By Bob Kerr
On the day after D-Day, the captain told Leo Heroux to ask the French farmer to move his cows from the field. It was no problem for Leo, who learned in English and in French at Notre Dame School and Sacred Heart Academy in Central Falls.
So he talked to the farmer, and the farmer moved his cows out of the way of the American troops. And the farmer and the soldier became friends.
“I would go up to that farmhouse every night,” said Leo. “And one night I saw the most beautiful girl coming down the stairs.”
She was Anne-Marie Broeckx, and Leo will admit that he was in love by the time she got to the bottom step.
So Leo had the war, in which he was an amphibious engineer, clearing beaches and building bridges and seeing horrible things. And he had the courtship of Anne-Marie, which continued by letter as his unit moved on through France and into Germany. And the courtship became transatlantic after Leo came home to Central Falls.
“We kept writing, and one day I asked, ‘Do you want to marry me?’ She said, ‘Yes.’”
And shortly after the war, Anne Marie came from Colleville-sur-Mer to Central Falls, where she and Leo were married in Notre Dame Church.
Then, in a delightful twist on the wartime love story, Mr. and Mrs. Heroux moved to France in 1948, to the place very near the place where Leo landed on D-Day. Marie taught school. Leo taught the French how to drive. They raised two sons and two daughters.
And on Memorial Day every year, Leo visited the American cemetery in Normandy, which he saw being built. On June 6, he walked on Omaha Beach.
“I would go down to the beach and think, ‘This is where I landed, right over there.’”
He is 90 now, living in Central Falls again, in a small apartment in Forand Manor. He moved back after Anne-Marie died in 1980. And he became one of the few, if not the only, person to be a driving instructor on both sides of the Atlantic.
His marriage to Anne-Marie and his life in France after the war, earned him a place in “The Longest Day,” the 1959 book by Cornelius Ryan about the D-Day invasion.
And when filmmaker Tim Gray read the book and saw the name, he gave Leo a call.
“I was planning to take some D-Day veterans back to Normandy, and I called Leo and asked if he’d be interested in going back,” said Gray.
And Leo became one of six local veterans of D-Day to go back and remember the things they did.
That was in 2006, and Gray was doing what he has done so brilliantly for several years. He was taking veterans back to the place where they were part of history. And he was making films of those dramatic, emotional returns to help us all understand the war better.
For Leo, of course, the return meant getting back to family. Their two sons and one daughter still live in the area. (Their other daughter lives in Montreal.)
“Most of the stories, they’re more about combat,” said Gray. “But Leo is unique. He still has family there. We took him back to where he met Anne-Marie, to the farm.
“In Normandy, nothing changes. We were calling Leo the mayor of Colleville.”
Leo became part of Gray’s film “D-Day: The Price of Freedom.” It is a good film and he is proud of his part in it. Ask him about the movie of “The Longest Day” and he is not so kind. He has a word for it.
He would like to go to Normandy one more time, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day next month.
“But my feet give me problems,” he said.
He says he will watch the anniversary ceremonies on television.
There are some reminders in his apartment. There is a “World War II Veteran” baseball hat with some unit pins attached. There is a big foldout picture of the American cemetery in Normandy, and Leo holds a newspaper photo from D-Day next to it to show the same place in peace and in war.
He was just 19 when he left Central Falls, not sure where he was going. He only knew a letter had arrived from Washington that said “Please report….”
He was one of four brothers, and he dropped out of school at 16 to go to work and help his family. He knew nothing of the war. But when his draft notice came, what he thought was going to be a working life in Central Falls was abruptly changed. He was off to Fort Devens in Massachusetts for basic training.
“There was a lot of exercise, running. I didn’t mind it.”
He sailed out of New York. He couldn’t believe how many troops there were. In England, he saw the destruction from the German bombing.
“Oh, God,” he said in reaction to what he saw.
On D-Day, he looked out at all the ships headed for France and thought them a beautiful sight.
But Omaha Beach was a horror that he is not about to describe.
“If I talk about it, people will say ‘Leo’s doing another story.’”
So there are no war stories. There are only small glimpses of the day that was the beginning of the war’s end.
He remembers that German and American artillery shells made different sounds as they passed above the troops, and it didn’t take long to be able to tell one from the other.
And one night, pinned down on the beach, he looked up.
“And what a beautiful fireworks I saw.”
He pauses, shaking a finger at his memories and deciding that there are some things he will keep to himself. Leo is a private man, not given to getting together with other veterans. He doesn’t think Americans know enough about what truly happened, about what it was like. But he doesn’t want to be the one to tell them.
But he can and does talk about one part of his war because it is the good and beautiful part. It is Anne-Marie walking down the stairs of her father’s farmhouse in Normandy and straight into a soldier’s heart.
“One night I asked her if she would write a letter for me in French.”
He thought it would be a way to get around the censors, to foil the lieutenant who opened all the outgoing letters and crossed out the bad parts.
But it was really just a way to be close and maybe fall in love a little more.
It worked. In a place that was at the very center of the war, with the horrors of combat just yards away, two people from very different places found the best way possible to deal with war’s madness.
“I fell in love,” said Leo. “It was love at first sight.”