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Friendship between two families that started after D-Day continues 70 years later

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/07/01/21/56tPB.Em.138.jpeg|177
    - COURTESY OF THE SIMPSON FAMILY
    Trish Simpson, Eléonore Delavigne and John Simpson at Litchfield Beach in South Carolina.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/07/01/21/1ue14t.Em.138.jpeg|316
    - COURTESY OF THE SIMPSON FAMILY
    Eléonore Delavigne stands in front of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va.

A month after the D-Day invasion in 1944, Joe Simpson, a young Army finance officer from Charlotte, arrived in Normandy, France, and started a friendship with a French family that’s spanned generations.

Simpson was assigned to Camp Lucky Strike in La Havre in Normandy. He rented a room from Leon and Germaine Ridel of nearby Ingouville-sur-Mer, whose daughter Annick was 4.

Simpson never forgot the Ridels. In 1957, he and wife Rita paid them a visit, igniting a friendship that’s been handed down to children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren of both families.

The latest chapter has unfolded the past two weeks.

As the world descended on Normandy to honor the thousands of Allied troops who made the successful invasion 70 years ago, Eléonore Delavigne, the Ridels’ college-age great-granddaughter, spent her first visit to America with Rita Simpson in Davidson and Rita’s son John Simpson and his wife Trish in Fort Mill, S.C.

Friday, John and Trish took their young guest to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., for America’s ceremonies.

“I grew up on stories about D-Day,” said Delavigne, 19, a rising junior at the University of Rouen in Normandy. “My grandmother (Annick) was a little girl and saw the Americans come. She taught us that D-Day was very important for France – and for Europe.

“It was fun to watch the ceremonies at home on TV and then to be here and see the other side of the commemoration.”

There, D-Day veterans told her stories about the invasion. She told them she and her generation won’t forget what they did.

Joe Simpson died in 1979, but his family continued the friendship with several reunions before this one.

• John Simpson flew to Normandy with a friend in 1984 for the 40th anniversary of D-Day. They stayed with Annick and her husband, Roger Ouin. She cooked the two Americans a nine-course dinner.

On that trip, John and the Ouins’ daughter, Claudie, became close friends. Two years later, it was Claudie’s turn to visit America. She spent July 4 with the Simpsons.

• In 1991, Rita and a friend visited Normandy and the Ouins showed them the invasion beaches and the towns that the Allies first liberated.

• On the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe in 1995, the French built a replica of Camp Lucky Strike. John and Rita attended the ceremony.

Bad news followed: Claudie died of cancer in 1999. Her daughter, Eléonore, was 5.

Still the friendship continued. Now, on the solemn 70th anniversary, Eléonore is with the Simpsons.

“She wanted to come and be with her American family,” Rita Simpson said. “To have her here is deeply meaningful on this day especially. I am so thankful that the friendship between our two families has lasted all these 70 years.”

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