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05-25-03, 05:11 PM
Memorial Day service recalls U.S.-French ties

By Scott Schonauer, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Monday, May 26, 2003

DRAGUIGNAN, France — Among the olive trees, oleanders and white grave markers that dot Rhone American Cemetery, U.S. and French servicemembers, veterans and family members on Sunday honored the men buried here more than a half-century ago.

The cemetery is the final resting place of 681 American soldiers who died in southern France during World War II. On the face of a wall north of the burial ground are the names of 294 Americans whose remains were never recovered or identified.

Vice Adm. Scott Fry, commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet, told several hundred people at the ceremony that Americans and French should remember the sacrifice of the fallen, and use Memorial Day to reaffirm the unity of two allies.

“These men had faith that what they were doing was right,” Fry said. “Faith that they fought for all humanity and faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this battlefield.

“They were here to liberate, not to conquer. And they did not doubt their cause. They knew that some things were worth dying for.”

The ceremony commemorating Memorial Day was one of several planned at American cemeteries across Europe during the three-day holiday. Sunday’s observance was a proud moment for some U.S. servicemembers chosen to participate.

“You know how you have stories you can tell your grandchildren?” Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Eric Clayton said. “This will be one of my first.”

Marine Cpl. Victor Gonzalez-Aguirre said he was grateful the he took part. He called it a valuable experience for younger Marines.

“It teaches young Marines the significance of days like these,” he said.

While relations between the United States and France have been strained by disagreements over the Iraq war and the rebuilding effort, Fry said that the cemetery is a reminder of the strong, historical link between the two countries.

“Though at times our paths might diverge, our countries and our citizens will always be united by a shared history and by the graves that surround us here today,” he said.

The 12-acre cemetery 60 miles west of Nice is where the U.S. Army’s 7th Corps launched its southern offensive in 1944. The name comes from the Rhone River, the site of numerous battles between U.S. and German forces.

French Marines and soldiers and U.S. servicemembers from Naval Station Rota in Spain and the Istres, France-based 16th Expeditionary Operations Group served as honor guard.

Commanders in Rota handpicked deserving sailors, Marines and airmen to travel to the cemetery. Some of them admitted to being awestruck by the perfectly manicured burial grounds on the north side of John F. Kennedy Boulevard, just beyond the heart of the small city.

“When you get off the bus and see it in real time, it does open your eyes,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Lossner, a gunner’s mate stationed in Rota.

After the 90-minute ceremony, the Rota servicemembers strolled the grounds and took pictures. Some posed for photos with French soldiers.

Americans killed from the Mediterranean Sea coast of France to Lyon are buried at the cemetery.

Sixty-two of the headstones mark the graves of those who could not be identified. One entire tank crew is in one grave because their remains could not be identified.

Those buried here make up a small portion of the tens of thousands of Americans who died in the country during World War I and II. And those buried in all American cemeteries in France make up only about 39 percent of those killed in the country. The remains of the others were returned to the United States at the request of their families.

However, families of many casualties wanted their loved ones buried in the cemetery so they could be with their comrades, cemetery superintendent Al Nagel said.

Ensign Mike Jarosz, who had the part of honor guard commander, said being involved in the ceremony was humbling.

“Growing up in a military family, I’ve come to understand the sacrifices that people and their families have all made,” he said. “For each headstone, there’s a family behind it who had a loss.”




Scott Schonauer / Stars and Stripes

An airman and Marine from Naval Station Rota, Spain, stand underneath the U.S. flag during a Memorial Day ceremony Sunday at the Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan, France. The remains of 861 Americans killed in World War II are buried at the cemetery 60 miles west of Nice.


05-26-03, 01:14 PM
Warm Gallic welcome surprises, pleases U.S. sailors and Marines

By Scott Schonauer, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Monday, May 26, 2003

DRAGUIGNAN, France — When a group of sailors, Marines and airmen from Naval Station Rota, Spain, arrived in southern France last week for a Memorial Day ceremony, most did not expect the greatest of welcomes.

But, to their surprise, they were overwhelmed by French hospitality.

While relations between longtime allies United States and France are strained because of disagreements over the handling of the Iraq crisis, the roughly 40 U.S. servicemembers who visited this past week said they couldn’t tell.

“What was going on with the war and how France was all against it, I thought that the French people were going to be against Americans,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Neaves, an electronics technician from Rota.

“But when I got here, I learned just the opposite. The French were generous, nice and going out of their way to help us out.”

During the ceremony at Rhone American Cemetery, some French residents posed for photos with the Marines and asked for autographs. A handful of residents carried small U.S. flags.

Residents treated many of the U.S. servicemembers like prized guests as soon as they arrived.

Wherever the Americans went in town, they were smothered with kindness. Some restaurants offered Marines and sailors free drinks and appetizers. Many locals offered to ferry servicemembers from the city bars to the French base where the group was staying for a memorial ceremony in town.

Some servicemembers joked that they weren’t sure they were in France.

Neaves went to a bar with 16 other servicemembers the night they arrived. When it was time to return to the base, the taxis were gone and they had no ride.

The bar owner recruited a friend to take all of them back in his small car.

“He made quite a few trips, but he did not have a problem with it,” Neaves said. “We tried offering him money and he said, ‘No.’ ”

The next night, the bar owner’s daughter gave the group a lift home.

Ensign Mike Jarosz said on Friday night, French officers invited the U.S. officers in the group to a dinner on base.

“It’s a camaraderie thing,” he said. “They’re soldiers, we’re soldiers and our jobs are the same. We understand each other, and we appreciate each other.”

And the topic of the war, American boycotts of French products and the strained relations between the two countries never came up during dinner.

“We’re not politicians, we let the politicians worry about that,” Jarosz said.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Clayton said the animosity between the United States and France should stop.

“Where do you draw the line?” he asked. “We’re people. And I don’t have a problem with them being against the war. It’s a choice we all make. There are people in America who were against the war.

“We’re here to do a job, and that’s why we do our job, so they can say and do whatever the want. There’s no reason to hold a grudge.”