I remember that day like it was yesterday -- Saturday, October 14th, 1961, the day after my 18th birthday. On that day, life came crashing down around me as many of the things I thought to be absolutely true in my life, were suddenly revealed as untrue.
Our family lived in the north end of Seattle, in a nice 3-bedroom, L-shaped rambler, circa 1955. We built it ourselves on a lot that cost us $500.00. It wasn't exactly Leave it to Beaver, but it was pretty close.
That morning, my mom awoke me as she did most mornings. She "had something important to tell me," and she wanted me to "get dressed and come out to the front room." My dad was already off to work, so it was just mom and me at home.
After breakfast, as the sun shone through the big windows in the front room, my mom's words changed my life forever. After some hesitation, the words just began to spill out of her. . . .
"Bill, your dad is not your real dad; he is your stepdad. Your real dad's name is Bill Cuthbert, and you are named after him. He was killed in the Second World War. He was a navigator on a B-24 bomber and his plane was shot down over France on April 20th, 1944, when you were just about six months old. He is buried in the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. Then your stepdad and I met in late 1945 and were married in 1946. That same year, he adopted you and we made a commitment together to raise you as our son."
Her words hit me like a ton of bricks.
Initially I was sort of mad, that my mom would keep this information from me all these years. But then, as I began to reflect on it all, I began to realize what an amazing thing my stepdad had done.
And I began to truly understand, perhaps for the first time, his reactions to many of my shenanigans, both in and out of school, as I was growing up. Even though he was a tough guy who had worked a lot of construction and hard labor over the years, he was always sort of a softie with me.
My mom was the tough one who dealt out the punishment, while my dad was always the one who caved first and gave me a second chance. I immediately remembered one time in high school when I had pulled a scam on my 4th and 6th period teachers. I created a leisurely 2-½ hour lunch break for myself each day so I could cruise down to Lincoln and Roosevelt High Schools, where I perceived the girls to be much cuter than the Shoreline girls. After two months of midday fun and games I got caught by school officials and was summarily thrown out of school for three days.
As I rehashed the story to my dad that night after dinner, I thought surely he would take away my car and put me on restriction for the rest of my life. Instead, he began to cry uncontrollably.
I was crushed, crushed beyond belief, that something I did would make this mountain of a man cry. Clearly what I had done was not as funny and cute as I had previously thought, and I cleaned up my act immediately.
So, while I had many, many, many questions about my natural father, out of respect for this man who had raised me as his own, I decided to let sleeping dogs lie. I would deal with the details at some later date. This man taught me everything I knew, and I loved him to death.
Who was I to second guess my mom on why she had kept this secret all these years? I knew she didn’t do it out of meanness, and I never wanted to demean anything my stepdad had done by going on some belated hunt to learn more about my birth dad. Until my stepdad died a few years ago, I left it alone out of respect for him.
For the past 46 years, I quietly dreamed of paying my respects to the man who game me life. He saw a few pictures of me, but never held me in his arms, or watched me take my first steps, or tossed a ball with me, or had to deal with what a screw-up I was in high school.
As all of us pass through this life, we have those seminal moments that rock our world: the birth of our kids and grandkids; a marriage; a major career event; a catastrophe like September 11th; or in my case, a life-altering conversation with my mom on my 18th birthday.
Lately, the desire to learn more about my dad and to pay my respects to him had become more than I could bear. It was time for us to meet.
A few months ago, I had an experience that literally took my breath away and brought uncontrollable tears to my eyes.
After 64 years, 4 months and 14 days, I finally had a chance to honor a man I never met, my birth dad, Bill Cuthbert. His final resting place is Plot D, Row 14, Grave 42, at the American Cemetery at Normandy, located just above historic Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.
My dear friend Dave and I took a long pilgrimage through the lovely French countryside, past quaint farm houses, cute little villages, and some pretty remarkable historic sites that put a knot in my gut that will remain there forever. To a spot that the word "beautiful" does not even begin to describe.
The American Cemetery at Normandy is comprised of 172.5 acres just above the famous Utah and Omaha Beaches. There are 9,387 headstones located there including:
9,238 Latin crosses,
149 Stars of David,
3 Medal of Honor crosses,
38 sets of brothers,
the cross of Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.,
and a cross with my dad's name on it:
William B. Cuthbert, Second Lieutenant
U.S. Army Air Forces
713th Bomber Squadron, 448th Bomber Group
Awards: Air Medal / Purple Heart
Died April 20, 1944
The cemetery grounds were given to America in perpetuity by a grateful French government. They include a white marble reception building, several gorgeous and majestic statues, a small lovely chapel and an infinity reflecting pool that flows out into the grounds.
The grass and shrubs are so well-manicured, you would think the head groundskeeper at Pebble Beach cares for them. When a leaf drops off of a tree there, it almost doesn't have a chance to hit the ground before an attendant plucks it out of the sky and takes it away.
The whole place is spotless, as it should be.
The white marble crosses which stretch across the grounds are perfectly placed so that from any angle -- north, south, east or west -- they form perfect lines, as if the brave fighting men who reside there will be in formation forever.
I introduced myself at the reception desk, and told them I was there to finally meet my dad.
We could not have been treated better if I had been the head of state of our great nation. In just a few minutes, I was presented with an information packet and computer details on my dad’s service record. Then a personal French tour guide, who could not have been more caring, whisked us away to my dad's grave in a private golf cart. She carried along a small bucket of wet sand from Omaha Beach, which was rubbed on the carved-out letters on the snow-white marble cross so that the letters would show up better in a photograph.
My dad’s grave is located just 4 crosses from the end of one of the long white rows, only a few hundred yards from the surf rolling in on Omaha Beach below. And a few miles from England across the cold, windy English Channel.
When you stand there watching the tourists walking the beaches below, you can close your eyes and almost see those thousands of ships on the horizon, the landing craft opening their doors, and those tens of thousands of brave fighting men coming ashore to help free the French people and the rest of Western Europe.
Many of them would never come back, including my dad, Bill Cuthbert. His marble cross lies only a few yards from Medal of Honor winner Teddy Roosevelt Jr., whose heroic fight with senior officers to go ashore with his men at Normandy ended up costing him his life a few weeks later.
Once she delivered us to the grave, the hostess quietly disappeared so that we could be alone. Although it was raining when we were there, that was the least of the water that hit the ground that day. Dave and I were overcome with uncontrollable emotion -- and not just from being at my dad’s grave.
As you gaze across those 9,387 crosses, you realize just how lucky we are to live in this country, and how much we as a nation have given up to keep the world free from madmen like Adolph Hitler. I can tell you that the Pledge of Allegiance will forever have new meaning to this grateful and proud US citizen.
I was born October 13th, 1943 in Missoula, Montana. Just 190 days later, on April 20th, 1944, my dad’s plane was shot down over France as he and tens of thousands more brave Americans, Brits and Canadians rained terror on the Third Reich. Although he received letters and pictures of me from my mom back in Montana, we never met. . . until now.
Thanks to relatives, including my dad’s only surviving sister Cora Mae, his brother’s widow Betty, and some wonderful cousins, Jill, Connie, Carol, Cathy and Cindy, I have come to know my dad a little bit through letters and mementos they have kept in safe-keeping for all these years.
When I read these letters, most of which were written over 65 years ago, I was first struck by how long they are. Today, we seem to be happy with a quick paragraph via e-mail, but in those days they wrote long, lovely letters. Some are 6-10 pages in length. And they expressed feelings that we rarely see in correspondence today.
Maybe it was the times, but my dad and his brother expressed their love for each other in a way we don’t often see today. And that love, which is so obvious when you read it, gives me insight into who my dad really was. He was kind, he loved my mom, he loved his family and he was brave beyond belief. And he desperately wanted to come home and meet his infant son, who grew up to be 6'8" tall, a full three inches taller than his dad.
I was so moved by this day that it will live in my heart as long as I live on this earth, and hopefully, beyond. I hope my dad is 1/100th as proud of me as I am of him. I am reminded of the scene at the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan, when Ryan, old and retired, comes to the cemetery with his entire family and asks his wife "Tell me I’ve been a good man, tell me I have lived a good life."
I sincerely hope my dad thinks I am a good man and that I have done him proud. I loved and admired Bob Knudsen, who adopted me in 1946 at the age of 3 and raised me as his own, but I will forever wonder what my life would have been if the man in Plot D, Row 14, Grave 42 at the American Cemetery at Normandy had lived.
[Ed. Note: After a shorter version of this piece was published by the Seattle Times, Mr. Knudsen received a remarkable phone call expressing the gratitude of a Dutch couple liberated from Nazi concentration camps by men from the 101st Airborne, who came ashore on D-Day along with his father. Please click on the link to read their message.]
Mr. Knudsen continued to receive calls and e-mails after his story appeared in the Seattle Times, including one that solved a 65-year mystery for Knudsen's family. Miraculously, a French policeman contacted him with records that tell the story of the shootdown of Cuthbert's aircraft and the fate of its crew. At last, Bill Knudsen finally learned where and how his father, Bill Cuthbert, died for the liberation of France.
For more information on the American Cemetery at Normandy, or other American cemeteries around the world, go to www.abmc.gov. There are 28 U.S. military cemeteries around the world (14 in France alone), that serve as resting places for almost 125,000 American war dead.
Thanks to the American Battle Monuments Commission, those brave men and women will never be forgotten. If you ever have the privilege of visiting this holy place, I would encourage you to do so. I feel certain it will change your life forever, as it did mine. (This is the cemetery that you may have seen in the movie Saving Private Ryan.)
Bill Knudsen has lived in the Pacific NW since 1946, where he raised his four children. He spent his entire career in sales and marketing in broadcasting and is a former Vice President for Marketing & Sales for the Seattle Mariners Baseball Club. He resides in Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle. This was his first trip to Europe.
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