To mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris, a group of US World War II veterans were invited to return to the city they helped free from Nazi occupation.
At a special gathering at Le Bristol Paris, they shared with Rebecca Rosman their stories of combat, loss and the triumph of the human spirit.
On a sunny August afternoon in Paris, six former soldiers, all aged in their nineties, are gathered in the courtyard of the historic Le Bristol hotel in Paris. Smartly dressed, with their numerous medals on display, they’re in town to mark the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris.
“It was my division that liberated the city,” recalls 96-year-old Harold Angle. “I was in Paris that day. After four years of Nazi occupation, the French were so happy to see Americans walking down the Champs-Elysées. It was a very joyful time.”
Angle and the other five veterans are visiting the French capital with the help of The Greatest Generations Foundation (TGGF). Launched in 2004, the nonprofit organisation has provided nearly 7,000 war veterans with fully funded pilgrimages back to the battlegrounds where they fought.
For more than 40 years, Steven Melniko refused to talk about World War II. But as the years went on, the former D-Day combat soldier began to open up to fellow veterans of his 29th infantry division. Then, in 2016, he became the infantry’s last surviving member.
“At that point, I decided I had a mission,” says Melniko , who (at the time of the gathering) is a few months shy of his 100th birthday. That mission was to share his infantry division’s story with as many people as possible.
Melniko was introduced to Timothy Davis, founder of TGGF, and has since become one of the foundation’s WWII ambassadors, making multiple trips to Europe each year to mark various anniversaries and speak about his experiences.
“It’s especially important for me to talk to children,” says Melniko . “The younger they are, the longer these stories will be told.”
Educating children about war is one of the pillars of TGGF. “It’s just common sense that in order for us to understand history, we need to engage the living,” says Davis, a kindergarten teacher by trade. He organises talks in schools across France and Europe at which the veterans speak with students. The foundation is also working on a programme to send US school groups to France to visit the battle fields of Normandy and engage with French veterans.
“Once this generation is gone, the WWII cemeteries scattered throughout the world will all just become another cemetery,” Davis adds. “So while we still can, we must engage our veterans and bring their stories forward so that tomorrow’s generation can understand what yesterday’s heroes did for us.”
Pete Dupre, 96, US Army. Better known by his nickname “Harmonica Pete”, Dupre has played his harmonica for audiences all over the world. As a medic in the 114th General Hospital Unit, Dupre spent three years overseas treating servicemen from all over Europe. “I would say to these kids, ‘Oh, you’ve got a free trip home now!’ And they would say, ‘What do you mean? No! Stop the bleeding, I gotta get back out with the guys!”
Donald Cobb, 94, a Navy veteran from Evansville, Indiana, spent World War II aboard the USS Murphy. His travels sent him across Europe, to North Africa and Japan. “I don’t think children are learning enough about what went on at that time,” he says. “We could have lost our democracy.”
Harold Radish, 94, US Army, 357th infantry regiment, 90th Division. A combat intelligence observer, Radish was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and served the remaining months of the conflict as a prisoner-of-war. “World War II hasn’t really ended,” he says. “We still have veterans who are going through PTSD.”
For Parisians, of course, “what they did” has never been forgotten. On the eve of August 24, 1944, French and American troops entered the city with the aid of French Resistance fighters. By mid-afternoon on August 25th, the French tricolour once again flew at the top of the Eiffel Tower, replacing the Nazi flag that had been there for over four years.
It would be some time, however, before the war was officially over. “I remember feeling then that things were still rough and we hadn’t won yet,” says Gregory Melikian, who was 40 minutes outside Paris on the day of the city’s liberation, working as a radio operator in Reims. Nine months later, however, he was given an order from his boss, Supreme Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower, to send a 74-word telegram declaring that the war in Europe was over. “He chose me because I was the youngest one in the room,” says Melikian, who was only 20 at the time. “[Eisenhower] said, ‘I want Melikian to do this, and I want him to talk about it for the rest of his life.’”
Despite playing such an historic role, when asked how he wants to be remembered, Melikian’s answer is as a “peacemaker”.
“I don’t believe in war any more,” he says. “General Eisenhower said that for a man who knows something about war, war is terrible, war is ridiculous, war is stupidity.”
This sentiment is echoed by each of his TGGF colleagues. “Nobody wins a war,” sighs Harold Radish, who was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and spent several months as a prisoner-of-war. For Radish, one of the hardest things to come to terms with was how much his family had suffered during his absence. “My mother and father had received a telegram that I was missing in action,” he recalls. “When I got back, I went to a phone booth and called home, and my mother screamed: ‘He’s alive!’ When I’d left, my mother had been a vivacious dark-haired woman. When I came home, she was grey-haired and bent over. It took her a year or two to recover.”
Radish joined TGGF in June as a way to meet other veterans. “We’re like a band of brothers,” he says. “We take care of each other.” For veteran Donald Cobb, it’s not just about coming to terms with the past, but having a duty to the future. “I want to tell people about the war as much as I can,” he says. “Because I don’t want it to ever happen again.”
Steven Melnikoff , 99, 17th Regiment of the 129th infantry division. A combat veteran, he is one of the few living soldiers who landed in Normandy on D-Day June 6, 1944. Melnikoff, whose medals include three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, admits he still finds it hard to talk about the past: “Occasionally I have a moment where I have to stop and readjust, but I know the message has to get out there.
Gregory J Melikian, 95, radio operator at US Army SHAEF HQ. Melikian was 20 years old on May 7, 1945, when he was given orders from Supreme Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower to broadcast one of the most significant cables of World War II – informing the world that the Nazis had surrendered. “I want to be remembered as a peacemaker,” he says.