A Mission to France For D-Day Fraternite
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page C01
PARIS, June 5 -- When the French came calling last month, offering the Legion of Honor -- their most prestigious decoration, first bestowed on a soldier by Napoleon himself -- Arthur Van Cook was unmoved.
Sixty years ago, he risked his life for them, wading ashore on a beach reeking of death. Now he had no patience for them.
"When the time came for France to get behind us in Iraq, they took a walk," said Van Cook, a retired career Army officer from Springfield. "I know firsthand what we sacrificed for France. What I sacrificed for France. I think they owed us more than that."
So keen was his sense of betrayal that last year, Van Cook, now 85, wrapped up a stack of decorations France had pinned on him during the 50th anniversary of D-Day and mailed them to the French Embassy. The ambassador mailed them right back, with a note saying that he could not accept them because the honors came not from him but from a grateful French nation.
It was only grudgingly, at the urging of the Department of Veterans Affairs, that Van Cook finally agreed to return to France. On Saturday, as he stood on the cobblestone plaza outside Napoleon's tomb to receive his red ribbon, he leaned in and whispered to the French general that he was accepting it on behalf of his fallen brothers.
"This is for them," he said.
Still, like many of the 100 veterans from across the United States selected by France to receive the honor, Van Cook's feelings about the country he shed blood to liberate have steadily thawed. This weekend, he and the others have been direct beneficiaries of a massive charm offensive that the French have orchestrated, not only to commemorate the sacrifices of D-Day, but to start to restore damaged relations with the United States.
"It's important today to go beyond the little hurdles, the difficulties of last year," said Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to Washington, who conceived of the plan to fly the veterans to Paris and decorate them with medals. "During this week, we forget about Iraq, and 60 million Frenchmen will simply be saying thank you."
The courtship began in earnest Thursday, when the veterans arrived at the embassy in Washington, where wall-sized banners were emblazoned with the slogan, "France will never forget." From there, they flew together to Paris. They were met on the tarmac by French cabinet ministers and led down a red carpet to the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
With wives, children and grandchildren in tow, they were whisked from the airport in luxury coaches flanked by police motorcycles, and traffic stopped for them the entire way into Paris. The veterans checked into gilded hotel suites priced at as much as $3,000 a night and dined at the finest restaurants, all as guests of the French government. On Sunday, they will join President Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and more than a dozen other heads of state for ceremonies in Normandy.
The most surprising aspect to Van Cook was not the movie-star treatment, he said, but the sentiment repeated over and over by French dignitaries and citizens.
"We are fully aware of what we owe you," Hamkaoui Mekachera, the French secretary for veterans affairs, told the Americans. "To the French people of 2004, as in 1944, you are, and the word is not too strong, you are true heroes."
There is hardly any other conclusion to draw from what these 100 Americans did on this day in 1944.
The group included former U.S. representative Sam M. Gibbons, 84, of Florida, who parachuted into northern France through a hailstorm of antiaircraft fire on the eve of the D-Day invasion. Upper Marlboro resident Howard Grant, 85, took almost constant fire as he scrapped his way through France and into Germany.
Earl Wilkerson, 81, of Sterling headed north from the beaches of Normandy and battled for a month to take the small village of St. Lo. His commander, Maj. Tom Howie, had told him he wanted to be the first American officer into the village. But as the battalion broke through the enemy line about a kilometer from the town, Howie's lung was pierced by a German mortar round. Men in the unit put his lifeless body on a stretcher, draped it with an American flag and carried Howie in as they liberated the town.
Van Cook, then 25 and in charge of coordinating artillery fire for the infantry landing at Omaha Beach, staved off death even before he crossed the English Channel. His landing craft capsized, and he had to be rescued by another vessel. By the time he waded ashore, about 8:30 a.m., all he could hear was the roar of Navy shells pounding the cliffs.
"The beach was like a junkyard," he said. "There were jeeps on fire, and all manner of equipment strewn, like gas masks and rifles, and bodies. It was raining lead. It was all we could do to try and find cover."
With his artillery lost at sea, Van Cook joined the infantry and assaulted the cliffs. He made it deep into France before taking a mission to spool communication lines between his unit and a tank. He set out in the front passenger seat of a jeep with three other men. When they hit a mine, all were thrown from their seats. Shrapnel pierced Van Cook's abdomen and damaged a kidney. The others died instantly.
The sacrifices of these men help explain why many in the group being honored this weekend have taken personal exception to the French position on Iraq, though few others are as blunt as Van Cook."He tells you how he feels," said his daughter, Jane Capers. "He even tells the president." She was referring to a letter Van Cook wrote President Bush last year suggesting he skip the D-Day ceremony in France and instead attend a service in Bedford, Va., the community that lost more men per capita on D-Day than any other in the nation.
When he arrived at the French Embassy on Thursday, Van Cook rolled his eyes at the quail eggs and puff pastry being served, saying he'd prefer "a ham and cheese sandwich." And he joked that he feared that the embassy staff flying with the veterans to Paris would realize that he was the one who returned his decorations last year.
"If this ambassador finds out I'm the guy who sent back his . . . medals, well, when this plane gets to 30,000 feet, they're going to turn to me and say, 'Hey, pal, why don't you step outside and grab a smoke?' "
Many of the veterans said they were put off by the French position on Iraq, but some, such as Tuskegee Airman Lee Archer, 82, of New York, said he believed the French were "trying to level the ground, and we should be graceful about it."
George McGovern, the former U.S. senator who was among the honorees because he flew 35 bombing missions during the liberation of Europe, said that when he was invited to receive the French Legion of Honor, a group of his friends told him, "That's no honor."
But standing outside the France-Amerique Foundation, where the veterans were brought for a luncheon Saturday with French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, McGovern said he believes the gesture was important for both countries.
"Our relations have really chilled, and there is nothing good that can come from that," McGovern said.
If the response from the veterans was any sign, the courtship was working. At the conclusion of the medal ceremony, a succession of high-ranking ministers and military officers approached each veteran to say thank you. When Alliot-Marie, the minister of defense, reached Van Cook, she smiled and told him, "It's a great honor for us to have you here."
He smiled broadly, stretched out his hand and thanked her back.
This one, he said, he will keep.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company