In the cafeteria of a hotel in Bayeux, France, over a typical French breakfast of bread, bread, and more bread, my new found friend pointed his finger at me.
“You Americans,” he said in his wonderful English accent, “You think you know everything there is to know about World War II because you watched Saving Private Ryan.”
“You don’t”, he added with a smile.
His name was Clifford Coates and if anyone had the right to lecture me about what I knew or didn’t know about World War II I was Clifford. He had lived that remarkable, terrible time of history. Now, he was back in France to revisit the hallowed ground he had walked as a 19 year old soldier 74 years earlier.
He had made this journey from his native England many times before, driving several hours south to Southhampton before catching a ferry for the trip across the English Channel to Cherbourg. From there it was a short drive down the French coastline to Normandy, the place that shaped his life perhaps more than he ever realized.
I had come to know him by an accident of timing. I had traveled to Bayeux in June 2018 to revisit the D-Day beaches that had so captured my attention. A year earlier, my son and I had been there with a tour group. This time I had come alone to explore the more out-of-the-way places the tours don’t frequent.
I arrived on Sunday and on this Monday morning I ventured out to pick up my rental car then returned to my hotel. Near the front door there sat a wheelchair inhabited by an elderly man in a uniform. A blanket was wrapped around his legs for warmth and a beret sat upon his head. He was very obviously British.
As has become my habit, I paused to thank him for his service but found it impossible to do so without asking at least a couple of introductory questions. My inquisition was cut short by the arrival of his ride, old French friends whom he would spend the day with. We agreed, however, to met up at breakfast the next day.
The next morning, and every other morning until our departure, I would hunt Clifford down, announce that his “American pest” had arrived, then sit and listen to his amazing stories of D-Day. I was completely awed by the man and the experiences he shared.
By June 6, 1944, Clifford was already a seasoned combat veteran having fought his way around the Mediterranean. With his mates from the 41st Royal Marine Commandos, he trudged ashore on Sword Beach at Ouistreham, on the eastern most extreme of the Operation Overlord map. Their mission was simple; to free France from the tyrannical grip of Adolf Hitler and has Nazi regime. They secured Ouistreham, then proceeded up the 10 mile corridor to relieve the embattled garrison at what is now known as Pegasus Bridge.
Our third morning in Bayeux was the day, June 6th, the 74th anniversary of D’Day. As was my habit I searched Clifford out in the breakfast area to once again harangue him with my countless questions. He seemed a bit more subdued than during our previous meetings.
“How are you this morning, Clifford,” I asked.
“Well,” he replied quietly, “I’m better now than I was last night.”
“Too much activity?”, I asked.
“No”, he replied quietly, “It was just so emotional seeing my old friends.”
The day before, Clifford had been at an annual observance outside the small village of Ranville, at that bridge, the one known as Pegasus. He had indeed remembered. He remembered the place, the terrible noise and carnage of battle, and most of all his fellow soldiers, his mates, the friends he lost there who, like him, had risked everything for the cause of freedom.
After 74 years the pain of those losses was still very, very real for my friend. It is a loss those of us who have never experienced such a cataclysmic event can never fully appreciate. I am most certain Clifford had shed a few tears.
“I lost friends, yes”, Clifford would recall in a 2019 interview with the British Veterans’ Foundation, “Nobody is sacrosanct. When that shell explodes, when that bomb drops, or that gun fires, somebody’s going to die. And it doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re in line it’s you.”
Clifford, of course, was not “in line”. He survived the war and lived a full life after the fighting finally came to close a little more than a year after D-Day. Like so many other World War II veterans from all nations, he invested in his family and his community, even serving a stint at his towns mayor.
The courage displayed, the terrible losses, the horrible memories all had a transcendent purpose in Clifford’s mind.
In the before mentioned video interview Clifford explained.
“If you were say to anybody there, ‘What did you do it for? What was your aim? We would say to make it safe … for the kids, to give them a decent life because they had no life.”
“No war is really over,” stated one World War II soldier, “until the last veteran is dead.” If that is so, World War II just took one more step toward closure when Clifford Coates passed away quietly few days ago at the age of 96.
May men like him–and their extraordinary deeds–never be forgotten. And may we never cease to be grateful.
Rest in peace, Clifford Coates. You–and all the others like you–deserve it.