A Little Happier: A Pamphlet for D-Day Soldiers Gave Me the “America Feeling”

June 6, 2024, marked the eightieth anniversary of the D-Day landings along the Normandy coast during the Second World War. “D-Day,” of course, is the term often used to refer to the landing operations on June 6, 1944, in Normandy, for the Allied invasion. 

Ever since I wrote my biography of Winston Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, and studied the Second World War, I’ve been particularly interested in D-Day.

Several years ago, my family and I went on a trip to France, and we visited the World War II D-Day sites in Normandy.

Reading articles about the eightieth anniversary, and some of the speeches given on the occasion, reminded me of one of my favorite memories about that trip. I’ve told this story before, but I can’t resist telling it again.

On our visit, we visited Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, as well as some sites in little French towns whose names I don’t dare try to pronounce, lest any French speakers among our listeners have to rip their earphone from their ears.

It was a fascinating day—awe-inspiring. It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of what happened there in June 1944. So much planning, so much courage, so much sacrifice.

I’ve spoken often about my “America feeling,” the feeling I get when I vote, or when I see the Statue of Liberty, or when I serve on a jury, or when I hear the song “The Farmer and the Cowman” from the musical Oklahoma! And no surprise, I experienced the America feeling over and over as we visited those sites.

But something that’s true for me is that I feel ideas most deeply when they come to me through words. I can visit places, I can see things, but in the end, it’s writing that strikes me to the core.

And that’s what happened in Normandy.

I felt my America feeling most strongly, to the point that I couldn’t stop the tears coming into my eyes, when I came across a reproduction pamphlet called “A Pocket Guide to France.” I got choked up when I read this pamphlet for the first time, years ago, and I get choked up thinking about it again now.

This pamphlet was a small, light, pocket-sized document, which (as it said) was a restricted guide issued by the War and Navy Departments in Washington D.C. for soldiers going to France. Apparently similar pamphlets were given to soldiers headed to other countries, as well.

I’m always intrigued by documents like this—how they’re written and designed—so I started reading it. I expected it to be full of bureaucratic, stuffy, approved-by-military-committee language, so at first I was surprised by its casual, slangy language. It was obviously written so that lots of young soldiers would find it easy to read. It had several typos, so I suspect it was written in haste, to be ready in time.

The brief guide included sections on the history of France, the organization of French society, the food, helpful phrases and how to pronounce them, and the like. The guide also admonished the soldiers (at some length) to stay out of various kinds of mischief. 

And here’s what really caught my eye—and this is what gave me the America feeling. It was in a section headed, “You Are a Guest of France,” where the guide addresses a question that would obviously be of great concern to the U.S. solders: How would the French people view Americans? Here’s what the guide, written in 1944, said:

Mostly, the French think Americans always act square, always give the little fellow a helping hand and are good-natured, big hearted, and kind. They look up to the United States as the friend of the oppressed and the liberator of the enslaved. The French trust both you and your country more than they do most other men and nations. Keep that trust.

What a beautiful conception of the United States, my beloved country. I hope we will always work to deserve and keep that trust, that together as a country we will choose to act square, give the little fellow a helping hand, and stay good-natured, big hearted, and kind. We fall short as we strive to live up to the ideals of our nation, it’s true, but I hope that we will always seek to do so.

Reflecting this pamphlet made me ask, “What am I doing, in my ordinary life, to live up to the great dreams of the United States?”

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