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Friday, June 6, 2014

Postwar friendship leads to a French honor for Litchfield veteran

The memories of Litchfield’s Oliver Carver and French-born Edouard Rocher share a common thread that begins in boyhood and ends as men living in peace long after the deafening bombardments and stresses of war.

On Friday, June 6, the 70th anniversary of the landings at Normandy to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany, Army veteran Carver will receive his Legion of Honor medal for military service for France in a ceremony prompted by his friend Rocher. The French government also will induct him into the Legion d’honneur , bestowing the mark of chevalier, or knight, a title available to Americans who fought to liberate France during World War II. ...

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The memories of Litchfield’s Oliver Carver and French-born Edouard Rocher share a common thread that begins in boyhood and ends as men living in peace long after the deafening bombardments and stresses of war.

On Friday, June 6, the 70th anniversary of the landings at Normandy to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany, Army veteran Carver will receive his Legion of Honor medal for military service for France in a ceremony prompted by his friend Rocher. The French government also will induct him into the Legion d’honneur , bestowing the mark of chevalier, or knight, a title available to Americans who fought to liberate France during World War II.

That’s where Rocher comes in.

Carver grew up in West Virginia and worked in Massachusetts as an electrical engineer. Wanting to be near their adult children after retirement, he and his wife Freda settled for a time in Cape Cod, where he became active in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“I met this guy with a French accent, brilliant guy,” said Carver, sitting on the shady porch of his Litchfield home. “We were talking one day and he said he really had a thing for the battles in Normandy, because that meant the beginning of France’s freedom.

“He told me about his young days and I said, ‘What do you know, we have some commonality here.’ ”

Roher, who is in his 80s, had moved to New Hampshire in the 1960s, working for IBM. Just before the 50th anniversary of the landings, in 1994, Rocher helped organize a dinner for D-Day veterans living on The Cape. It was Rocher who encouraged Carver to apply for the Legion of Honor and shepherded him through the process.

Rocher’s motivation was his childhood wartime experiences. On D-Day, he was a boy attending a boarding school in Avignon, France.

“At that time, there was a lot of bombardment,” he said in a phone interview from his Centerville, Mass., home.

He explained the Americans were trying to hit bridges to prevent the Germans from moving equipment around the country.

“We had some bombs falling down where we were in the center of the city,” he said. “Two thousand people were killed by the bombardment.”

It was two weeks before D-Day. Rocher remembers waves of airplanes overhead, and air raid warnings.

The chapel at his school was used as a temporary morgue.

“When we would pass by, we were told not to look inside,” Rocher said. “I saw bags of legs and arms. It was something.

“There were trenches in the play yard,” he said, remembering one particular bombing raid. “There were 400 or 500 kids hiding during bombardments.”

One of the school’s administrators, unbeknownst to Rocher at the time, was up on the roof of one of the school’s buildings with a pair of binoculars helping to direct the bombardment. The man was later arrested by the Germans and killed while trying to escape captivity.

All this was taking place as then-19-year-old Carver was preparing to cross the English Channel.

“I did not go in on D-Day,” Carver said. “I went in about 10 or 12 days after D-Day.

“We loaded onto a LCI (landing craft, infantry). We had a Canadian crew and left in the late evening. Most of the guys got seasick. I didn’t get seasick. In the early morning we came out on deck and I got a look at what that place looked like.

“We’re about a mile offshore. I’ve never seen so many ships in my life. There were warships and there were all kinds of Liberty ships. Lots of ships like ours. There were smaller boats all going back to shore. Most of the Liberty ships had barrage balloons flying from them.”

Carver was in the Signal Corps, responsible for communications. His messaging gear wasn’t with him when he neared at his destination, Utah Beach.

“I had my carbine. We had been given impregnated uniforms with the expectation that this would be useful against a gas attack by the Germans,” Carver said.

He also carried his gas mask and 20 rounds of ammunition.

“We headed for shore about a mile away. When the bottom of this craft scraped sand, we lowered the ramp. We thought we were going to walk on sand, but no, it was more like 3 feet of water, and we walked onshore. Guys were yelling ‘keep moving.’ 

“The shore had been checked for mines and made clear. We walked and walked and walked. We walked 5 miles inland to Saint-
Germain-de-Varreville.”

They faced no resistance.

“The only enemy we heard was a plane at night,” he said.

For a couple of weeks, he and his team made use of German equipment in abandoned pillbox defenses. There were some remaining communications lines between them, and some of his crew were able to splice and repair the cables. Weeks later, his equipment arrived, which enabled him to create multiple channels out of two lines.

Eventually, he moved through St. Lo, France, a town that had also been severely bombed. The rapid push through France by Patton’s 3rd Army was tough to keep up with. He moved through the country and stayed briefly in Paris after its liberation. He still has memories of the cheering French population in the city.

He went through Reims and into Belgium, then back to Verdun and eventually to Germany itself.

When the war was over, he returned to the U.S. and an eventual career as an electrical engineer. Comfortable and retired on Cape Cod, Carver began his friendship with Rocher.

“Edouard originated a group called D-Day Veterans of Cape Cod,” Carver said. Rocher’s objective was casual meet-ups to reminisce. It was established just before the 50th anniversary of the landings.

Though Carver has since moved to Litchfield, he remains close to the group of veterans.

“This is about 20 years ago,” Carver said. “ He would try and get in touch with people one on one. Talk about the old days, the military days.”

Rocher had heard of another vet who had applied and received the medal. Rocher was told he should encourage his own group to do it, too. On June 6, 70 years after beginning his wartime journey through France at an English port town on the shores of The English Channel, Carver will stand at the Hyannis (Mass.) Yacht Club and become chevalier in France’s Legion of Honor.

“Excited. Terrific. Fascinating,” he said of his feelings at the opportunity. “Never in my wildest dreams would I expect this would become what it has turned out to be.

“I’ll be 90 in July. Most of the guys are gone. The guys who made up this team. I tried to keep track of them for awhile without success.

“That I would run into someone like Edouard with his background and goals, and it would all fit together as it has, it’s just unbelievable.

“I got to thinking about the people that aren’t here anymore, that did much greater things than I ever did. What we did, setting up our antennas on a hilltop and dodging V-1s (rocket-propelled bombs) that came up over the other side of the hill, our little thing is such a miniscule thing compared to what the guys did that did their job on D-Day and the day after that and the day after that, all the way up until the end of the war.

“I’m very mindful of the people who more richly deserve some kind of award like this,” he said, recalling a cousin killed invasion of Leyte, Philippines, fighting the Japanese. “For people like Edouard who’s goal in setting up this, to make sure that the Americans knew they were thankful for what (the Americans) did in places like Normandy because it led to the freedom of (his) country … those are noble thoughts.”

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or dhimsel@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Himsel on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).