Tom Hanks sparks US invasion of Normandy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THIS WAS the fourth visit for Joe Daniels, but the emotions were still excruciatingly fresh. Standing under a huge map of the Normandy landings he apologised as, mid-sentence, he convulsed in grief and the tears ran freely down his nose.

"That was a whale of a campaign," he said with devastating understatement, as the hand holding his camera shook uncontrollably.

Now a small frail figure of 74, in June 1944 he was a young pilot who flew seemingly endless missions over the battlefield in a P47 "Thunderbolt" fighter. His unit was the first to operate from the makeshift airfield established just a few miles inland from the D-Day landings on Omaha beach.

Last weekend he was on the site of that battle again, paying his respects at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial where some of his former comrades lie. He spoke while taking shelter from the driving rain, looking out over the field of 9,386 white crosses marking the graves of those who died there.

"This has been very important to me, to retrace our steps during the war," he said.

For an increasing number of Americans of all generations it has also become suddenly important, in the aftermath of Steven Spielberg's film Saving Private Ryan. Its coruscating scenes of carnage, beginning with the Omaha landings, have prompted thousands to make their first trip to pay personal tribute at the cemetery.

Byron Elton, 44, from California, was typical. "We are absolutely here because of the film," he said, explaining how he, his wife and another couple had diverted from a business trip to London.

"After having seen that film, we just had to come here. This is a holy place, a sacred place."

People of their generation had previously found it hard to "make the connection" between what they had learnt about the war in high school and what had really happened, he said.

The film had made the war real for them, and now he was determined to take the national holiday commemorating veterans far more seriously, and to make sure his children did too.

For Russ Roberts, an airline pilot from Virginia, the process of making sure the next generation understands has already begun. He had come with his 12-year-old son, Skip, in order to give the film a proper context.

"Obviously I wasn't sure it was a movie he should go to at his age, but so many people died for our freedom that I felt it was something he should see," said Mr Roberts. "Afterwards we kept talking about it, and decided that we wanted to make the trip."

And Skip? "It was the best film I ever saw," he said. "A bit gory though."

The latest attendance figures for the cemetery show that these are far from isolated cases. In September there were 36,000 visitors from America, as opposed to 27,000 for the same period last year. For visits bynext of kin, there had been an increase of 35 per cent.

Looking for the grave of a childhood family friend who was killed on the beach was Janet Frank, from Oklahoma, who was 12 years old at the time of the invasion. She had not seen the film, but was "forced" into coming to Normandy by her daughter Sharon after she went to see it.

"I had no idea what had happened until I saw that movie. It was so personal. After that I just really wanted to come here," said Sharon. Her mother was initially reluctant, but ultimately pleased she had made the trip.

"For me, though, this is not like watching a movie. I remember it all well. These things actually happened," she said.

Shaking her head, and close to tears at the sight of so many graves, was Patty Brody, from Los Angeles, with her husband on their way back from a holiday in Turkey and Greece.

"All the lives impacted by this - it's unbelievable. War is hell, right?" she said.

"This is always something I wanted to do, but yes, it took the movie to make me do something about it. Afterwards I thought it was as though we owed these boys the respect to come here and say, `Thank you.'"

Phil Rivers, who has been superintendent of the site since 1982, can count a number of high-level government officials from US embassies in Europe among the visitors since the film was released, along with an administrator from Nasa and two astronauts. He said that local hotels were enjoying an extended tourist season because of the renewed interest.

He thinks that the film has led to a reassessment of veterans by their families through an increased understanding of what they went through.

"We are now getting a lot of interest from the generation born after the war, and even from the grandchildren of those who fought," he said. "They understand better now, and have a greater respect for that family member."

Some, however, have clearly taken the film too literally. Mr Rivers reported that quite a number come looking for the grave of Captain John Miller, the character played by Tom Hanks.

"We have to tell them that it is a fictitious name," he said.

But veterans such as Joe Daniels think that the film has had a beneficial effect. "I think people have got a better insight now into the tragedies of war, and particularly World War Two," he said.

And with that he left to find the graves of his old friends - including that of a Captain Miller.