A special bond between the Lowcountry and Flers de L'Orne, France, took root decades ago, as Charleston aided town residents battered by World War II.
The bond weakened over the decades, as Flers and all of Europe recovered, but a half-dozen Lowcountry residents rekindled it this summer with a five-day visit to the Normandy region, the town and its urban square named "Charleston Place" in honor of the city's help.
Mayor Pro Tem Bill Moody was among those who made the trip.
"The people in Flers couldn't have been more welcoming," he said. "It was very interesting to see the community and understand that here was a town, 70 years ago or so, that was literally wiped off the map, 70 to 80 percent destroyed, just a big pile of rubble."
Bill McSweeney, a former College of Charleston history professor, stumbled across this chapter of Charleston's history while attending a family funeral in France last summer, and helped arrange this summer's visit.
And there's hope that the bond will continue to strengthen, with a delegation from Flers visiting the Lowcountry next spring and with possible exchange programs and even business ties between the two regions. Students taking French at Wando High School soon may Skype with high school students of Flers de L'Orne.
"They went out of their way to make us feel welcomed," McSweeney said. At one formal dinner, the town found a piano for past Charleston Rotary President John Tecklenburg and a trombone for McSweeney so they could serenade the gathering with "The Charleston" and other jazz standards.
"It was a smash hit," he said.
Flers (pronounced 'flair') had suffered heavy bombing from the allies as they sought to weaken the German presence there before the D-Day invasion, and it saw further fighting as Allied soldiers passed through. For years after the war, residents struggled to make ends meet and rebuild.
In 1948, William Montgomery Bennett, a Connecticut man who was spending the winter in the Lowcountry, reached out to South Carolina cities, churches, businesses and schools to encourage them to "adopt" a French town in need.
Charleston's response was the most robust: It sent 100 tons of supplies and even arranged for a destroyer to make a goodwill visit to the coast, where it hosted 35 of Flers' orphans.
The help extended to orphans was one reason that the Charleston delegation included Barbara Kelley-Duncan of the Carolina Youth Development Center.
She said she was struck by how Charleston's generosity was still so remembered and appreciated many years later - and by how Flers' youth center is working in a very similar vein as her work.
"We all left with our ideas of how we could further that partnership," she said, adding there was also talk about how Flers could identify and promote itself to make it even more appealing to tourists. "There were a number of thoughts around that," she said.
Tecklenburg said he hopes the Rotary clubs in Charleston and Flers can work on student exchange programs.
On July Fourth, the town held a ceremony to rededicate the square and unveil a new brass plaque honoring Charleston and Flers' other major benefactor, Dijon, France.
"This was a very early stage, just reaching out to get to know these people," Moody said of the trip. "They were reaching out to us because of our connection back in 1948, '49 to say, 'Thanks for what you did then. We're now thriving. We're open for business.' "
The group also visited Normandy's marble memorial to Maj. Thomas Dry Howie, a Citadel graduate who lost his life as he helped deliver Saint Lo from the Germans.
"The memorial was flanked by probably the only Palmetto trees in all of France," he said. "It was a moving thing for me and the whole delegation - just another indication of how strong the connection between the Lowcountry and Normandy is."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Flers officials and members of Charleston’s delegation pose in Charleston Place, a square named in honor of the South Carolina city that helped this war-torn town after World War II.×
This small sign marks Flers’ main public square, which was named in honor of Charleston because of how much the city helped Flers recover after World War II.×
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