Yesterday I wrote about the lovely letters written 76 years ago this week by U.S. Army Cpl. Frank Elliott to his wife, Pauline, in the hours leading up to D-Day. While keeping watch over their toddler -- a daughter named DeRonda -- Pauline kept writing even after she stopped receiving replies from Frank after the invasion.
Polly, as her family called her, feared that she was writing to one of the fallen. Her fears were well-placed. On Aug. 6, 1944 she received the War Department telegram that no loved one wants to get. The terse message that stamped you as Gold Star mother or father, or in Polly Elliott's case, a Gold Star widow with a child to raise without the father who loved her so dearly.
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Pauline Elliott eventually got back the letters she'd written between June 6 and Aug. 6, but she never received the letters her husband had actually received from her or any of Frank's personal effects. For the rest of her life, she kept the correspondence in a trunk, occasionally encouraging her daughter to read it. DeRonda couldn't bring herself to do so until 1993, three years after her mom died.
When she did, she was overwhelmed. She shared them with others. The letters bring to life a story so poignant and a love so deep that American Heritage magazine included them in a 50th anniversary retrospective on the Normandy invasion.
This story was read inside the White House, and at the June 6, 1994, ceremony at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, excerpts from two letters between Frank and Polly were shared with the world by President Bill Clinton, who on those windswept cliffs asked the ancient warriors "who saved a world" to rise and be recognized.
"The freedom they fought for was no abstract concept, it was the stuff of their daily lives," Clinton said as these onetime citizen-soldiers looked on. "Listen to what Frank Elliot had written to his wife from the embarkation point in England: ‘I miss hamburgers a la Coney Island; American beer a la Duquesne; American shows a la Penn Theater; and American girls a la you."
His wife wrote him back on June 6, the president added. "Little DeRonda is the only one not affected by D-Day news. I hope and pray she will never remember any of this, but only the happiness of the hours that will follow her Daddy's homecoming step on the porch."
In yesterday's note, I mentioned that DeRonda was 3 at the time. Actually, she wasn't yet 18 months old at the time. And she never heard her father's footsteps on the porch or anywhere else.
As Bill Clinton noted at Normandy, millions of our GIs did return home from the battlefields of World War II to start families and businesses and resume their enjoyment of the "sweet pleasures" of life. "But on this field, there are 9,386 who did not," he said somberly. "Thirty-three pairs of brothers; a father and his son; 11 men from tiny Bedford, Virginia; and Cpl. Frank Elliott, killed near these bluffs by a German shell on D-Day. They were the fathers we never knew, the uncles we never met, the friends who never returned, the heroes we can never repay."
Although Pauline Elliott visited the American cemetery in 1971, she was gone from this world by the time Clinton spoke those words. She didn't have an easy time of it.
"My mother never remarried, although she had several opportunities to do so," DeRonda Elliott wrote. "Heartache and sadness, hard work and worry, punctuated by a few moments of humor in the company of friends and family, characterized the rest of her life. She made the best of her life, but she never could forget her first and lasting love."
Their daughter continued: "I didn't marry the only man I ever loved, fearing that he, too, would somehow die and leave me and I would go through the same pain my mother did. I later experienced two unsuccessful marriages. Having never known the affirmation of my father's or any man's love for a sustained period of time as a child, I have always found it difficult to believe that any man could love me. We were, all three, casualties of war."
Yet that isn't the end of the story.
There is a reason we recognize the dead. It's for the living. It's why we decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers on Memorial Day, why we have ceremonies like the one held on June 6, 1994. That day, DeRonda and one of her daughters, 25-year-old Katy, were in the audience. Her story had received some attention and the cameras caught her face when Bill Clinton read from her parents' correspondence. The following year she would write a postscript.
"Nothing can describe how Katy and I felt when the president spoke my parents' names," she related. On that trip, DeRonda and Katy visited the cemetery where her father was buried. Frank Elliott lies in the far west corner of that hallowed ground. Section I, Row 16, Grave 1. What did they do? What they had never done before.
"We just talked to this man -- our father and grandfather -- for the first time," DeRonda wrote. "The word ‘Daddy' felt foreign on my lips. I don't remember ever using that word before."
"We told him about life without him, about my mother and her courageous struggle in the years that followed D-Day, about how she had taught us the things he would have wanted us to learn.
"We told him about her enduring love of America."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.