French Heritage Center sponsors D-Day commemorative event
Story and photos by Stephen Kiltonic
CHICOPEE – On June 6, 1944, Wilfred R. Delude of Chicopee was only 19 years old when he steered a 36-by-11-foot Higgins boat onto France’s Juno Beach, unloading 36 Canadian soldiers in the first wave of the D-Day invasion which began the liberation of Western Europe.
When the soldiers hit the beach, Delude recalled, they were often up to their knees in water and “nine times out of ten, you (the soldiers) don’t make it” because of the machine gun fire and shrapnel that the men faced when the door opened.
Delude witnessed his share of horror during those first few days. “I saw people with no arms, no legs, one with no head,” he said to a crowd of over 150 people at the French Heritage Center’s D-Day commemoration event at Assumption Church hall of Holy Name Parish.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, when allied forces stormed the Normandy, France beaches.
After the initial invasion, Delude spent 45 days ferrying wounded soldiers and German prisoners offshore. He was then transferred to a larger ship that shuttled supplies from Cherbourg when, in August of that year, his ship was torpedoed, killing 22 and injuring 25. Delude was among the injured, sustaining shrapnel in his left leg, which also tore skin from his ankle to the right leg. After he returned home, Delude suffered from post-trauma effects.
“I didn’t go out of my house for two to three years,” he said. “Now, at night I sometimes shake. I yell at night. I can’t stand many crowds. That’s what this stress is all about. There’s a lot I can’t do,” added Delude, who created his own memorial in his front yard to honor his shipmates who died.
Delude’s first-hand account was just part of the afternoon event, which included an opening prayer by Deacon Pete Hebert of St. Anne Parish, Chicopee, and a talk and PowerPoint presentation by James Woolsey, superintendent of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site where 4.5 million M1 rifles were produced during the war years. Woolsey was also the director of visitor services at the Normandy American Cemetery, where 10,000 Americans are buried.
On display and capturing the World War II-era experience were related war items, such as Normandy photos and maps, and other war memorabilia, including model airplanes and a model replica of Delude’s Higgins boat and his medals. Attendees also danced to the World War II-era music provided by the Premier Swing Band.
Marie Proulx Meder, director of the French Heritage Center, said it is important to honor the D-Day vets as well as all World War II vets, including her father who is 94 and a Purple Heart recipient.
“These World War II vets who are left are in their 90s, so this (the 70th) is probably the last major … anniversary that they’ll be able to attend and to be honored. So, it’s very important going forward to maintain and remember what they did – their sacrifices on those five beaches of Normandy – and to continue to honor them,” said Meder.
A proclamation also was read by Chicopee Mayor Richard J. Kos, honoring the World War II veterans and the American and Canadian soldiers of French ancestry who participated in the D-Day invasion.
Meder said the commemoration was held in part to help raise funds to find a permanent home for a French Heritage Center near the Springfield Street historic district in Chicopee, where an Irish Cultural Center (Elms College) and Polish Center (next to the old Holy Name school and church) already exist.
“The French representation is really the only cultural part that is missing from the puzzle, so we’re hopeful to get a least a temporary room or building donated to us so we can have our own space,” added Meder. The mission of the French Heritage Center is to honor, display, preserve and promote the legacy of Franco-Amercans.
Delude said he is still hoping to soon get his own Purple Heart which, because of bureaucratic red tape and his lost service records, he has not received yet. “I’d like it for my grandchildren, but it’s getting late. I’ll be 90 in November.”
Click here for a photo gallery of the April 27 D-Day commemoration: http://www.iobserve.org/index.php?mact=Gallery,m6e73e,default,1&m6e73edir=D-Day-Commemoration-2014%2F&m6e73ereturnid=51&page=51
Watch for more on this event on an upcoming edition of the Springfield Diocese's weekly newsmagazine, "Real to Reel," which airs Saturday evenings at 7 on WWLP-22NEWS.