by Sonya Fry
Chateau Vouilly has loomed large in my mind ever since OPC member John Morris and I worked together to present several events, most notably introducing his book Quelque Part en France in Bayeux, Normandy. The book records in photographs the devastating aftermath of Nazi occupation. My son, James, is an avid reader of World War II history, so a trip to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day this past June was important to both of us.
Chateau Vouilly became the press headquarters during the D-Day landings and subsequent military operations. I had met the owner of the chateau, James Hamel, at John Morris’ funeral and he invited me to stay there anytime I planned a trip to Normandy. Unfortunately, Vouilly was totally booked for the 75th anniversary, but Hamel did invite my son and myself to see the press room. We had a full briefing on all the pictures of Ernest Hemingway, Walter Cronkite, Ernie Pyle, Bill Walton and Andy Rooney among the war correspondents, as well as maps of Allied military progress with hand-marked notations.
The surprise came when we were entering the chateau and saw a plaque on the outside wall that had been placed there by the Overseas Press Club on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994. I had never seen or heard of this plaque and I was the manager or executive director of the club for 20 years, starting in the summer of 1994. Getting busy on emails, I asked Bill Holstein if he remembered the plaque.
Flashing back 25 years, Bill was about to become president and Larry Smith was ending his two-year term. Bill had organized a 50th anniversary of D-Day event on May 26, 1994 featuring Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, Bill Walton and John Thompson. All four had been in the European theater on D-Day but John Thompson was the only one actually on Omaha Beach. He went in with the first wave of troops trying to land and miraculously survived.
Bill obviously remembered organizing the event, but he did not remember any plaque. He asked Larry, who also didn’t remember it. It was a moment of transition in leadership and a moment of transition on the OPC staffing side as well. I helped check guests in that day in May but the late Mary Novick, my predecessor, was still club manager. So I wasn’t involved in creating any plaque either, and Mary is no longer around. Nor are any of the correspondents.
Photos courtesy of Sonya Fry.
It was Jane Ciabattari, a board member at the time now living in California, who solved the mystery by digging out an old clip on the 50th anniversary event. That prompted Bill to dust off his old files. It turns out that Bill had ordered the plaque and he and Larry presented it to the correspondents that day. The correspondents were getting on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to sail to Normandy for the actual anniversary on June 6. They were charged with affixing the plaque to the chateau and did so. The OPC Bulletin had also published stories about the event.
If you look at the chateau’s website, the OPC plaque is prominently displayed. It was a surprising and proud moment to see the OPC at the forefront of an historic event.