- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) - A tiny village in France hasn’t forgotten. The deeds of American soldiers such as Tom Cundiff, even 72 years later, are remembered there.

This summer, Cundiff plans to return to Etrechy. He lived in that rural town of 6,100 residents for 16 months during World War II, serving as a U.S. Army staff sergeant, a company clerk, helping fellow soldiers rejoin their units after hospital stints or report for duty after arriving from the States

His outfit, the small 446th Replacement Company from the 85th Replacement Battalion, set up operations in a castle - Le Chateau de Gravelles - just days after American forces liberated Paris and Etrechy from Nazi German occupiers.

Every Aug. 28, the Etrechy townspeople celebrate the moment when the Americans turned the village back over to the locals. This year, Cundiff will be their honored guest, representing his country, again, and fellow service members.

It won’t be a simple journey for the veteran from Terre Haute. “It’s a happy and sad thing,” Cundiff said. At age 95, he has health concerns, and his wife, Maxine, is homebound in their apartment in Westminster Village. “We’ve been married 70 years,” he explained, “and I haven’t really left her that long.”

Still, Cundiff said his doctors encouraged him to make the trip. He’ll travel with his son, Paul, and daughter-in-law, Martenia, while his wife is cared for here. “I don’t really want to go (without her),” Cundiff said, “but I can’t pass up the opportunity.”

That chance came about unexpectedly.

Cundiff’s son runs a boat restoration business in Kentucky, and recently a customer living in France ordered two engines from Paul. The younger Cundiff realized the customer lived about 20 minutes from Etrechy, where his dad served in the war. Already last year, Paul had successfully worked with the U.S. Department of Defense to have his dad’s long-overdue service medals issued to him. So with that recognition still fresh in mind, Paul contacted his French customer, hoping the man knew of Etrechy, where Tom served.

He did indeed. Through a series of emails, the man found the site of Chateau de Gravelles and contacted Etrechy’s mayor, Elisabeth Dailly. She invited Tom to be the 2016 Freedom Day special guest, the customer offered a guided tour of Paris, and the Cundiffs planned the trip.

Dailly’s father fled the Nazi invasion in 1940 as a 17-year-old, pedaling an old bicycle from northern France across the country. Her mother, then a young teacher, toted food to her parents’ home 50 kilometers away by bicycle during the war. The 63-year-old mayor well understands the significance of Tom’s return and its historic backstory.

“I feel very thankful to all foreign soldiers who helped my country become free,” Dailly said Monday in an email interview. “I am really moved when I think of all these young men and women who came so far from their country and fought for others’ liberty. That feeling is shared by all French people. French TV shows a lot of historical movies about that period, so that we never forget.”

Cundiff, of course, holds keen remembrances of that time, too. He recollects walking Etrechy’s main street, the soldiers’ Army cots lined up two feet apart on the chateau’s third floor and the restroom being next door. Cundiff admits, though, that some details of his days in Etrechy have escaped his memory.

A white cardboard box, with “War Years” written on the side, helps. It contains photographs, newspaper clippings, Army ration cards, paper francs known as “invasion money,” and a folder holding his newly bestowed, long-ago-earned medals. The mementos stir recollections. Cundiff wants the trip back to Etrechy to do the same.

“I’m hoping that my memory will return on a lot of things that I saw, (so) that I can come up with (them),” he said, sitting in a recliner in the Cundiffs’ apartment. “They’ll be disappointed if I don’t.”

On a cabinet near his chair sat an image he knows intimately. A diptych, with weathered frames, holds two photographs of a young Maxine. It went along with Cundiff on each step of his World War II service, from his entry in November 1942 to his transfer to England in 1943, the days in Etrechy from August 1944 to October 1945, the “cigarette (or temporary) camp” in Le Havre, France, that winter, the homecoming to the States on the day after Christmas 1945, the bus ride to Indianapolis and the train ride home to Terre Haute.

Cundiff would tuck the diptych into his duffel bag and pull it out before he went to sleep. The hinged, side-by-side photos “took a beating,” he said. It sustained him, though.

“He’s devoted,” Paul said of his dad’s affection and care for his mother.

They met as students at Indiana State Teachers College (now the university). Both Terre Haute natives, she was a Wiley High School grad and he was a Garfield grad. At Indiana State, she prepared for a teaching career that took her to small-town Illinois schools in Warrensburg and Chrisman, while Tom left the college after his junior year to take a job as an ordnance inspector before he got drafted. (After the war, Cundiff enrolled at Rose Polytechnic Institute, now Rose-Hulman, graduated and worked 35 years at Pfizer before retiring in 1983.)

Before Cundiff left to report for Army duty, he gave Maxine an engagement ring. “I tell people I put her on a leash before I left,” he joked. Twenty-three days after he returned from Europe, they married.

Their generation’s experiences need to be told, said Dailly, the Etrechy mayor. Cundiff’s revisiting of the village enlightens younger people about what happened there three-quarters of a century ago. Dailly’s own parents - her mother, still living at age 94, and her late father - are part of that story, too, as survivors of the Nazi invasion and occupation.

“So, for me, the war is a very close memory and we need their words, their feelings,” Dailly said. “The nice thing would be to make a book from all their souvenirs. If we do not write their memories, soon people could trust the negationists - a real danger.”

She herself didn’t realize U.S. soldiers lived in the chateau for so long until she learned heard about Cundiff.

For Cundiff, duty in Etrechy involved long hours and “a lot of paperwork.”

“A company clerk does his work in the evenings, so I didn’t go into Etrechy for the bars and clubs,” he explained. On a few occasions, he and some Army buddies rode the train into the freshly liberated Paris, climbed the Eiffel Tower, saw a few operas (Cundiff likes classical music), met a couple of American and French World War I veterans and “did a lot of walking.”

Because Cundiff had some college education, his captain chose him for the job as clerk and kept him in it as their company guided healed-up U.S. soldiers and incoming recruits to the right units. Though Cundiff, a staff sergeant, wasn’t engaged in combat, he carries a vivid memory of aerial confrontations as he arrived in France by plane in the summer of ‘44, and that aircraft flew around embattled Saint-Lo.

“I did count 17 of our planes being shot down. I could see the trails of smoke as they went down,” he said, solemnly. “I remember saying a little prayer for that.”

By living for more than a year at the old chateau, Cundiff also saw the war from the perspective of the villagers who had just endured years of Nazi occupation before the American liberation forces arrived as the conflict reached its final months.

“My sympathy, of course, is always on the side of the soldier,” he said, “but I know the people, too - there’s going to be suffering in their lives.”

Asked what lessons younger generations should remember, Cundiff said, “I wish that all of us could have a taste of what these occupied people lived through and maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to go to war.”

Today, little remains of the chateau where he served. The area, once part of an 80-acre estate, is now an industrial zone, Mayor Dailly explained. Cundiff and his wife traveled to Etrechy in 1977, but the gates to the walled chateau were shut and locked then. At this August’s celebration, Paul Cundiff hopes to re-create a war-era photo of Tom, standing at the site of the chateau, even if it’s just ruins.

That moment comes a year after Paul, with the help of a colleague, got the government to award his father’s service medals. When Tom returned home after the war, “he’d missed Mom and he was ready to just start a normal life,” Paul said, and never pursued the medals he’d earned. Those include the American Campaign and European African and Middle Eastern Campaign medals, two Bronze Stars and three others.

“He’s a pretty humble guy,” Paul said, as well as “a wonderful friend, wonderful father and a most wonderful husband.”

Despite that humility, another honor will come to Tom in August. The Etrechy mayor said details of this year’s Freedom Day ceremony are still being finalized, but it may mirror one from the past when a village youngster participated alongside a World War II veteran.

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Source: (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star, http://bit.ly/1U80619

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Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com

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