How a Frenchman became a GI on Omaha beach in WW2

'All he could think about was getting safely to his mother, terrified that he might die so close to home'

Bernard on a visit to a memorial at Omaha beach

A young Frenchman who travelled to the US before the outbreak of World War Two returned home as an American GI, desperate to check that his mother was safe. This is his story.

Bernard Dargols left Paris in 1938, aged just 18, to spend a year in New York learning the textile trade so he could one day take over his father’s business. 

He could not have foreseen that a world war would prevent him returning to France for another six years. 

When he did go back, it was as a soldier in the Battle of Normandy, on June 8, 1944, as part of the US infantry. 

For decades, Bernard would not talk about his experiences, and his family learned never to raise the subject. 

“He never spoke about the war when we were growing up,” explained his granddaughter, Caroline Jolivet. 

Saving Private Ryan

“The only time he had ever mentioned it to me was in 1998 when we went to see the film Saving Private Ryan.

“I was sitting between my grandparents, who cried through the whole thing, and at the end my grandfather said that it was the first time he had ever seen anything that really showed what he had lived through.

“Then he said, ‘Let’s eat!’ and that was it. He liked to joke a lot and he liked to eat! He didn’t like to dwell on the past. He was always optimistic and full of joy.”

In 2005, Caroline travelled to New York with her grandparents and one of their friends asked him to talk about his experiences in the war.

“It was a total shock,” she said, “as no one in the family had ever raised the issue.

“Suddenly, he started to open up and I heard his story for the first time. I remember trying to capture it on video, wanting to understand what he’d lived through. After that, we talked more and I got to read the hundreds of letters that he and his mother had exchanged during the war.”

Army enlisting

Caroline learned that her grandfather had been horrified when war broke out while he was still in New York.

He had tried to join the Free French and even went to the British Consulate, but everyone told him he should wait to be called up.

He founded an association in New York for French people looking to support their relatives so far away, and one of the first members was his future wife, whose family was also stranded in America. 

Frustrated and unable to get back to his homeland, Bernard had no choice but to stay put. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Americans joined the war and he subsequently enlisted in the US Army, training in Camp Croft and Camp Ritchie.

He gained dual nationality and was told that, being bilingual, he would be assigned to gather information from the French about enemy movements and potential attacks.

“He became part of the Second Division Infantry,” explained Caroline, “finishing his training in Wales, desperate to get back to his family in France.

Six-year journey

“Finally, he was sent across the Channel with so many other men, as part of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.

“Due to the tides, his vessel was forced to wait, finally landing on Omaha Beach two days after the first troops on June 8, 1944. He later wondered if this delay had saved his life.” 

When he set foot on French soil, it hit home that he was finally back after six years.

“All he could think about was getting safely to his mother, and one of his greatest fears was that he might die so close to home.

“Those were the scariest times for him, aged 24. It was a huge responsibility, not knowing if the Germans were still around, clearing the way for the rest of his division.”

The liberator

As a French-speaker, Bernard had to lead the way into the villages and speak to the locals to find out if there were any Germans still hiding nearby, any mines or potential attacks to be aware of, and also to get information on fuel depots and ammunition. 

“How emotional that was for me,” he remembered years later, “to hear French again, to be hugged by people so much older than me who were calling me their liberator.”

The locals were stunned to greet a US soldier speaking with a Parisian accent, driving a Jeep stencilled with the name La Bastille.

In those harrowing days after D-Day, Bernard developed an immediate and lifelong connection with the people of Normandy, making his way through its villages and gathering intelligence.

Read more: Thanks! Volunteers found to help D-Day knitted soldiers reach France 

Emotional reunion

On July 1, 1944, a photo of a Normandy farmer with him and other GIs was published on the front page of a US newspaper to demonstrate the good relations between the French and Americans. This was how his future wife discovered that Mr Dargols was in France and that he was safe.

“Months later, my grandfather was sent on a mission to the Counter Intelligence Corps in Paris, and this meant he could finally return to his home,” explained Caroline.

“It was a highly emotional reunion with his mother, after so many years apart.

“My grandfather always said that at least he was making his way through France drawn towards his loved ones. He always thought the other US soldiers were incredibly brave, to be in this foreign country so far from their loved ones.” 

After he had finally shared his memories with his granddaughter, Bernard became a spokesperson for all those who had fought beside him and the millions of others who lost their lives in World War Two.

Read more:  British D-Day veteran Bill: I want to honour fallen comrades in France

Lest we forget

A street is named after him in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer (Calvados), leading from Omaha Beach to the village centre: the first street he walked down on his return to France.

He was frequently invited back to Normandy and further afield to share his story as a veteran, but always maintained an optimistic, joyous outlook on life.

“My grandfather agreed to talk about these events because he was desperate to ensure people understood this was not a movie, this was a reality,” said Caroline.

“He would urge people to be vigilant wherever there is racism, judgement or division, because those are the first steps towards the nightmare.

“Our democracy might not be perfect but it is far better than any dictatorship. He had seen the alternative. He was a passionate advocate for peace, saying that we take it for granted but that it is such a fragile thing. We must protect it and do all we can to keep it.” 

In an interview with Le Parisien before he died in 2019, Bernard observed: “I thought we'd never hear another word about dictatorships or Nazis. But that's human nature. The further away we are from the war, the more we forget.”

Find out more:

A French GI at Omaha Beach by Caroline Jolivet (2018) is available in English on Kindle and as a paperback, reliving Bernard’s experiences through interviews and his letters home. Meanwhile, the website includes Bernard’s history and several video interviews.