One American family is invited to a small city in the south of France each year to participate in a Memorial Day ceremony honoring the U.S. servicemen who fought and died in a little-known but very important battle of World War II.
This Memorial Day, May 27, Golden resident Stephen Katz and his brother, Jeffrey Katz, have been invited to that special ceremony at the Rhone-American Cemetery and Memorial in Draguignan, France, where their uncle Jerome is buried.
Often overshadowed by the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, the Allied Forces conducted a second, smaller invasion of south France code named Operation Dragoon, which began Aug. 15.
Stephen Katz confesses that growing up, the brothers had assumed their uncle died at Normandy.
“We just knew he had died during the invasion of France,” Katz said.
Some historic sleuthing by Katz’s younger brother eventually revealed the truth, that Jerome Katz, 19, had died during the first day of Operation Dragoon, somewhere near to the city of Draguignan that is believed to have been the inspiration for the invasion’s code name.
“I’m bringing a plaque from Golden (City Council), recognizing the City of Draguignan for all they have done to honor U.S. servicemen who gave their lives to help liberate France,” Katz said.
The official presentation of the plaque will take place at the May 9 Golden City Council.
Golden Education & Healthy Communities Coordinator Julie Brooks worked on the proclamation and plaque, and said she was surprised by what her research discovered.
“We live in an era where people are used to seeing us bring our soldiers home, one way or another. I think a lot of people would be surprised at how many we still have overseas — about 125,000 war dead buried and another 94,000 on tablets of the missing,” Brooks said.
According to Katz, he first visited the gravesite in 2000, but had never managed to make it to the big Memorial Day celebration.
His wife, Margaret, who was the Collections Conservator for the Colorado School of Mines, was always busy that time of year with thesis paper work.
Katz says the trip will be a bittersweet one. His wife passed away in October of last year due to cancer.
The two met at graduate school while attending Tulane University, where they both were earning degrees in French.
For years, they made annual vacations to France, and eventually joined the group Souvenir Franco-American, which maintains the cemetery in Draguignan, located roughly 20 miles west of Cannes.
“They really do wonderful work, and it’s all to give thanks to the men who gave their lives to liberate their country,” Katz said.
There are 860 American graves at the Draguignan cemetery, most marked by crosses, interspersed with the Star of David for Jewish soldiers, like the one marking the final resting place of Jerome Katz.
Jerome had been part of the Army infantry that had “slogged his way up the beach,” according to Katz.
“We’re not exactly sure where he was killed, but it was the first day, that much we know,” Katz said.
Katz’s father also served in the Army in World War II. He was part of an armored division that fought under General Patton. Katz said his father did not speak very much about the war. Jerome died two years before Katz was born, and his father died when he was a young man, making the pilgrimage to the gravesite a way of reconnecting to the past, he said.
“It does help to feel closer to my uncle, and also my father,” he said.