Pilgrimage to France, Normandy covers sacred ground

Gloria and Preston Cifreo of St. Benilde Parish in Metairie located the final resting place of 2nd Lt. Samuel H.P. Wright of New Orleans, a combat engineer who died on June 22, 1944, in a rocket attack at St. Lo – 16 days after D-Day.

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Story and Photos By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

Gazing out at Normandy’s Omaha Beach at low tide early in the morning of June 19 – 75 years after its sands oozed red with the shared sacrifice of American soldiers embarking on a mission to liberate Europe – I had a flashback to a college psychology course I took that discussed the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when what you believe to be true does not correspond with what you actually see or hear.

Two weeks ago, Omaha Beach was gray and windy and just a little chilly, but it was a serene oasis, something you’d expect on a silent retreat or walking seaside along the 18th fairway at St. Andrews. The only sound was the wind whistling off the water.

And then, to educate Clarion Herald pilgrims making a tour of the Catholic shrines of France and the beaches of Normandy, New Orleans WWII historian Ron Drez Sr. pointed left and then right to the horizon. At each end of Omaha Beach, almost invisible hundreds of yards away, were German bunkers buried inside cliffs. The bunkers were positioned not to fire straight out toward the water against an advancing enemy but instead to strafe the beach horizontally from each end.

Up and down, side to side.

A ‘killing field’

For the first waves of American soldiers struggling ashore at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, the deadly rounds came from left field and from right field. It was, quite literally, “a killing field,” Drez said.

The soldiers’ “run-in” to the beach head from the New Orleans-built Higgins boats was more than a leisurely hike, Drez said, and “to see these (German) positions – they didn’t have a chance.” 

Somehow, the Allied forces reversed those odds, but not before losing thousands of young soldiers. Not far from Omaha – on high ground – nearly 10,000 American soldiers killed during the six-week D-Day campaign are buried in the Normandy American Cemetery.

One of the most poignant moments of our 13-day pilgrimage came there. Gloria and Preston Cifreo of St. Benilde Parish in Metairie located the final resting place of 2nd Lt. Samuel H.P. Wright of New Orleans, a combat engineer who died on June 22, 1944, in a rocket attack at St. Lo – 16 days after D-Day.

Wright was the father of Deacon Clifford Wright, who now serves as a permanent deacon at St. Benilde and is an accounting and business professor at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Wright’s father’s grave was located by Drez’s wife Judy. Earlier in the day, Drez had scooped up three handfuls of sand from Omaha Beach, and with her right hand, Gloria Cifreo rubbed the grains of sand into Wright’s name etched into the white-marble cross above his grave. The sand made the inscription pop out from the marble.

Deacon Wright, 76, was born in March 1943. His father left for service in England in August 1943.

In late June 1944, Deacon Wright’s mother received notice by military messenger of her husband’s death in Normandy, and Deacon Wright and his mother lived with her parents for 10 years until she remarried.

“My mother loved my father very much,” Deacon Wright said, noting that they had known each other since grammar school. “It took years for her to recover.”

A WWI parallel

One of the ironies of Deacon Wright’s family tree is that Samuel Wright also was an only surviving son – his father had been killed in WWI.

Deacon Wright visited his father’s gravesite several years ago after his daughter Erin had visited. Erin died in 2004 from Wilson’s disease. After that visit, Deacon Wright began sending flowers to the grave on the anniversary of his father’s death.

“Cliff is kind of a stoic guy – he doesn’t show a lot of emotion – but I think he was overwhelmed (by his visit),” Preston Cifreo said. “He felt a lot of peace when he visited his dad’s grave.”

Samuel Wright, who was born in Jamaica in 1919, graduated from LaSalle Elementary School and Fortier High School and worked in the air-conditioning business in New Orleans. He joined the Navy reserve after high school but was asked to leave because he was not an American citizen.

He then changed his name (from his birth name of Parsons) to Wright and became an American citizen.

Samuel H.P. Wright fought, and died, where we strolled 75 years later. It was quiet.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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