Sylvester embraces a man he met who served in the French Resistance. Photo provided by Kim Sylvester.

Picture of Raymond Sylvester provided by Kim Sylvester

 

HEBRON — When World War II veteran Raymond Sylvester and his family first visited France, Belgium, and Germany  in 2008, it was like Brad Pitt  had rolled through town.

“They see it as their chance. A lot of the young people will see a veteran and ask, can I have a picture with you? Can I have an autograph? Then, they go back, and have it developed that day and ask if they [the veteran] can autograph the picture,” said Sylvester’s daughter, Kim Sylvester.

Putting gas in the car could easily turn into a two hour ordeal once Sylvester was recognized as a veteran by a local. While he sat in miles of traffic on the way to ceremonies, traffic cops would spot him wearing his military uniform in the passengers seat and give him a private police escort.

When he was in the front seat with his hat and his Eisenhower jacket, we’d roll the windows down and there would be five miles of traffic, bumper to bumper, going to a ceremony. There would be a policeman, and he’d look in the car, see my dad, and a police escort with motorcycles would go everywhere we went,” said daughter Elizabeth Campbell, of Hebron.

“I was amazed at the appreciation  these people had for my grandfather. He was like a celebrity, for all ages. People coming up to my grandfather, and just giving … hugs, tears are just flowing,” said Sylvester’s grandson,  Randy Campbell.

Sylvester grew up in Durham and served in the the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion; in the first army with General Patton, Sylvester was a part of the Battle of the Bulge and helped to liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp. According to his family, while they were growing up, Sylvester never talked about the war, but started to later in his life.

After the death of his wife, who was a nurse in Italy during World War II, Sylvester was despondent. His children and grandchildren knew that he needed something to look forward to, and proposed the first trip to Normandy in 2008.

Sylvester loved it. He had a chance to meet new friends, even cultivating a relationship with a former French Resistance Solider and General Patton’s granddaughter. Until Sylvester passed in 2016, some variation of his children and grandchildren would join him on his trip back to the front-lines.

According to Elizabeth Campbell the celebrations in Normandy put American celebrations to shame.

“It was like the Fourth of July, 24 hours a day, for at least 10 days to two weeks,” said Campbell.  During the ceremonies, Europeans dress in military uniforms, including Americans ones, and reenact battles, rolling out military equipment and tanks left-over from the war.

Every step of the trip, the family met Europeans, many reduced to tears, overwhelmed by the sacrifice of the American soldiers. And one mantra that kept repeating when they would meet another friendly face: “we will never forget the sacrifice of the Americans.”

“The first week we were there, I said to my sister, I didn’t think I was going to come here and cry everyday, it’s so emotional,” said Elizabeth.

At Utah Beach, the western most landing Area of D-Day, Sylvester was presented the medal of honor from France in 2014.

Sylvester passed away in 2016, and the family said it was difficult to go to France without him. But this year’s trip is special; Randy’s daughter, Ashley Campbell, will attend.

Ashley, a freshman at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, will turn 15 on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day.

Ashley said she’s excited to travel and honor her great-grandfather’s legacy. This trip will mark her first time she’s traveled outside of the country.

Two weeks before Sylvester passed away, Ashley did a seventh grade project on his life titled “My Hero.”

“When I did the project we went to his house, and I asked him a couple questions about the war he was in, who he was with, and how it affected him,” she said. “He’s really important to me.”

The Campbell’s and the Sylvester’s think everyone should get a chance to go to Normandy and France and witness the side of the war not often seen in the U.S.

“I think everyone, military or not, American’s should go over there. The amount of American flags you see over there compared to this country? I’ve never seen so many. The fireworks, they beat Disney,” said Elizabeth.

And, according to his family, there were a few things Raymond Sylvester would say about the War. The first? Freedom is not free.

The next? He had a job to do, and he did it.

“He said they had a job to do, they were trained to do it, and they knew they had to do it to get back home,” said Elizabeth.

Read more about the history of the 86 Chemical Mortar Battalion here: 

http://www.86thchemical.us/Site/Home.html