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
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test