Jean-Marie Caillard is cast member, friend of the film and native son of Normandy, France. He embodies the spirit of the Normandy people, continually sharing their history to ensure the memories and stories of the liberation are not lost. This is his story.
This is part 1 of 2. When you’re done, go read part 2.
My name is Jean-Marie Caillard. I was born in the town of Carentan on the Normandy Channel on the 13th of December, 1970. Carentan is on the route from Cherbourg to Caen – a hub of waterways, roadways, and railways which made it a strategic location during World War II. Carentan was captured by the Allies following the D-Day Invasion of June 1944 in order to cut the peninsula in half and hold the position for future military advance. Since my youngest years I was raised in a spirit of remembrance and respect for the history of my region.
Every June throughout my youth, we went to my uncle and aunt’s house at Chef-du-Pont, to eat with them and the veteran parachutists they hosted in their home for the World War II remembrance festivities. After dinner, we would go watch the parachuting at Sainte-Mère-Église. My dad was born in 1931 and my mother in 1934, and they had memories that were deeply marked by the war and liberation. They instilled in me an interest in the history of my town and my family. I began collecting World War II artifacts during the 1980s when my parents emptied the house after my grandmother died. In the attic, I found my first GI helmet as well as insignias and patches of a US division.
The years passed, deaths in the family meant that we no longer went regularly to my uncle and aunt’s home every June. I stopped collecting during my adolescence but took it up again when I had more time as an adult. I began to research the combat zones in my area, made excavations, and discovered relics. I was more and more determined that Carentan, my hometown and the hometown of my father, would be known as an important point in the Allied advancement following the landings on D-Day. I began to organize events with a historical connection in order to make them accessible to the public at large. The goal always being to share what I had found, to interest the younger generations in the history of their region and create interest in the greater human history which caused these events. Events that brought these young soldiers and their gift to us, the liberty we have today.
I became known in the region as a collector and as someone who did not profiteer from selling relics but rather as someone with a desire to share, show, and promote the things I found to honor the liberators. A local individual contacted me to tell me about a construction site in town that had laid bare a roof as they were restoring a building. This person told me, “There are papers being uncovered. I don’t know if it’s interesting for your collection, but before the workers put everything in the trash. Come look.”
That May of 2015, I spent 3 lunchbreaks looking through the debris to rescue from oblivion the remnants of treats, cigarettes, bottles of medicine, hair care products, and books from American soldiers. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t think of taking photos. I only had a limited time to save these papers from destruction and I could not anticipate what treasures would be in that attic.
At one point he looked in the broken floorboards and announced, “There are papers underneath.” We opened the floor and found letters addressed to a Sgt Robert Miller. We suddenly understood everything about the room when we read the words “3111 Sig Serv Bt”, 3111 Signal Service Battalion was an Army communications unit! There was a long, naked wire between two beams of the attic which ended between two porcelain isolators. This wire was relayed to an isolated cable which fell to the floor. It was their radio antenna!
As we analyzed the documents that we had in our possession the findings corresponded with a known position of a radio emitter of the Signal Corps. I cleaned all our findings with care, thinking already of the historic exhibit I could show people. Later, we made a recreation of a Signal Corps lineman position as a part of our exhibit and included a soldier climbing a pole to simulate the placing of telephone lines. We were even able to populate the display with a lot of original equipment.
I had found two names on the documents we’d uncovered and did some research to track the veterans down, but it was in vain. I only managed to find one of the veterans and he had died in July of 2016. This seemed so unfair to me. I would really have liked to talk with this veteran about his life in Carentan. I would have liked to explain to people the historic truth in the most factual way as told to me by a veteran.
Here in Normandy, we are very attached to memory and the passing down of history. To honor these men, I have set up an exhibit in our workshop in Carentan called L’Atelier. L’Atelier is open to the public the first Saturday of every month for visitors. Here I can preserve my collection of relics and memories and pass them on to the younger generations.
If you enjoyed reading about Jean-Marie and the story of the radio signalman, you should check out part 2 told from the perspective of Christian Taylor, director of The Girl Who Wore Freedom. And don’t forget our short video, A Radio Signalman’s Secret.