Five old men are walking through a field of white crosses at the American cemetery in Normandy, France.
The men are D-Day veterans from Rhode Island, and the image of them in the cemetery is a somber, emotional moment from D-Day + 62 Years: Rhode Island Veterans Return to Normandy, a documentary by former Channel 10 reporter Tim Gray. The film is called D-Day: The Price of Freedom for its national airing on American Public Television (APT).
The hour-long documentary, which won two Emmy Awards at the Boston/New England regional awards dinner, is a moving, well-crafted piece that is, first of all, a tribute to the courage of the men who began the liberation of France on June 6, 1944. Beneath that, it is a meditation on age, memory and sacrifice.
D-Day + 62 Years is an apt reminder that Memorial Day is about more than just barbecues and department store sales.
The documentary will debut tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket before an audience that will include World War II veterans and their families. Tickets are sold out.
The program will air on Channel 10 on Tuesday , the 62nd anniversary of D-Day, and on June 18, both at 11 a.m.
D-Day + 62 Years moves back and forth from past to present, from archival footage of the D-Day invasion to shots of the peaceful Normandy beaches today, with rusted barbed wire and abandoned German gun emplacements as reminders of what happened there 62 years ago.
We see pictures of the Rhode Island veterans as young soldiers, then see them six decades later describing what they experienced on D-Day.
Some had rarely spoken about the invasion before.
“I never said much about it, because I didn’t want to keep remembering it,” said Army truck driver Wilson Delasanta, who described the Normandy surf running red with blood. “You know, the less I talk about it, the better it is.”
Richard Fazzio, who drove a Higgins boat loaded with troops, wept as he told of soldiers being cut down by German fire as they tried to get off his boat.
If you want to know what the invasion was like, he said, watch the first 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan — and then imagine it even worse.
On their visit back to Normandy, both Delasanta and Fazzio scooped up a bit of sand from Omaha beach and carefully put it in a plastic bag to take home with them.
Gray said he got the idea for the documentary during a visit to Normandy with his wife. While visiting the American cemetery, he saw a Rhode Island name on one of the grave markers and started wondering how many Rhode Islanders were buried there. (The answer is 99).
Then he started thinking of a documentary that would showcase Rhode Islanders who had taken part in D-Day.
He ended up interviewing six: Fazzio, Delasanta, Leo Heroux, Chris Heisler, Frank Chomka and Philip O’Connell. In March, five of them made the trip back to Normandy. (O’Connell could not go for health reasons.)
Each of the veterans has a different tale to tell.
Fazzio was wounded. Heisler, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, was captured by the Germans after he had jumped into France.
Chomka was on a tugboat towing a huge piece of the artificial harbors that were used to bring supplies onshore. O’Connell didn’t land in France until the day after the invasion.
And Heroux met his future wife at a French farmhouse not far from the invasion beaches. The couple got married in Rhode Island after the war, but Heroux would eventually live in France for more than 40 years.
In D-Day + 62 Years, he goes back to the farmhouse where he met his wife. It looks exactly the same, he said.
The French have not forgotten the men who liberated their country. D-Day + 62 shows the five Rhode Island veterans who returned to France being warmly greeted by French people of all ages, including schoolchildren.
“Men age, but their actions are eternal and indelible,” the narrator says.
Besides the D-Day veterans, Gray interviwed Therese Blais, who worked for the U.S. Rubber Co. in Woonsocket making fake tanks, made of rubber, that were used to fool the Germans into believing that the Allies had an army under General George Patton that was going to invade France at Pas de Calais, not Normandy.
As for the men who rest in the American cemetery in Normandy, they are represented by Maurice Gauthier of Woonsocket, who survived D-Day but died in action about a month later.
His sister, Jackie Gauthier Auclair, said the fact of his death didn’t really sink in until letters his family had sent overseas came back undelivered.
Auclair would eventually visit his grave in Normandy.
“It was like a connection, a reunion of souls maybe,” she said. “I often wondered what life would have been like for him.”
BY ANDY SMITH
Journal Television Writer