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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003