“The War Is Over”
There aren’t many people who can say they heard those words, before the rest of the world. But one of our North Texas D-Day veterans on our trip did. As we rolled out of Bastogne, Belgium this morning, we traveled south toward Normandy. Two hours in, we stop in the town of Rheims, France – a busy mid-sized city. Shops; restaurants; it feels vibrant. Modern. It’s a busy lunch-time along the city’s main drag, with outdoor restaurants bustling with tourists and locals.
History, is not the first thing you feel when you roll into town. As we roll down the streets, I have a smile on my face. I know something they don’t. He’s on the bus. A man who walked this town long before most any of those I look at through the window. He’s no more important in their lives today, than he was then. But his connection to this town is something that allowed each and everyone of them, to sit in this beaming sun today, at an outdoor café, order what they want, say what they want to say.
He, of course, didn’t single-handily save the town, but was part of the team that did. And what I know, and they don’t, is that he was among the very first in the entire world to hear that the war in Europe was over – hours before anyone else – and it happened not far from where they sat.
Rowlett resident Ormand Knowles was on guard duty at the downtown rail yard. Nothing really happened at night. Trains were idle. He just walked the platform, back and forth, rifle at the ready. Across the street, was the school, which had been commandeered by U.S. forces, and turned into Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters.
At night, it was always dark inside. Lights at night in any U.S. occupied building (let alone the Allied Supreme Commander’s), was an open invitation for German bombers. But on this night, in early May, of 45’ Ormand watched as the lights suddenly went on in Ike’s building. Not one, but a lot of them. “Why is the light on” he wondered. His fellow guards chimed in. “Something’s going on.” How right they were. Not much later, word had filtered from inside, to the men just beyond the door. The war in Europe was over. Mr. Knowles now had a secret, which by the next day, would be shared with the world. The United States and its Allied forces had forced the German Army – and Hitler’s regime – into surrender. And it all happened just a few feet from where he was standing. He had an unexpected front-row seat to history.
Today, for the first time since that night, he was back. The building still stands, as it did in 1945. It is still a school in fact, and to this day, in one room (the same one where the surrender was sealed) sits the desk where it all happened. Ormand had never seen the desk. He’d never once been inside, until now.
And what happened next, brought tears to the eyes of a few in the room. A group of French students, on a field trip, walked in. It was explained to the teacher who Ormand Knowles was, and his link to this room, that desk, and ultimately, their own freedom. When it was translated to the children, who were all around 10 years old, you would have thought an original Beatle had walked through the door. Mr. Knowles was immediately mobbed, by 30-40 French children all saying “merci, merci”, thank you, thank you. They pushed forward with pens and papers in hand asking for an autograph. Ormand could not move under the crush, save for his arm and hand to sign. He had a smile from ear to ear. It was one of the most moving sights I’ve seen in all my years. The children all knew the history. They are ever aware of why they are free today.
A few years from now, those kids might not remember this. The signature they got from this American hero might get lost along the way. But I guarantee you one thing. This moment is one that Ormand Knowles will never, ever, forget.
Follow along with Doug Dunbar on his Return To D-Day series on CBS 11 and online at CBSDFW.COM
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