French Families Adopt U.S. Graves in Normandy

Jean Michel Miette pays his respects at Walter Malcolm's grave in an American cemetery. i i

Jean Michel Miette pays his respects at Walter Malcolm's grave in the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, France. Eleanor Beardsley for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Eleanor Beardsley for NPR
Jean Michel Miette pays his respects at Walter Malcolm's grave in an American cemetery.

Jean Michel Miette pays his respects at Walter Malcolm's grave in the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, France.

Eleanor Beardsley for NPR
Walter Malcolm's grave i i

Jennie Malcolm received this photo of her uncle Walter Malcolm's grave from the French volunteer group Les Fleurs de la Memoire. "It was quite an emotional experience," she says. (The name on the headstone is Walter Malcomb because the military spelled his surname differently, his niece explains.) Courtesy Jenny Malcolm hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Jenny Malcolm
Walter Malcolm's grave

Jennie Malcolm received this photo of her uncle Walter Malcolm's grave from the French volunteer group Les Fleurs de la Memoire. "It was quite an emotional experience," she says. (The name on the headstone is Walter Malcomb because the military spelled his surname differently, his niece explains.)

Courtesy Jenny Malcolm

Eight years ago, a French couple founded an organization that adopts graves of American servicemen who died during the Normandy invasion of World War II. The volunteer group encourages French families to lay flowers on the graves when the Americans' own families can't do it.

High on a bluff above Omaha Beach, the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer is a place of stunning beauty and tranquillity. Rising from thick, manicured grass, rows of white crosses and Stars of David face westward, toward America.

It's hard to imagine that 64 years ago, war raged here. But there are the 10,000 graves to prove it.

Among them is the uncle of a North Carolina NPR listener, Jennie Malcolm. Walter Malcolm was killed near here, two month after D-Day. Last summer, while investigating her uncle's death, Jennie Malcolm came across the French volunteer organization Les Fleurs de la Memoire, or Flowers of Memory.

Malcolm said she mustered up her best French and asked if flowers could be placed on her uncle's grave. Two months later she received a photo of his grave in the mail. "It was quite an emotional experience," she says.

Malcolm was particularly touched because her uncle's immediate family are all now dead, and no one had ever visited his grave. MarieTherese La Vieille, who founded the organization eight years ago with her husband, says it's important that each soldier be remembered when his own family can't come anymore.

"When we joined, we promised to visit the grave once a year and to lay flowers on the grave," she says. "Sometimes people take flowers from their own gardens. And they say it is like a son, like a cousin, like a brother. It is a member of the family."

This year dozens of members of Les Fleurs de la Memoire have shown up at Colleville-sur-Mer for the annual Memorial Day ceremony, which begins with a flyover by U.S. fighter jets in the missing-man formation.

A French priest recites the Lord's Prayer, then a rabbi chants the Kaddish. And a French military band plays the "Star-Spangled Banner."

But behind the grand ceremony, a simple tribute unfolds at the back of the cemetery. Jean Michel Miette, 50, kneels in front of the grave of Jennie's uncle, Pvt. 1st Class Walter C. Malcolm. Miette is the one who adopted Malcolm's grave, and he has come from Paris this morning to honor him.

Miette, like Jennie Malcolm, discovered Les Fleurs de la Memoire last summer. He says the organization has enabled him to honor the American soldiers who sacrificed their lives for his country and for liberty.

"With enormous emotion in my heart, I want to say thank you, Walter," Miette says. "I will never forget you or your heroic compatriots."

Since Les Fleurs de la Memoire brought them together, Jean Michel and Jennie Malcolm now speak regularly on the phone. She says she feels her uncle finally has family to visit his grave.

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