NORMANDY, France - Many stories about World War II have been told, but many more have not. While sitting in a coffee shop in Normandy, France, on the 68th anniversary of D-Day, I had the privilege of talking to 74-year-old Yeves Tariel. He was sitting with friends looking at an old black and white photo. I wandered over to him, curious to see the photo, assuming it was of him in an Army uniform from the 1940s, but to my surprise the photo was of two little boys in 40s garb. One little boy was wearing a Nazi helmet and the other boy, with a beret, was holding a toy rifle. It struck me, and I introduced myself to Yeves, who whole-heartedly accepted me into the conversation he was having with friends.
“This is me,” he smiled, pointing to the little boy in the beret. “You play cowboys and indians, we played Nazis and the French Resistance.”
In broken English, he continued to tell me his story.
As a 7-year-old growing up in Lisieux France, he was an innocent in a world war that he couldn’t have stopped.
“On June 6, in the evening, about 8 pm, U.S. Air Force bombed my city,” he said softly.
The German Nazis had captured his city, Lisieux, east of Caen. He and his family had hid in the basement of his home when U.S. bombers flew overhead and dropped bombs into the city. It was completely destroyed.
“The Germans took everything, the cars, motorcycles, all the vehicles and bicycles, but not my family. We were very lucky. At night, we went out of the city on bicycle,” explained Yeves. “I saw everything was destroyed, the country was nothing, it was all gone. My father said ‘Nobody hurt, nobody killed, very lucky.’ And we turned our head and saw our city completely destroyed. There was fire everywhere.”
But he continued to say that he and his family were very lucky and smiled at me. There weren’t any harsh feelings towards the U.S. He was completely thankful, even if it meant he lost his city.
“Every year I come back for the D-Day ceremonies, because it is my story,” said Yeves. “I was at the American Cemetery because every year I give my respects and on the 40th year, I ran into an older man from the U.S. Air Force and I spoke with him. I told him my story, he told me his story. He said he was a copilot of a B-24 (aircraft) and had bombed in Normandy. I said, ‘Where did you bomb in Normandy?’ He said, ‘I bombed in a city, uh … I don’t remember.’ But in the cemetery, there’s a big map of the country, so I told him to come with me, and to show me where. So, we go to the map and [he] moves his finger straight to Lisieux. He had bombed me! He said he was so sorry to have bombed my city, but I told him it was okay. He was a copilot. Your general tells you to bomb a city, you bomb a city. He was a soldier and he was following orders. This is war, and I was lucky. But this is the price for liberty.”
Yeves has come back to Normandy since 1964. The first time he came he drove his motorcycle and said that there were no celebrations.
“The young people had forgotten the war,” he explained. “They had seen such horrific things, they didn’t want to remember. But now there is so much remembrance, it’s great.”
Yeves had always been interested in war planes and helped renovate a C-47 aircraft for a museum in Normandy. He was talking with an old crew chief at one of the Normandy celebrations who said he hid a lucky penny in the aircraft, some place in the panels. As Yeves was renovating the plane, wouldn’t you know, he lifted a panel and there it was, the lucky penny.
“I still carry it around today,” he said smiling, patting his jacket pocket.
When he was asked why he wanted to renovate a plane that was part of the reason his city was bombed, he simply stated, “It’s a symbol. We must not forget that there was 827 C47s flying in the sky over Normandy on D-Day. The children must know the importance of WWII and what happened on D-Day."