Operation Overlord of June 6, 1944, found Sergeant Carl Cannon leading his young soldiers from the landing craft through the German defenses to establish the very first beachhead among the five major Allied thrusts that day.
“The army is built on the backs of sergeants.” He would say. “We had a job to do and we followed orders.”
Indeed, the 4th Division of the 1st U.S. Army with Airborne support quickly took the towns of Ste. Mère-Eglise and Pouppeville. In time the major port of Cherbourg was in Allied hands. By late August, Paris was liberated. Carl Cannon, the Sergeant at Normandy, was there. He met Ernest Hemingway that day. He brought his battle-hardened boys through the next day. Their movements in concert with so many others eventually ended the war and emptied the concentration camps. Carl Cannon stayed in the Army after the war, earning medals in both Korea and Vietnam, retiring after 32 years in 1972. Among his achievements were the Bronze Star for Valor, the Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre.
A second career at the Charleston Naval Shipyard ended in 1987 by his last retirement. His wife Stella – the love of his life – died in 1986 from pancreatic cancer. Cannon was alone in the world.
It wasn’t until 1994 that he returned to Normandy fifty years after his heroic actions there. He searched for his best friend, Eddie Rolling, who was killed in the hedgerows, and for his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Conrad Simmons, who also died in the many skirmishes prior to the liberation of Paris. His commanding general, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., was also buried at Normandy, a victim of a heart attack just three weeks after the landing. Cannon was 73 years old when he first returned. He came back six more times until, at the age of 86, he could no longer travel.
In Paris, the Hotel Sanguine hosted Cannon proudly. They displayed his artifacts in their lobby, including an American Flag. They bought him bananas and cereal for his breakfast and took out his laundry – all at no charge. They designated a room as “the Sergeant’s Room” and had it available for him each time he returned. A French host, Stephanie Delarue Calligaro, picked him up at the airport on each trip. She accompanied him to Normandy on every occasion, taking her vacation to do so. Cannon was invited to her wedding to husband Fabrice, and became a part of their family. Cannon became her adopted grandfather. A Jewish shoe store owner, Henry Nicola, would stop anything he was doing to greet Cannon. He always looked at the Sergeant as the man who saved his family from the death camps. In fact, his parents and sister, along with himself, were freed from the camps by the 4th Division of the U.S. Army. Nicola proudly introduced Cannon to his friends, employees and customers. In 2004, at the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Stephanie Calligaro introduced Cannon to the ‘HML,’ a French organization that collected and repaired World War II army vehicles. The Historic Motor Club has 120 members. They immediately made Sergeant Carl Cannon their Honorary President for Life. They meet each June 6th (D Day) at Utah Beach. Their website has a description of the Sergeant at Normandy and his military photo from 1944.
Cannon was treated in Paris much like the return of General De Gualle in 1944. He wore his green Beret proudly, the sergeant lapel forward. He’d don his favorite tie with the 4th Division emblem and his gray jacket, complete with eight battle citations. He had thirty-two medals in all. With his cane, the dapper Cannon would amble down the streets and salute anyone who gave him a glance. He was, indeed, the Sergeant at Normandy.
Carl Cannon died on September 4th, 2011, at the age of 90. Few in Charleston knew about this American hero. Few knew of his dedication to duty or his commitment to freedom. It was fitting that his latter years were his happiest. He asked that his ashes be taken to Utah Beach, upon his demise.
On September 14th, 2011, a ceremony at Utah Beach included Stephanie Calligaro, representatives of the HML organization and the author of this article. We gave the Sergeant at Normandy a fitting tribute followed by a salute that he would have dutifully returned. He was back at Utah Beach, more than 67 years later, as he had wished. Another of the greatest generation had passed.
Thomas (Tommy) McQueeney is a born and bred Charlestonian who graduated from The Citadel with a BA in English, and is a 30 year agent with State Farm Insurance in Mt. Pleasant.