On Sunday, September 3, 2017, I was with a tour group visiting the Rhone American Military Cemetery in Draguignan, France. Mr. Dwight (Andy) Anderson, the Cemetery Superintendent and Representative of the American Battle Monuments Commission (AMBC), welcomed us and led us on a thought-provoking and moving tour. Because of my work with the American Indian community (I am currently the senior advisor to the planned Native American Veterans Memorial on the Mall in DC), I asked Mr. Anderson if he knew of any American Indians buried in this cemetery. Indeed, there was one and before we reboarded the bus, Mr. Anderson took us to the gravesite of Pvt. Andrew Perry, a Choctaw code talker from Oklahoma who was killed in Southern France on August 20, 1944 during the continued conflicts related to the D Day Invasion. In the ensuing discussion, Mr. Anderson asked me if I might help obtain a picture of Pvt. Perry. A goal of the cemetery is to have a photograph of each internee, but unfortunately it lacked one of Pvt. Perry.
Upon our return to the United States, I contacted the Veterans Office of the Choctaw Tribe in Oklahoma and asked if anyone could put him in touch with a member of Andrew Perry’s family. I received the phone number for Pvt. Perry’s niece, who was delighted to send her uncle’s picture to Mr. Anderson. This contact resulted in a remarkable and unexpected sequence of events.
The people of Draguignan, as do most French citizens, remain deeply grateful for the ultimate sacrifice that so many American military personnel made in the liberation of France during World War II. An example of this gratitude is the Souvenir Franco-American (SFA) or Franco American Society that was founded in Draguignan on August 16, 1968. Each Memorial Day since its founding, the Society, in partnership with the Mayor of Draguignan, honors the memory of American service members who are buried in the Rhone American Cemetery by inviting and hosting two family members of one of the fallen Americans. In a grand ceremony that features French and American military personnel, including honor guards and musicians, the Mayor of Draguignan, along with members of the Franco American Society and a variety of civic and military leaders pay homage to the fallen Americans. The designated service member and invited family members are singled out for recognition during the colorful and meaningful Memorial Day ceremonies.
As a direct result of our visit to the cemetery and the question that was asked, Ms. Debbie Cheshewalla, niece of Sgt. Andrew Perry, and her Osage cousin, Mr. Chad Renfro, were the guests of honor at this year’s Memorial Day Ceremony. Because we had initiated the contact, my wife and I were invited—and honored— to participate in the stirring commemoration that took place on Sunday, May 27, 2018 as well as in several other events that occurred over the course of several days.
One of the memorable events was a reception at La Mairie (The Town Hall) where Draguignan Mayor Richard Strambio welcomed the guest of honor, Ms. Cheshewalla, and her cousin Mr. Renfro. Also in attendance was a group of junior high school students who made a special presentation to Ms. Cheshewalla–a large (approximately 3’x 3’) poster that they had created featuring various highlights in Pvt. Perry’s life. Images included his photograph, a Choctaw Code Talker commemorative medal, a Totem Pole, an American tank, and the Rhone Cemetery featuring the U.S. flag flying above the chapel.
None of us will ever forget the warmth, the generosity, and the kindness everyone expressed for us and the memory of Andrew Perry whose spirit still lives as a result of this remarkable moment. Indians believe departed loved ones never die as long as their memories are kept alive.
All this occurred from one simple question: Are there any American Indians buried here?