On October 23, 1946, the city of Dunkirk “expressed the humble spirit of Thanksgiving” in the greatest demonstration of its history; the local newspaper described the night’s conversation as “A Great Meeting,” and emphasized that, “If you had attended the meeting in the high school auditorium the other night you could not have avoided a feeling of pride in your city and its people.” It’s a tale of two cities–one prosperous and comfortable and the other suffering war-torn hardship and want–that begins with the Battle of Dunkirk in May of 1940.
We all know the story: from May 26 to June 4, 1940, some 338,000 British Expeditionary Force and other Allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk, France to England as the German forces were closing in. The “Miracle of Dunkirk” was a turning point for the Allied war effort, but it resulted in the large-scale evacuation of French residents, thousands of French troops being taken prisoner and the abandonment of huge supplies of ammunition, guns and tanks. After the war, 646 residents of Dunkirk remained, and their home was reduced to rubble–but that’s when the Dunkirk Society of Dunkirk, New York decided to help out.
The Dunkirk and Fredonia communities decided to raise money and provisions–ultimately $75,000 worth of supplies–to send across the Atlantic to their sister city, Dunkerque, in France. On Thanksgiving Day, 1946, hundreds of residents gathered on Central Avenue and witnessed a massive parade of livestock, farm equipment, ambulances and trucks filled with medical supplies, tools, dental equipment and school supplies pass by. French Ambassador Henri Bonnet was present for the celebration, delivering a plaque to the city of Dunkirk that reads, “For Life and Liberty, Dunkirk to Dunkerque.” Dunkirk’s mayor, Walter Murray, was presented with the Légion d’Honneur–the highest decoration awarded by France–and a reception was held in the banquet room at Floral Hall.
It was known as “Dunkirk-to-Dunkerque” Day, and it was a grand celebration; I think my favorite story about that Thanksgiving, though, is about a letter found in a coat pocket. “When gifts were being collected last November for Dunkirk-to-Dunkerque Day, Elmer L. Burbee of 69 North Ermine Street, whose ancestors lived in France, collected a number of articles of used clothing to contribute to the drive. One of the pieces of clothing was a coat and in the pocket of it he placed the following note:
To a friend in Dunkerque, France:
May this coat help a little to keep you warm. Please write me. Elmer L. Burbee 69 North Ermine Street, Dunkirk.
This morning [September 22, 1947] Mr. Burbee received a letter postmarked in France. It was a reply to a note he had put in the coat pocket. On one side of the paper was a message in English, on the other a communication in French. The letter was written by George Decroocq of St. Pol Sur Mer, Dunkerque. ‘That was the thrill of a lifetime getting this letter.’ Mr. Burbee said today. The communication reads:
I write for my grandfather. He is very happy for the coat. It is very good for winter. Thank you. You are very kind. I don’t know it is quite well write. I have 26 years. During the war I had many friends Amerique. Now here it is very hard for the old. They have no money, not much to eat. It is happy you are good friend for the old French. Now goodbye dear friend. Thank you. I hope you are good health. Goodbye. Georges.
Vive Dunkirk vive Dunkerque.”
Happy Thanksgiving everyone–