Saving Private Bowen
On the rain-swept bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach, I wept before the grave of a man I had never met.
It was October, 2014—and at the age of 90 I had finally made my way to the hallowed ground of the American Cemetery at Normandy: The final resting place for 9,387 souls, most of whom lost their lives in the fighting of June, 1944 and the months that followed.
These young men—men of my generation—died in the fight against fascism.
It was a fight I had longed so desperately to be a part of.
Now I was here to pay my respects to them—and to one in particular. My wife Sylvia and I had traveled to France, enjoying a boat cruise down the Seine en route to Normandy. Although I had not landed here in 1944 with a rifle in my hands, I had visited France many times in the decades to follow. I had done business here, and made friends—a few of whom I was delighted to see during the 10-day trip through the scenic French countryside.
Still, the culmination—the main purpose, really—was to come to Normandy. It wasn’t easy—international travel is difficult for most people of my age; and particularly as I must use a wheelchair for anything more arduous than walking around the house.
So why make this difficult journey, when I could have, say, visited the National World War 2 Museum in New Orleans? Or said a prayer in church on Memorial Day? Or simply re-watched the famous D-Day movies “Saving Private Ryan” or “the Longest Day” again in the comfort of my living room?
Because in my opinion this is a place every American should visit to understand the significance of what happened
here; and the sacrifices made.
For me, though, it was something more.
I had carried with me to France a piece of paper with a name and a few sentences scribbled on it. Information we’d found from online service records:
Bowen, Francis N.
508th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Date of Death: June 15, 1944
Buried: Plot E Row 13 Grave 6 Normandy American Cemetery Colleville-sur-Mer, France
Awards: Purple Heart
Bowen was born in 1921—three years before me. He grew up in the New York City borough of Queens, same as me. According to his enlistment records, he was 5-feet, 10-inches tall, and weighed 123 pounds. A string bean, much as I had been at his age.
I had found Bowen’s name while searching D-Day veterans from Queens. I never knew him personally, but he could have easily been one of my pals. He was probably like a lot of the guys I grew up with in the Queens community of Ozone Park—many of whom, like Bowen, did march off to war in late 1941 and 1942. His friends probably called him Fran, Frank or Franny; he would have been a kid during the Great Depression and perhaps like me, could very well have known the anxiety of having a father out of work (I did—and given that the unemployment rate during the depths of the Depression was nearly 25 percent, so did many). As a kid, Francis Bowen probably tried to help out best he could: delivering papers, collecting bottle caps for the deposit money. He probably attended church dutifully on Sundays (most of us did in those days, whether you liked it or not); played stickball in the streets, and on hot summer nights, escaped his crowded little Queens house to sit on the stoop, watching the world go by.
As a teenager, he might have very well frequented the same ice cream parlors, the same movie theaters on Liberty Avenue, a main shopping thoroughfare in that part of Queens. Maybe like me, he was even listening to the Giants game on the radio in December, 1941, as I was when news came over of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Yes, in a manner of speaking, I felt I really knew Francis Bowen, even though we had never met.
And in the back of mind, the refrain that had echoed—now more loudly than ever—at many points in my life; the realization that is part of what drove me here in the twilight of my life, to visit a young man who had been cut down in the prime of his.
This could have been me.
Why did I survive…why was I given the opportunity to live the life and do the things I’d done, while he never lived beyond his 23rd birthday?
Bowen was killed nine days after the landings of June 6, in the long, bloody fighting that ensued for the next two months amidst the hedgerows, farms and villages of Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula. The night before our ship was to dock at Normandy, I woke up in the middle of the night. Now that I had finally arrived, I was anxious and needed to clarify, in my own mind at least, what had compelled me to come all this way. I tried to put some of my thoughts about this in the form of a poem. I’m no Frost or Eliot, but while my initials aren’t T.S. there was no B.S. in what I tried to express in my words. They were about my need to pay homage to Bowen and his comrades; about my search for some kind of answer to the question of why-them-and-not-me; about why I was on a cruise ship enjoying my golden years, and they were buried in the French soil.
I then knelt on the deck of the ship and prayed. I asked God for something that I suspect is unusual in petitions to
Him: lousy weather.
So far, it had been sunny, crisp fall days in our trip to France. But I didn’t want that for Normandy. I wanted it to be the way it was at the time of D-Day when a system of storms and gale force winds had threatened to halt the entire operation. I told God that I wanted this so that I could be there in spirit with the boys.
God must have heard me. Indeed, I suspect he must have thought: “This guy wants bad weather? I’ll give him weather he’ll never forget.”
The next morning, a gale had blown up on the English Channel. The winds were fierce, the rain blowing sideways. It was far worse than on the morning of June 6, in fact, but more like the miserable day prior to the landings, which the invasion forces had spent waiting, most of them seasick, in their armada of transport ships.
That wasn’t likely to happen to us on a securely-docked, 21st century cruise ship. Still, the conditions were so treacherous there was fear that some of the older folks on our cruise wouldn’t even be able to get down the gangplank.
Luckily, I had made a new friend during our holiday and, like so many of my dear friends, he came through for me. Calvin, the strapping, former security head for NASA, had flown a helicopter in Vietnam, and now runs a mission feeding hungry people in Florida. He was a Godly man, and what we used to call a “man’s man.” Calvin was accompanied on his trip by his wife, Jan. The four of us—Calvin, Jan, Sylvia and I—had met and become fast friends.
We had much in common in terms of our tastes and values: But Calvin was younger than me and considerably larger and stronger, as well. He knew of my desire to visit the cemetery and find Bowen’s grave, and so he took matters into his own hands. Literally: As I hovered near the gangplank in my wheelchair, the crew debating whether it was safe for me to disembark, Calvin simply bent down, lifted me into his muscular arms and carried me like a child to shore.
The American Cemetery is usually crowded with visitors and busses. Not this day, as the rain had kept many away. A small group of us took the tour and listened to our French guide pay homage to the Americans. My heart stirred with patriotic pride at his words. “Thank God for these men,” said the guide, a young Frenchman, gesturing towards the expanse of white crosses. “Without them, I wouldn’t have been here. The Germans surely would have killed my parents and grandparents.”
Mindful of the conditions, he gave us an abbreviated tour of the beautiful 172-acre national cemetery, which was officially opened in 1956.
At the end, we were told that anyone who wanted to visit a grave should do so now. The rest of our group was eager to get back on the ship, but I was on a mission. The four of us, following directions we had been given, made our way to the site of what we were told was Bowen’s grave. It was slow going. They were repairing some of the walkways, the ground was muddy and there were construction materials piled up here and there. At each barrier, we’d stop and Calvin would pick me up as Sylvia pushed my empty chair. Then he’d gently place me back down.
Finally we came to the designated spot. We checked the number: This was it. But to my disappointment, we were looking at what appeared to be a blank, white cross. We cast quizzical glances at each other and shrugged. “I guess this is it,” I said. And then I took the poem out of my pocket and began to read it aloud.
I had barely begun when a woman appeared out of nowhere. She was thin, of medium height, and wore a blue raincoat and had a white scarf covering head, so that you could hardly see her face.
“Are you trying to see the name?” she asked in heavily accented English.
“Oui, yes,” we said.
“You need one of these!” she said, holding up what appeared to be a little cup filled with sand.
She handed it to me. “Like so,” she said, pantomiming a rubbing motion across the center of the granite cross. I rolled up close to the headstone, and rubbed it with the moistened sand, which I later learned, came from Omaha Beach, below the bluffs the cemetery was built on.
The principle is that the wet sand fills in the carvings of the grave for better visibility. But the effect is startling: if this was a movie, you would have heard at this point the music swelling or an angelic chorus, because almost as if by magic, there appeared the name carved on the cross.
Francis N. Bowen
I was shaking—from either the cold rain or the power of the moment. It was if he had appeared; awoken from eternal sleep to acknowledge our presence.
I finished the poem and said a few words in silence to Bowen.
“I’ve come a long way to see you,” I intoned, as tears streamed down my face. “I know we never met, but I feel like we did. And I want you to know that I would have been here too if I could have been. But I’ve tried to live a life worthy of your sacrifice.”
I turned around to thank the woman who gave me the sand. She was gone. The others craned their necks looking for her as well. The cemetery is a wide open place, and yet she had seemingly vanished. “Where the heck could she have gone?” Calvin wondered.
A Mystery Lady, I thought to myself, and, amidst the tears, actually had to suppress a chuckle. She wasn’t the first one in my life.
I turned back to Bowen’s cross. The words were again illegible as the rain pelted us. I sat and stared momentarily, thinking about him, thinking about his sacrifice and about my life. Sylvia leaned down, and whispered gently.
“Walter, it’s time to go.”