Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Bonds of War

Sainte-Mere-Eglise is one of four sister cities of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  What connection does a small village in the Normandy region of France have with a small town in south central Pennsylvania?  The answer of course is, history.

In June of 1992, a letter from Mayor Marc LeFevre of Sainte-Mere-Eglise was presented to Mayor Francis Linn of Gettysburg, which suggested that the two towns should form that relationship.  LeFevre explained that both communities were important in the history of their countries. 

Gettysburg was famous for a pivotal battle of the American Civil War and Sainte-Mere-Eglise was the first French city to be liberated by Allied troops as a result of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy.  He cited that General Dwight Eisenhower's nexus to both in that President Eisenhower chose to purchase a home in Gettysburg and that he was also the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Forces which liberated his town.  It was also mentioned that the Marquis de La Fayette assisted the U. S. in the American Revolution and two hundred years later, "...your soldiers willingly came to France to restore our lost dignity and freedom."

In a poignant portion of the letter LeFevre stated, "Thirteen thousand young American soldiers were buried here in three temporary cemeteries..."  He further added that those bodies which weren't repatriated were buried,  " the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial located at Colleville sur Mer overlooking Omaha Beach."

The offer was enthusiastically accepted by Gettysburg officials and during the intervening years delegations from both cities have visited each other.  A warm, friendly and respectful relationship has been achieved between both communities.  It was reported that during the trip to Normandy for the Fiftieth Anniversary of D-Day, the Gettysburg delegation received emotional greetings of welcome and thank you from the locals residents where ever they traveled.  The French have not forgotten the American sacrifices suffered in the liberation of their country.

Few people realize that the bond between Sainte-Mere-Eglise and Gettysburg began to strengthen shortly after World War II, during the repatriation of American war dead of which Mayor LeFevre spoke.  The strength of that bond comes from the fact that many of these dead came to their final rest in the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  Recent scholarship has showed that at least twelve of those American heroes who died on June 6, 1944, on and near the beaches at Normandy were re-interred in Gettysburg.

One of those soldiers was Private First Class Clairus L. Riggs of Company B, First Battalion, One Hundred Sixteenth Infantry of the Twenty-Ninth Infantry Division.   He was from Coalport, Clearfield County, Pennsylvania.

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, PFC Riggs was being transported across the English Channel aboard the troop transport S.S. Empire Javelin.  At 0330 hours, the landing craft containing Boat Team One of Company B was heading toward Omaha Beach.  Riggs carried a Browning Automatic Rifle which is a light machine gun that was deployed in a squad of men.  At 0640 hours the ramp of the landing craft was lowered in the surf off of Dog Green Sector.  As the six foot two inch soldier stepped on the ramp he was hit by enemy gunfire and fell into the water, dead. 

Clairus made it back to the United States and rests in Gettysburg National Cemetery, section 2, grave number 308.

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