In 2001, I began searching for information about my uncle, Sergeant Frederick G. Easley, who served as a tank commander in the 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion during World War II. I contacted the commander of his unit, Captain Ruggles Baker, who sent to me a picture he believed was my uncle. The photo was taken on September 15, 1944, and shows my uncle riding on a tank entering the town of Nancy, France, on the day of liberation for that city. The photo was taken in front of the Nancy City Hall on Stanislas Square with a jubilant crowd welcoming the American soldiers. It appeared in the March 1945 edition of National Geographic, but no one in my family had ever seen it before now. My uncle was killed in action three weeks after the photo was taken.
After posting the photo on the Internet I was contacted by Paula Baker and Jerome Leclerc of “L’Espace de Memoire Lorraine, 1939-45”. This French group is an educational service organization dedicated to “le devoir a souvenir” (the duty to remember) the Lorraine Campaign of World War II. They perform this duty through programs, exhibitions, and by providing guide services to veterans and families, and establishing a WWII museum in Lorraine, France.
Jerome and Paula (the organization’s American liaison) informed me of the fame of this photo, which has been used for over 50 years to celebrate the liberation of the city of Nancy. The people of Nancy had never known the identity of the soldier in the photo until this year.
As a result of this discovery, my wife, son, and I were invited by the “L’Espace de Memoire” organization to participate in the Nancy liberation ceremonies. We found that the people of France are very appreciative of what the Americans did in their country during the War. Many people told us over and over again how thankful they were for the Americans and the sacrifices they made.
I was asked to light a memorial flame, along with a former French Resistance member, at a French Resistance memorial established by the “L’Espace de Memoire” organization in the village of Vigneulles. In the same village we participated in the dedication of a World War II museum established by the same organization, and I was asked to say a few words to the crowd.
That afternoon we were escorted to Nancy where we met Charlotte Goldberg who showed us her newly opened exhibit and memorial for children deported from Nancy during the War. Charlotte herself was deported to a concentration camp during the War when she was six years old, and lost her entire family. We met several survivors of the camps who were children at the time of their deportation.
Later that day I was asked by the mayor of Nancy to join him in laying flowers at the monument for the French Resistance in Nancy. This ceremony included full military honors and was covered by the media. Our picture appeared in the Nancy newspaper the following day with the story about my uncle and our pilgrimage to follow his footsteps.
The following Monday the “L’Espace de Memoire” group, which included several former French Resistance members, escorted us to the village of Fossieux where my uncle was killed on October 10, 1944. The mayor of the small village welcomed us into his home and expressed his appreciation of the Americans during the War. He was deeply moved as he told us of the Nazi atrocities that affected the people of his town, and explained how the Marshall Plan rebuilt his destroyed village after the War. We were then escorted to the exact spot where my uncle’s tank was destroyed by a direct hit from a German tank. Some former French Resistance members from the village remembered the tank and the exact location.
The group took us to the village of Armaucourt to a memorial for American soldiers of the 35th Division and their orphans, then accompanied us to the American Cemetery in St. Avold, France, where my uncle is buried. They brought American and French flags and flowers from their gardens to lay at his grave. The kindness and appreciation we were shown by the people of France was overwhelming. I cannot express how thankful our family is for the hospitality of the “L’Espace de Memoire Lorraine” organization and its members – Jerome, Gino, Francois, Andre, Paula, and the many others who made us feel so welcome. It was an experience we will never forget and one of the most moving events of my life.
While researching information about my uncle’s battalion we acquired the original Daily Reports from a former soldier of that unit. My wife and I have posted these reports on a website we created for the 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which can be found at http://654th.com/index.html. These Daily Reports show a fascinating view of history and life during the War, and show the hardships these brave men had to endure.
Below is the text from the short speech I gave in the village of Vigneulles after lighting the memorial flame. These words express my gratitude for the sacrifices made by this amazing generation to whom we all owe so much.
“The reason we are here today is to pay tribute to the soldiers of the French Resistance and United States Army who liberated the town of Nancy in 1944. These men fought, and in some cases died, to free a great people from tyranny and ensure the very freedoms we enjoy today.
It is because of what these men accomplished that we are able to meet publicly and celebrate this event. It is because of what these men accomplished that my nine-year-old son can grow up in a free society without persecution, where ideas can be expressed freely without fear of reprisal.
To these men who fought so bravely, and in the case of my uncle gave the ultimate sacrifice, I would like to say … thank you. Thank you for what you did. It is because of your bravery, your accomplishments, your sacrifice, that we are free today.”