratitude for our country having liberated France – 75 years earlier.
Sometimes, with the frequent criticism we hear about our country, we forget the true examples of Americans’ acts of sacrifice and valor from around the world. And the
appreciation the people there feel for our sacrifice. But one does not have to go to France to see how other people see our country, to be reminded of the blessings of being an American. You see it in the diverse faces of Fayetteville’s citizens. Faces that reflect the entire world from places where American service and sacrifice have made life better for millions.
Celebrate that. Happy birthday, America.