Letters from teens bring warmth to vets 75 years after WWII

What can World War II veterans and 15 year-old French teens share 75 years after the end of the war? Stories. Teens record a unique time in history from their perspectives. For the vets, the youthful letters "let daylight into this dark time of lockdown.'' 

Frank Augstein/AP
World War II veteran Bill Ridgewell shows a picture of himself in uniform and a postcard from French student Marion Nivard in Shaftesbury, England, May 6, 2020. Letters have eased disappointment around canceled events celebrating the 75th anniversary of the war's end.

French student Marion Nivard started writing last year to a World War II veteran in Britain, thanking him for taking part in the Normandy invasion that freed her country from the Nazis.

As V-E Day approached, Marion and her classmates in the Normandy region thought of 94-year-old Bill Ridgewell and other vets living in isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic – just as they were. The teens decided to swap stories with the men about their lives under lockdown.

"I think we need to be with them even if we're not with them – if that makes sense!'' said Marion, 15. "It's already something to be there in thoughts and sending them messages. I'm sure it makes them happy, and it makes us happy too."

The effort to share snippets of lockdown life comes at a time of disappointment for the veterans, most of whom are now in their 90s. They were looking forward to a grand party on Friday marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Nationwide celebrations would have placed them in the spotlight.

But the festivities have been scaled back to mostly broadcast events, including a two-minute moment of silence. Queen Elizabeth II will deliver a televised message, and there will be a national singalong of "We'll Meet Again,'' led by 103-year-old Vera Lynn, who made the song famous during the war.

Writing to the veterans brought home to the teens that they are living through a unique moment in time that will be remembered by future generations, said Mayeul Macé, a history teacher at Saint-Louis Middle School in Cabourg. President Emmanuel Macron's address announcing the lockdown set the stage.

"The president's use of the term 'at war' really left its mark on the pupils," he said. "I have students who wonder what history really is, and they realized that they were experiencing something historic."

The relationships with the vets began in 2017, when a group of them spoke at the school. The teens gave the guests vials of sand or soil, depending on whether they stormed the Normandy beaches or dropped from planes. The students later visited the Imperial War Museum in London, and the veterans came too. Ties formed, and letters were exchanged, said Ian Parsons, chairman of the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, which arranged the school visit.

"That's the paramount thing.'' Mr. Parsons said. "They know they aren't on their own when something comes through that letter box.''

Veterans like hearing the kids talk about lockdown in all its banality. Snapshots of lunch, happy dogs on walks, and bedrooms tidied briefly for photos are standard fare. Content is secondary.

Just ask Mr. Ridgewell.

A former school headmaster, Mr. Ridgewell was in a trench on the outskirts of Caen on July 5, 1944, when he watched Allied planes bomb the city. He was horrified and feared the French would never forgive the Allies for laying waste to their communities, even though the bombing was part of the effort to crush the Nazis.

He was so concerned about the French reaction that for years he did not want to visit Normandy. But he finally returned last year as part of celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day. What he found surprised him: The French treated him like a hero.

"They gave us freedom, and they fought for our future. And to be grateful is the least we can do,'' Marion said.

The students did more than stay in touch. Mr. Ridgewell's pen pal and another girl from a nearby school traveled to England last year to watch him receive the Legion D'Honneur, France's highest military and civilian decoration. He's quick to show off a cherished snapshot of the event.

He keeps his sand vials beside his armchair. He is even creating a wall of photographs to celebrate his new friendships.

Now the man who was reluctant to go to France can't wait to go back and catch up with the teens. He wishes he could adopt them all.

To show he's in the spirit of all things lockdown, Mr. Ridgewell had his daughter, Mary, take videos of him around the house. There's one in the front garden, another in the back garden, and one in the kitchen on a rainy day. In that one, you can see the old schoolteacher at work: He identifies everything – this is the microwave! – so the kids can work on their English.

Not content to leave it there, Mr. Ridgewell has taken up studying French so he can talk to "mes amis."

The children started writing to express their gratitude. Now it's his turn.

The exchanges "let daylight into this dark time of lockdown,'' he told The Associated Press from his home in Shaftesbury, in southern England. "It's been brilliant. Grateful? That's an understatement really. I'm more than grateful! I'm delighted."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Letters from teens bring warmth to vets 75 years after WWII
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today