Tom Hanks sparks US invasion of Normandy

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk