The Story Of The Father According To The Son

When Dr. Sidney LaPook started talking about World War II, our medical correspondent, Dr. Jon LaPook, started listening — and digging for more. This is his backstory.

(CBS)
My 88-year-old father enlisted in the Army in July 1942, turning down a deferment for dental residency that would have kept him out of the war. Typical of his "Greatest Generation," he never talked much about the war when my three sisters and I were growing up. This was a generation that, when they scored a touchdown, flipped the ball to the ref, jogged over to the bench and sat down. There was no celebrating in the end zone.

Growing up, my three sisters and I occasionally did hear about a cow that he had sewn up after it was hit by German shrapnel in the tiny French town of Batilly in the fall of 1944. This was not something he had learned in dental school. He left town about a week later and didn't return until 1957, when he was greeted as a hero by the residents of the town. The cow had lived five years but she had never given milk again.

For my dad, Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," unleashed a flood of World War II memories. My father suddenly started to open up. He told me that it somehow gave him "permission" to discuss details that he had kept inside. I asked him why he had never talked about the war with me or my sisters. It was hard for him to put into words. He said he had not wanted to upset us, and he didn't want to appear to be bragging. Whatever the reason, we welcomed all the new information.

In the fall of 2005, I accompanied my dad and mom back to Normandy for the first time since he landed at Utah Beach in July 1944. It was extraordinarily emotional. My father fought back tears as he walked past the bombed-out craters and long-abandoned German bunkers and thought of the sacrifices made by his fellow Americans. My mother welled up as she talked about her husband being so far away and in danger and about not getting any mail for months at a time.

After about a week, I left my folks in Paris and returned to my medical practice and family in New York. My parents traveled on to Batilly. Amazingly, my father was still treated as a hero. Nicole Bidon, whose father had owned the injured cow, pulled out a picture from 1957 of my parents and her mother. Her parents had both died, but she and her sisters remembered the story of the cow very well. When my parents returned to New York and showed me video of Nicole clutching the yellowed, precious picture, I knew I had to go to Batilly.

A journalist named Nancy Ing-Duclos located 79-year-old Janine Denat and her 99-year-old mother, Paulette. Now living in Bezier in the south of France, they lived in Batilly during the war and were 17 and 37 years old at the time. They distinctly remembered the day when my dad burst through the door of their home while they were playing bridge to announce that he had just sewn up a cow. They found that odd since they knew he was from a big city in America and figured he had never even seen a cow.

We traveled to Bezier and visited with the Denats for several hours. When Paulette set eyes on my father, she let out a soft sigh and said "Capitaine LaPook!" What a moment. They remembered everything, including the names of soldiers — and even their wives and children — in my father's outfit, part of Patton's 3rd Army. I kept asking about the story of the cow — "l'histoire de la vache!" Why did the story of the cow mean so much to them, to the town, all these years later? I captured the interview on video. Paulette said, "I always trusted the Americans because he took care of that cow." Janine told me, "Well, it was from the heart, it showed sensitivity, sensitivity, it showed that even in the middle of a war, a man, an officer, was able to look after (a cow). That's why it left just a strong impression. It's not just because he took care of an animal, but it showed that man can have (such) feelings."

We left Bezier and drove up to Batilly. I had arranged with the mayor of Batilly, Robert Defer, to host a lunch for anybody in town who was around during World War II or who had any memories of the cow or my father. The lunch on June 5, 2006, lasted five hours and absolutely floored me. About 70 people showed up. Everybody seemed to know the story of the cow.

My father was interviewed by French television. "This is a great little village," he said. "The people here welcomed us with open arms. We had a wonderful time. The soldiers were very friendly with the people. The people were friendly with the soldiers. A true example of Franco-American (choking back tears as he searched for the right word) beauty, friendship."

The mayor presented my father with the Medal of Batilly, the equivalent of the keys to the city. My father, wearing his uniform — which still fit — snapped to attention and saluted as the "Star Spangled Banner" and then the "Marseillaise" were played. I put my hand over my heart and tried to hold back the tears. I had never before heard my national anthem on foreign soil, much less in a position where I was representing my country on some level.

The whole occasion took my breath away.

I've thought about our trip to Normandy and Batilly many times over the past year. I remember a 19-year-old French cabdriver saying that he had goose bumps meeting my father, that his parents had told him about what the Americans had done more than 60 years ago. I've thought about the shared memories of more than 60 years ago that brought together Americans and French and created a lasting bond that has withstood all sorts of political pressures.

And I've thought more than once that "everyone loves a lover." It's been amazing to me how people have taken to my dad and to the story of a simple act of kindness so many years ago. Rose Robine, a French World War II expert who accompanied us on our trip; Lawrence Bond, the videographer I hired to record our journey back to Batilly; Chip Hires, the still photographer; Denise Jacobs, who translated hours of videotaped conversations so I could find out exactly what had been said during my attempts to converse in French; Siobhan Dunne, a talented editor who helped me slog through hours of raw footage to find the best bites to feed to CBS editor Mike Cesario, who is a Michelangelo with the Avid. All have become friends.

And, of course, CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger and producer Andy Wolff, whose piece about my dad aired Wednesday evening, I feel it is safe to say, are the latest in a long list of people to be smitten by my father. Of course, this is coming from a totally biased son who loves his father (and mother) very much.
  • Jonathan M.D.

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