Julie Pennell at Mont St Michel

I recently got a very special package in the mail from my dad’s cousin Edith. It was a copy of my Great Aunt’s Polly’s diary from when she was an army nurse in World War II. I sat down one rainy afternoon and read the entire thing in one sitting. I felt like I was meeting my soul sister/ spirit animal/ whatever you want to call it through her writing and given a unique and personalized glimpse of history, always more exciting than reading about it in a textbook.

The timing couldn’t have been any more perfect either–Christopher and I were headed to Normandy with his parents so it would be even more impactful for me to walk where she walked and see the things she talked about. Well, we just got back from our trip, and I thought I’d rather have her words describe where we were, even though the images show a much different time:

“We stopped moving before daylight, after which we eased into our position among the thousands of ships standing off shore. Multiply the largest and most varied regatta you have ever seen by many times and you will have a fair picture of that water off the Normandy Beach. There was much wreckage. The bit of beach we could see was littered with it.”

Omaha Beach, Normandy
Omaha Beach, present day

“By the middle of the next day most of our wards were full and the business of repair well established. I walked through a ward and was appalled at the complete and thorough mangling. It shocks one’s faith in humanity to see such destruction, and to realize that it is the result of brilliant, creative minds.”

Medical kit from World War II, Normandy, France
A collection of medical tools used in WWII seen at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église
blood-stained pew at World War II church
The Angoville au Plain Church was used as a makeshift hospital. Blood stains still remain on the pews as a reminder.

“We were having to patch the tents which were torn by flak. That peninsula positively bristled with anti-aircraft guns and they put on a show for us every night. We usually stayed outside the tents and watched during an attack. For some reason the noise sounds so much closer than the tracers looked, so it was considerably easier on the nerves to watch.”

World War II medical tents in Normandy
Photo of medical tents at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église

“We passed great dumps of wreckage, our own as well as enemy vehicles. We saw many glider frames and other wrecked planes…. The size of the guns and the number of them were most impressive…. It was a menacing sight.”

World War II German bunker in Normandy France
Standing in front of a German bunker, present day

“On another day we had a delightful trip to the jewel-like town of Mont St. Michel. The tide was out, leaving exposed the piles and blocks placed at regular and close intervals in the sand to prevent landings. The town was unscarred, showing no signs of having been occupied except for the cathedral, which was quite bare and without its stained windows.”

Standing in front of Mont St. Michel, present day

“We were permitted to go into Paris for the day. I went in on 4 September, just one week after its liberation. The people of Paris were still celebrating. Such joyous faces on the Parisians! There was much hand shaking and kissing of the Americans. Vive la France!”

American Cemetary in Normandy, France
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, present day

This was one of those trips that will have a lasting impact on me forever. There is a quote inscribed on the wall of the chapel at the American Cemetery that reads, “Think not only upon their passing, Remember the glory of their spirit.” I never got to meet Aunt Polly, but I feel like I know her through her writing. And while I’ll never truly know or understand exactly what she went through in the war, I feel a lot closer to her now.

Olive "Polly" DeVilbiss Diamond, World War II nurse
Olive “Polly” DeVilbiss Diamond 1909-1978

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