Morley Piper of Essex, MA, a D-Day veteran who was in France for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the invasion, spoke at a luncheon hosted by 10 communities liberated by the Allies. The following is the text of Piper’s speech.
My daughter Patricia and granddaughters Audrey and Laura, and I, have the honor this morning to represent the old soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division in expressing our heartfelt appreciation to our French Allies for welcoming us, our families and friends, with such endearing grace and French hospitality to your charming villages and communes for this historic commemoration of the searing battles fought here in WWII in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. It is an emotional trip for us, and bittersweet. To visit Normandy now, the cemeteries, the beaches, the battlefields, the communities, the museums, is inspiring and educational, providing the visitor a vivid story of the war — why it was fought and how it was won — the Price of Freedom.
It does not seem possible now that it was 70 years ago. The soldiers of the 29th Division, on that gray cold morning of June 6, 1944, came ashore in small boats in one of the most momentous military engagements in history, an epic battle that changed the course of the war. It was anything but easy. For long hours, the battle hung in the balance. In fact, the Allied Command, at one point during the morning, thought the invasion was failing. Fortunately, it didn’t, and it marked the beginning of the end of the long Nazi occupation of Western Europe.
We managed, finally, to overcome the frightful obstacles to establish a beachhead — and move inland. Inland meant coming through your small towns — and into the treacherous bocage country, as we called it. We had not seen anything quite like it — the bocage — a bewildering and dangerous area with conditions we were not accustomed to or prepared for.
We were headed towards St. Lo. The Germans were determined to stop us, to prevent a breakthrough to St. Lo. It took us a long time to get there, about a month I think, through your communities. Our casualties were unimaginable.
I was in the 115th Regiment those many years ago. We had been assigned to take Saint-Clair-sur-l’Elle. But our advance was stopped in Sainte-Marguerite-d’Elle. We could not advance through a fierce German defense. The 116th, our sister regiment, was then sent in and they attacked from a different angle and were able to liberate your town. The Price of Freedom: I mentioned our casualties. Terrible. Terrible on the beach, terrible throughout Normandy, terrible throughout the war. The 29th Division was on the front line a long time. We had 14,000 soldiers in the division at full strength . . . And we had 22,000 casualties. 150 percent casualties. More than anyone else in the war. Not a figure to point to with pride, but stark testimony to the rigors of long service on the front lines from the beaches of Normandy to the Elbe River in Northern Germany, when the war mercifully came to an end.
We know a lot about military casualties, but I believe the Americans, as a group, did not give much thought about civilian casualties. At the time, in 1944, it was often not possible. The fact is, the toll on the French was unimaginable, too. Four years of German occupation, then the invasion and the exhilaration of being liberated . . . the price of freedom cost another tragedy, unavoidable, but a tragedy nonetheless. The enormous loss of human life, the loss of your farm animals, destruction of your homes, devastation of entire cities. Tragedies all, though resulting in liberation. We want to acknowledge your sacrifice, the aid you unstintingly gave us as young soldiers, and we want to express our admiration for your courage, endurance and resistance during the war years.
We, the Americans, were all young soldiers, most of us, in the war. Ordinary young men, mostly, ordinary because we had led ordinary lives before the war. Lives that had not been fully developed. We had just come through the steel grip of the Great Economic Depression in the United States, and now were called to service. We became conscripts in a civilian-based Army that was sent to France, to Normandy, to go up against a professional German Army waiting on the bluffs high above the beaches, June 6, 1944.
Together, the 29th Division and the Norman people have a bond — a bond of loyalty, admiration, affection and honor that will endure, long after the time when the WWII generation has passed from the scene. We have a bond that is eternal. We went through life-changing experiences during those extraordinary war years — the American Army and our French Allies. Those events shall live with us forever.
My own role in the war years was pretty small, but I was in the company of some very brave men. We few, we happy few, our blue-and-grey band of brothers. He who today sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.
We will rally ‘round the flag,
We will rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.
It is an inspiring event you have arranged for us today. We are already thinking ahead to joining you at the 100th Anniversary. 29, Let’s Go! God bless America! Vive la France!