By Mark Ambrogi
Carver McGriff was a 19-year-old U.S. Army private when he landed on Utah Beach in Normandy on June 9, 1944. Now, 70-plus years later, the Zionsville resident is still drawn to the French region.
McGriff, who turns 92 Sept. 5, wrote the book “Making Sense of Normandy: A Young Man’s Journey of Faith and War” in 2007.
At the invitation of the son of the founder of the Utah Beach Museum, McGriff gave a speech for World War II veterans at the D-Day Ceremony on Utah Beach June 6. He also leads annual Normandy tours, mostly with members from St. Luke’s United Methodist Church and their friends. The next week-long tour is set for August. McGriff, an active minister for 33 years, retired in 1993 after being the St. Luke’s pastor for 26 years.
When he first returned to Normandy, he called it a powerful moment.
“I could see, in my mind’s eye, a bunch of teenagers walking in from the water,” he said. “Now, when I return, I reflect that those teenagers are either deceased or incredibly old, and I privately celebrate what we did there. So much was gained, but so, too, so much was lost. We also couple the visit to Utah, in our mind’s eyes, with the one at Omaha (Beach), where more than 9,000 kids are buried.”
McGriff always reflects on those soldiers who didn’t make it home.
“I think how many wonderful marriages never took place, how many beautiful children who might have one day cured cancer, or worked for justice, or designed great buildings, or been celebrated educators, were never born because those future husbands and fathers, instead, paid with their lives so I could stand there,” McGriff said.
The Indianapolis native said it was an honor to be part of what happened in Normandy. After being wounded, McGriff was captured by the Germans July 7, 1944. He was given medical treatment and was rescued by an American unit nearly one month later on Aug. 4. He recuperated in a hospital in England and did not return to battle.
“I guess we lead these tours so some of the next generation will know what their granddads did for them,” he said. “And being a father, I also reflect on the sum total of grief suffered by the mothers and dads of all the kids who died there so today’s generation can demonstrate and speak out for their beliefs without fear of punishment.”
When he goes back with a tour, McGriff goes to the cemetery where U.S. soldiers are buried. He asks tour members to choose a grave and say a prayer for the soldier who lost his life.
“This boy, probably no one remembers him now,” McGriff said. “I ask them to say a prayer for his eternal soul.”
The group then goes to a German cemetery five minutes away and the process is complete.
McGriff had a daughter with his first wife, who died in a car accident more than 40 years ago. He and Marianne have been married 28 years. Her daughter, Sarah, went to Germany to start a school, married a German man and has two children and lives there.
“When I speak, I point out that the people I was trying to kill in 1944 are now my friends and my loved ones,” McGriff said. “All the people we hated and wanted to kill 70 years ago, the Japanese, the Italians and the Germans, are our friends. Maybe someday the people we are fighting today will be our friends. Probably won’t happen, but it would be a blessing if did.”
McGriff frequently points out how special it is that his wife, Marianne, speaks fluent French, helping him in his frequent trips. Marianne lived in France for a spell while in college.
“Accompanying Carver on trips to Normandy has been a special privilege to share this memorable experience in our country’s history with someone dear to me that actually lived this very historical event,” Marianne said.
This August will be their sixth tour.
“We’ve been blessed to come back and take family and friends at least an additional six times,” Marianne said. “Each time continues to impact me at a deep emotional level. I don’t think either one of us ever anticipated it to go beyond the first one. Now, we both believe that God has called us to this ministry. Our focus is helping others remember and understand the sacrifices that were made so that we might enjoy the freedoms we do, as well as continue to build our relationships with the French people.”