From Steelton to France, With Love

By Diane White McNaughton • Photos Courtsey of Stephanie Trdenic

Seventy-five years ago, a black-and-white photograph of an 11-year-old French girl and a 27-year-old American soldier ran in a military newspaper called “The Beachhead” and went the equivalent of viral.

Taken along the charming, rain-soaked streets of Luxeuil, France, the snapshot captures a young girl in a hooded cape handing a uniformed American a bottle of wine. Headlined “The Liberator,” that newspaper did not name the soldier, but came to personify every soldier who united to vanquish Nazi Germany’s advance into France as World War II raged.

The poignant photograph came to symbolize France’s gratitude to American soldiers for their liberation after four painfully long years of Nazi occupation.

The iconic photograph became the shot seen ‘round the world. It was reprinted in a 36th Infantry book, showcased in a Texas museum, depicted in a painting, and published in newspapers both here and in France.

What few people realize is that the soldier, wearing an Army helmet and rain slicker, was an all-star athlete from Steelton named Joe Trdenic. The little girl, whose name was long a mystery to the Trdenics, was Therese Grenier, who grew up to be a beloved schoolteacher in France.

While Joe passed away in 1984, and Therese in 2012, the Trdenic family knew of the famed moment in time and set about in search of the little French girl.

And in September of 2019, that reunion took place.  The daughter of that French girl met the daughter of that soldier, cementing an emotional bond that had endured for decades, and continues to flourish.

They recreated that sentimental exchange, on the exact same spot where the gift-offering occurred, before that distinctive wrought-iron fence and along those characteristic cobblestone streets. This time, the sun was shining brightly and streamed golden rays of light.

The reunion reminded onlookers of the sheer jubilation that swept through Paris and other French enclaves when the red, white and blue flag of France replaced the swastika flag that had flown atop the Eiffel Tower from August 1940 to 1944.  The bells of Notre Dame tolled in celebration, and the French struggled to grab the hands and arms of their American liberators as they marched through the streets, the voices of the townspeople hoarse from cheering.

One journalist remembered how, “This heart of France went mad—wildly, violently mad with happiness.”

Three-quarters of a century later, France’s whole-hearted embrace of their American liberators endures in that same peaceful countryside and within the hearts of their ancestors.

While Normandy and the D-Day invasion often dominate American memories and history books of World War II, the imprint of so many courageous American soldiers on French soil goes far deeper and wider.

The Search for Little Red Riding Hood

That iconic soldier’s daughter, Stephanie Trdenic, now lives in Mechanicsburg, with her husband Ernest Josef and their teenage son and daughter.

Stephanie and her sisters—Joanne Prowell and Susan Stoudt– came to dub the little French girl “Little Red Riding Hood.”  Throughout their lives, they would often ask each other, “Will we ever find Little Red Riding Hood?”

In 2017, Stephanie set out to solve the mystery of her identity.

With the aid of Google, Facebook, and military historians, she learned her name was Therese Grenier.

Thanks to the world-shrinking power of the Internet, the search met with fast success.

Stephanie Googled “Little girl gives soldier a bottle of wine,” and the image she knew so well emerged immediately on her computer screen.  The photo source warmed her heart:  the Army War College in Carlisle.  It was so close!

She looked on Pinterest as well, and found Adam Surrey’s “ghost” photo with his name on it. Surrey runs the “Ghosts of Time” Facebook page. She messaged him on Facebook to ask how he had obtained the original image, and he gave her the name of Simon Deleyrolle, a history-loving 28-year-old living in France.  Through Surrey, Stephanie also found the 36th Infantry Facebook group page, uniting many people who had loved ones in World War II.

Simon and Stephanie began corresponding through Messenger and email for three years.

Another piece of the puzzle came from Lisa Sharik, deputy director of the Texas Military Forces Museum in Austin, Texas, who often posts on the 36th Infantry Facebook page, answering questions about the service records of loved ones.

In the French town where the photo was taken, they call their American liberators their “Texas friends.”  Most were from Texas and Oklahoma.

When Stephanie was added to the Facebook group, she introduced herself in a post with her dad’s photo.

Sharik almost immediately responded that the photograph was displayed in her Texas museum, and told her about a painting based on the photo that was done as well.

Stephanie and her sister Susan traveled to Texas in April 2018 and received that painting, which she plans to matte and frame.

And it was Sharik who sent her an email with the subject line “The name of the little girl.” She had found it in her files.  At long last, they had a name!

The March to Luxeuil

It had been a long road to freedom for France. The war was raging and German tanks were storming through Europe when Technical Sergeant Trdenic and his 36th Infantry Division landed in Italy and moved slowly up through southern France. At one point, Joe was wounded in battle, sustaining shell fragments to his head.

An article in Steelton’s newspaper detailed his injury in battle, quoting a letter he penned to his mother, which said, reassuringly, that “My helmet took most of it.”

The Army marched through many French towns and then crossed the Moselle River to reach the Vosges Mountains, Stephanie recounted.  Many German soldiers hid themselves strategically in the foothills, confronting the 36th with enemy fire. The fighting was tough and tortuously slow.

The Reunion

While time stood still in that photograph, it came to life early this fall, when Stephanie and her husband traveled to that wrought-iron fence and cobblestone street of France to meet “Little Red Riding Hood’s” daughter, Dominique Frery. With hugs, tears, flowers and gifts, they cemented a bond that had never been broken.

Stephanie and her husband were hosted by Simon Deleyrolle, that young French history-lover who was the “catalyst” for this emotional reunion.

“He didn’t know us at all, but by the time we went, he felt like family,” Stephanie said.

Simon and his family planned surprise after surprise for Stephanie and her husband as they traveled to the spot of that famed photograph.

“I feel like Simon is so attached to my dad, even though he never met him.  I told Simon my father would have been proud to have a son like him,” Stephanie said.

Although they were total strangers, Simon’s parents and aunt opened their home to the Americans, and hosted picnics, brunches, parties, and reunions for Stephanie. They hung American flags and painstakingly arranged the Dominique-Stephanie meeting, as a way to repay her dad and every American, through her.

Stephanie and Ernest’s trip began in Paris.  It was Stephanie’s first trip to the City of Light, which she found to be “lovely,” and virtually untouched by time. Still, she and her husband found that it couldn’t compare to the warm embrace of every liberated French village they toured.

Deleyrolle took them by Jeep over the tree-lined streets her dad had marched through 75 years ago.  Frenchmen and women, recognizing that those Jeeps contained Americans, would wave in appreciation. As they passed through one town, the mayor emerged from his house in his official red, white and blue sash to greet Stephanie and thank her for her father’s part in their liberation.

Traveling in that Jeep was like pushing the levers on a time machine.

Stephanie and her husband were able to take part in several local ceremonies that occur every year as each French town celebrates their day of liberation at the hands of their American rescuers. These war dead have become their own sons, and the towns won’t let their memories die.

At each liberation ceremony, townspeople lay flowers by the monuments they have erected, sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” and let the tears fall like rain.

While some of the fallen American soldiers were sent home to the U.S. to find their final resting place, many remained on French soil. At the nearby Epinal American Cemetery, 5,255

United States soldiers are buried. All are buried facing their American “home.”

In the French town of Vesoul, a monument to the casualties of the 36th Infantry has been erected.

Stephanie’s group came upon many memorials, including a farmhouse plaque that said, “We will never forget our Texas friends.”

And the gratitude to the “Texas Army” has not waned after 75 years.  It was truly a mission of “Merci.”

“They kept saying, ‘Thank you for coming back.’ ‘Thank you for coming to us.’ It was such an honor for me,” Stephanie said.

They told her how much they loved Americans. “We know what your military did for us,” they said, time after time.

In another surprise, the Deleyrolle family erected a memorial to the 36th Infantry on their own private property in Breurey-les-Faverney. It was designed and built by the Deleyrolle family, with help from friends and neighbors. One photograph of the construction showed Simon’s 85-year-old grandfather digging the hole for the base.

“That was incredible,” Stephanie said.  “They have so much sense of history.”

But that reunion from that iconic photograph was the highlight of the trip.

Stephanie and Dominique met on Sept. 16, Luxeuil’s day of liberation and celebration.

Simon had hung a banner of that legendary photograph on the black wrought-iron fence.

Despite the language barrier, communication was instantaneous and intuitive.  Dominique brought Stephanie flowers and gifts. Dominique spoke some English, with Stephanie understanding the words, “Your father and my mother” in French. Hugs communicated their happiness.

In that moment, Stephanie was overwhelmed with the surreal realization that “My dad was here. He was right here, on this spot.”

“Standing on that spot and standing in his footsteps, I felt so close to him in that moment.”

She decided to just sit on the pavement.  She still wears his dog tags on her left wrist and knew that he too had worn his dog tags here.  She blocked everybody out and told her dad, “I’m here. I’m really proud of you, and hope you are here, too.”

Miraculously, the sun arced through the sky in a photograph taken over the site that day.

Her husband said, “Look, your dad sent a sunbeam.”

“It was very surreal.  I’ve known of the photo all my life,” Stephanie said.  “Meeting her was the culmination of a lot of other discoveries about my dad and his service.”

She touched the gate there.

“It was so many years since I was able to touch my dad, and now I had something tangible to hang on to,” Stephanie said.

“Hugging Dominique was like touching my dad,” Stephanie said. “I felt like I was touching my dad for the first time since I was 17.”

Stephanie’s husband Ernest never met her dad, but he often seems to know him, offering “Your dad would say…” or “Your dad was probably really honored and really embarrassed.”

On the day of the reunion, they took photos at Dominique’s mother’s former house, visited the cemetery to place flowers on her mom’s grave, and then traveled to a little café where Dominique’s mom had been a regular. The local newspaper in Vesoul ran a photograph of them and recounted their emotional bond.

Remembering Dad

Before he died, Stephanie never really had a chance to talk to her father about that legendary picture. Like most young girls, she had read “The Diary of Anne Frank” but never understood the complex world dynamics igniting World War II.

She remembered her mother telling him he should have saved the wine he was given.

“It was wartime!” he said.  “We drank it!”

Joe died six days before Stephanie graduated from high school. She was 17.

Joe graduated from Concord College in West Virginia in 1941 with a degree in physical education, with the goal to coach athletics. He went on to become a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel.

He came home from war with a Bronze Star and Silver Star. He rarely talked about the war, and when he did, it was with great humility.

“I didn’t do anything any of the other guys didn’t do,” he would say.

He never made himself out to be a hero.

Every Veterans Day, Stephanie honors his memory by attending a ceremony somewhere local.

Her dad now rests in peace beneath the plush green grasses of Resurrection Cemetery in Harrisburg.

Whenever she sees someone in uniform, or wearing a wartime baseball cap, she thanks him or her for their service.

And yes, she will return to France.

“I will go back to where our dad was, where I feel like they know him and they know me.”

Her tour guide Simon got married over the October 5 weekend. Next year, Stephanie plans to attend his post-wedding bash on July 11, 2020. She treasures his wedding invitation, written in elegant French scroll.

She will celebrate the love evident in his marriage, just as they celebrate the love between two strong allies in battle.  Both bonds promise to endure forever.