A month after World War II ended, Jeanne Palyok, an American raised in France by her grandparents, sailed back to Paris to work as a translator at the U.S. Embassy. In 1947, she and her husband, John, a veteran of the war in Italy, were transferred to graves registration at the new U.S. cemetery overlooking the D-Day beaches in Normandy.
During that time, she witnessed first-hand the staggering scope of the American sacrifice to liberate her second home. Later, Palyok would become a French teacher at Dreher High School in Columbia and, for 18 years, led trips to France for her students.
In June, Palyok will take about 20 S.C. veterans of World War II back to Normandy for the 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day. And she wants them to go for free.
“I saw the devastation to our people and the land in France,” said Palyok, who now lives in Forest Acres. “I know this is the last time these men will be able to go back. I want it to be a present for them.”
More than 5 million people are expected to flock to the rural beaches of northern France and nearby towns with familiar names – St. Mere Eglise, Saint-Lo and Caen. Among the dignitaries planning to attend the commemoration ceremonies are Queen Elizabeth of England and, perhaps, U.S. President Barack Obama.
Palyok and her sons, Ron and Mike, operated Pal Travel in Columbia from 1976 until last year. She and Ron will lead the veterans, 20 guests and 20 others on a 10-day tour from June 1 through June 10. They will visit the invasion beaches and the war-torn inland towns, attend the ceremonies and end with a triumphant visit to Paris.
The guests and their so-called “guardians” – caretakers for the veterans named after similar attendees on the popular Honor Flight program – will pay $3,500 for the trip. The Palyoks are seeking donations large and small to cover the costs for the 20 veterans.
Donations can be made through the trip’s website, overlord70.com. But time is short. Reservations have to be secured by May 1.
“We only have a very few guest spots remaining, based on some of the veterans’ (physical) ability to go,” Ron Palyok said. “We’re taking it on a case-by-case basis. But we are looking for corporate or private sponsorships, and donations for the veterans.”
One of those veterans is John Cummer of Northeast Columbia.
On June 6, 1944 – D-Day – Cummer was a U.S. Navy gunners’ mate on a landing craft, ferrying British troops onto Gold Beach. He made 27 trips onto the beach, a relatively mild experience compared with the carnage on Omaha Beach, made famous in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”
“It wasn’t anything like Private Ryan,” said the 89-year-old Minnesota native, who volunteered for the Navy at the age of 19. Still, the English Channel around his LCI – Landing Craft Infantry – was peppered by artillery fire and mortars. “It was miraculous that we weren’t hit.”
Gold Beach was so filled with wreckage that Cummer’s craft couldn’t get all the way to shore. It had to tie up to a disabled vessel to shuttle its troops across. Cummer has a rare photograph of his craft tethered to the other boat on his study wall.
While Cummer has been back to Normandy once, he didn’t get a chance to visit his beach. The Palyoks base of operation in June, however, will be Courseulles-sur-Mel, which overlooks Gold Beach.
“I really want to see where my boat was,” Cummer said.
Jeanne Palyok led similar, but smaller, trips to Normandy for the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the invasion. But this one – because it will be the last – will be special.
“We will all be near or over 100 on in 10 years,” she said. “I wanted to call the trip ‘the last hurrah’ but folks said that was impolite.”
While Palyok wants to make the trip for the veterans, she also wants to share her memories of the end of the war with others who were there.
“I guess it’s a present for me, too,” she said.