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  • Mark Smith

War Heroes

Dernière mise à jour : 16 janv. 2021

It doesn’t take armed conflict to produce danger and hardship. Just get on a bike and pedal. War will come to you.

That’s what happened to me when I mounted my old machine in the company of Todd Ranney, a former colleague who stopped by our house in Normandy for a few days last August. A native and resident of Decatur, Illinois, Todd was on one of his occasional cycling trips through Europe, and this time, once again, he had a mission.

We were grinding out the 70 kilometers between my house and Grandcamp-Maisy, a small fishing port west of Omaha Beach, where some 2000 American soldiers died during the D-Day landing, and where Todd hoped to find a banner dedicated to the memory his father, Burton E. Ranney, a U.S. Army Ranger who came ashore on Omaha and went on to prove himself a bona fide World War II hero.

I hadn’t even noticed that 2019 is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, nor that the Normandy WWII authorities had printed and posted a couple hundred banners around the region, each dedicated to an American war hero like Burton Ranney. As Todd and I rode south and east, the banners appeared in the small towns where noteworthy battles took place or heroic acts were performed. Young American faces smiled down from streetlamp posts as we rolled past, their broad smiles stark reminders of the tragic fate that befell so many.

Todd’s father had survived the war—and had done so in remarkable manner. For example, on his first day of engagement in World War II, at age 19, Staff Sergeant Burton Ranney led a squad of Rangers to help secure Omaha Beach and reinforce fellow Rangers at the Pointe du Hoc. Three days later, Ranney’s company led the assault on a German artillery complex manned by over 400 Germans in Maisy, a few kilometers down the beach. The young hero from Illinois later fought close range gun battles against infantrymen and Panzer tanks at the battle of Lauterbach, Germany, and eventually helped liberate Buchenwald. For his consistent valour and bravery throughout the war, Burton Ranney was eventually awarded the Purple Heart (wounded by shrapnel on D-Day), the Bronze Star and a Distinguished Unit Citation.

And in the 20-odd years I’d known Todd, he’d never mentioned his father’s story. Now, as he and I bore down on Grandcamp-Maisy under an ominous leaden sky not unlike the one that greeted our soldiers on June 6, 1944, I felt proud just to be associated with Burton Ranney, however distantly.

After a restorative coffee in a port-side cafe, Todd and I found the house of Jean-Claude and Colette Rigault, a local couple who had hosted Todd and his parents during the 40th anniversary celebration of D-Day way back in 1984. Unknown to each other up to then, the two families became friends, and have remained bonded by war ties and memories ever since. Jean-Claude and Todd laughed and grabbed each other like long lost brothers, Todd fumbling to understand his elder’s French, but that was a detail. What mattered to them both was that they were here, together again to bathe in the memory of Burton Ranney and general victory. We stood there in Jean-Claude’s driveway. It was the liberation all over again.

We did eventually get a look at Burton Ranney’s banner, which was on a lamppost just half a kilometer from Jean-Claude Rigault’s door. By the time we’d snapped the obligatory photos of one and all, the day was looking short to cover the 70 kilometers back to my place.

“I’ll take you to Carentan!” said Jean-Claude, slapping Todd on the back. That would erase half the distance between us and home. With a glance at the darkening horizon, we accepted gratefully.

A young boy during the war years, Jean-Claude’s memories of that time are now spare but poignant. As we drove into Carentan, on the edge of a giant marshland region known as the Parc Naturel des Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin, Jean-Claude turned suddenly to the left, then dove down a tiny lane separating the last few houses of town from an expanse of watery lowlands to the south and west.

“We’re just going to see if we can spot my old house,” he said, peering over the steering wheel as the car rolled down a gravel track. “The town is called Graignes. That’s where we lived when the war came to our door.”

Unfortunately we couldn’t make out the town itself, which hid behind a thick stand of poplars 400 meters across the field from our car, but Jean-Claude told the story anyway.

On the night of June 5, the day before D-Day, Jean-Claude, his siblings and parents were awakened by a soft knocking at the door of their house on the edge of the marsh. The family froze in fear, knowing the Germans were thick in the vicinity. But instead they discovered a group of American paratroopers who’d just landed in the marsh near the house and had slogged through the water to the nearest door.

Quiet excitement suddenly electrified the family, who were all too eager to help their would-be liberators. As it happened, in the darkness of night the paratroopers had missed their target and now had to get to their company’s meeting point near Carentan, a few kilometers distant. They couldn’t walk the roads, which were controlled by the Germans.

Without a second thought Jean-Claude Rigault’s father proposed to shuttle them to their destination on the flat-bottomed boat with which he navigated the marshes, using a barge pole to propel the craft. That and the following nights, Rigault’s father and sister braved grave consequences to ferry some 60 American paratroopers, 10 per trip, across the water to their comrades.

“These were the most exciting nights of our lives,” Jean-Claude recalled.

But now the sun was setting on the green hedgerows of Normandy. With a final cheerful embrace, Todd said goodbye to Jean-Claude Rigault. We climbed aboard our bikes and began pedaling the remaining 40 kilometers home through the fast-waning light of evening. A fierce northerly wind was now against us. We would have to gird for battle, but we couldn’t very well complain. It wasn’t exactly D-Day.


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