Chris Rosenblum: U.S., France friendship stands test of time

Willard “Bill” Shore and his wife, Thelma “Selmie” Shore, are pictured next to a scrapbook of his wartime letters and photos.
Willard “Bill” Shore and his wife, Thelma “Selmie” Shore, are pictured next to a scrapbook of his wartime letters and photos. For the Centre Daily Times

Seventy-one years before the Paris attacks last month provoked an outpouring of sympathy for France, Bill Shore felt moved by the French.

He was a 29-year-old Army private from McConnellsburg. His unit, the 359th Infantry Regiment of the famous 90th Division, was liberating a French town from the Nazis on a November day in 1944.

Shore isn’t around to recall his experience, but his daughter, Terri Davis, of Bellefonte, has a window into his thoughts that day. It rests within a 2-inch thick scrapbook of wartime letters sent home to her mother, Selmie Shore.

He wrote frequently, yearning for his wife and their first baby born in his absence, and she saved every word.

“They really loved each other, and that’s just the way it was all their lives,” Davis said.

One letter, sent from England, told about an excursion from his barracks to a nearby pub in search of ale and female company. “I didn’t go,” he wrote. “You’re the only one, Selmie.”

Mostly, his correspondence steered clear of the war itself, out of kindness to his anxious wife and deference to the military censors. But he had to share one moment in detail, an unforgettable arrival rewarding him for surviving the brutal Normandy Campaign.

Davis thought of the special letter after terrorists killed 130 people in Paris and the suburb of Saint-Denis on Nov. 13. Reading his account again as Americans expressed their solidarity with a shocked and mourning country, she was struck by her father’s “experiencing the bond between our nation and France,” a tie dating back to the Revolutionary War.

He never discussed his memories of that city, probably Metz; like many of his fellow veterans, he rarely talked about the war at all.

But because he took time to capture his arrival in neat script for his true love, Davis knows what he saw.

“As we entered the suburbs of this city there were just a few people waving to us here and there,” Shore wrote. “They were very happy and excited, but still I couldn’t help wondering where the rest of them were? Upon turning the next corner we found out, yes, I’ll say we found out!”

His convoy pulled into the city square crammed as far as he could see with people waving flags, shouting and weeping. It was so packed, the soldiers stopped their vehicles for fear of hitting the ecstatic crowds pressing in on them.

“Just close your eyes and picture the entire population of a fair-sized city trying to shake hands with a handful of men. Women held up babies for us to kiss, everyone wanted to get on the vehicles and shake hands,” Shore wrote.

“Before long I was smothered beneath a few layers of flowers and French people. A little girl of about five years of age was dressed in the Stars and Stripes, she was seated on the first vehicle and the band played the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ After that they played (‘La Marseillaise,’ the French national anthem) and everyone sang. Now I know what must feel like to be ‘President.’ It was the most wonderful sight I ever hope to see.”

An old woman came up to Shore and, holding his hand tight, kissed him repeatedly.

“Although we could not understand each other I could see just how much liberty meant to her,” Shore wrote.

“From where I was it looked like a sea of smiling, crying, happy people. If one looked up at the surrounding buildings, from almost every window hung the French and American flags. Some of our flags were home-made affairs, but we understood the meaning behind them.”

After offers of Champagne, cognac and wine came a parade with graying men in their World War I uniforms. That night, Shore and his buddy were offered their own rooms in the city’s best hotel — pure heaven after weeks of sleeping on the ground.

“We left there the next day and continued on our way, but as long as I live, I shall never forget the expressions on those faces, the crudely made flags, or the parade,” Shore wrote. “If a poll were taken it is my belief that the average soldier would say that all his hardships are paid for twice over by the gratitude and happiness of the French people.”

A lot has transpired in the world since then. France has been a constant ally, but our relationship has soured sometimes depending on the political winds.

All that seems petty today, though, in a time when a galvanized France is seeing its greatest rush to enlist since World War II, when NBA players scrawl sympathetic messages on their sneakers. Once again, we are united against a common enemy. It took bloodshed, but our deep cultural ties — food, language, our founding documents, World War II — have resurfaced to push aside geopolitical bickering.

We’re all in the same fight now. We all have liberty at stake. Funny, you don’t hear much about freedom fries any more.

France stood by us after 9/11. We’re by their side after their own massacre.

Shore’s memorable entrance 71 years ago reminds us that the friendship was worth keeping.

“That touched him deeply,” Davis said. “He really appreciated it.”

Send local column ideas to Chris Rosenblum at chrisrosenblum@comcast.net.