International Experience, July 2003
Normandy Allies International Experience 2003
July 11-21, 2003
A Special Report
A rendez-vous at the Paris airport signaled the beginning of Normandy Allies International Experience 2003. Three students;Anna Hay and Alex McAndrew of Blair Academy in New Jersey, and Becky Williams of Wichita, Kansas; one adult;Candace Combee, wife of Pete Combee; and two team members;Pete Combee and Marsha Smith composed this year’s group. Laurent Lefebvre joined us for most of our days, assisting us in the absence of Gene Johnston who had surgery (and is recovering well). Laurent is the author of a new book on the landings, now published in English and soon available in the US. He will be at the 29th Division Association reunion. We were very grateful for his company, his expertise, and his wonderful contacts!
The coach met us at the airport and took us out to Bayeux where we stayed at the Novotel for our first three nights in Normandy. Dinner at the hotel and a good night’s rest prepared us for the days ahead. We picked up a 7-passenger van the following morning at Caen, then proceeded with the itinerary of the trip.
Our first full day began at the Memorial to the Peace in Caen where the participants could gather an overview of the European Theater history. From there we went on to visit Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches. We were quite taken by the new Canadian center at Juno, which presents an introduction to Canadian history, Canada’s role in WWII, and Canada today. The center is very inviting and staffed by Canadians ready to welcome the visitor and share their country’s story.
In Ouistreham, our group visited the Commando Museum and met M. Leon Gautier who was a member of Philippe Kieffer’s famed Commando unit. M. Gautier, a truly delightful man who spoke English with us, presented the history of the Commando landing over D-Day at Ouistreham. Later, we went with him to a reception with the mayor, M. Ledran, who was a young boy in Carentan at the time of the landings. These wonderful men provided our participants with their first taste of the French commitment to preserve and honor the history of the Allied forces.
The day concluded with a visit to Pegasus Bridge and dinner at the Taverne des Ducs in Bayeux.
Day Two: We visited the Mulberry Museum in Arromanches, an excellent addition to our program; courtesy of Laurent.
On site exploration continued at the battery of Longues sur Mer where we had he chance to explore the grounds and examine the battery of coastal guns.
Our group then returned to Bayeux where we viewed the Bayeux Tapestry; another historic Channel crossing; and visited the millenium-old Cathedral with its stained glass window commemorating the Allied liberators.
Late afternoon found us at the British cemetery, which houses dead from many nations, including Germany. Their philosophy is that since these men have shared hell together on earth, they may also share a final resting-place. The poignant inscriptions from family on the British headstones bear witness to a lasting grief.
Day Three: We moved to our base in Grandcamp-Maisy, meeting up with our great friend and organizer Jacques Chambon, who always works diligently to assure us a wonderful visit.
Jacques each year organizes our trip on the Col. Rudder; a boat journey of about one hour that affords a view of Pointe du Hoc from the water, allowing us to imagine the Rangers sighting of this cliff on D-Day.
We then went on to explore the bomb-cratered surface of Pointe du Hoc by foot. The surface is scarred by bomb and shell craters, and remains for the most part, as it appeared on D-Day. It is hard to imagine how the Rangers accomplished their most difficult mission.
Jacques was our host for lunch at La Trinquette in Grandcamp-Maisy. We then went on for a brief visit to the Wall of Remembrance at Saint Jean de Savigny and then returned to La Trinquette for our annual reception. There, the students met the families who hosted their time in the American sector and introduced them to Normandy today; a special glimpse again organized by Jacques.
The adult stay at La Grandcopaise, which has become a second home for the team. Grandcamp-Maisy offers a good array of restaurants as well as the seaside walk. We are quick to recommend this town as a base for anyone traveling in the American sector of Normandy.
Alex stayed with the Duponts in Grandcamp-Maisy, Becky with the Ledevans in Crisqueville en Bessin and Anna with the Lebrecs at Englesqueville de la Percée.
Day Four: the central event of the trip; Omaha Beach and Colleville cemetery. We spent the morning at Omaha Beach and Pete instructed the students as the incoming tide washed over their feet. We allowed time for private thoughts and wanderings along the beach.
At the top of the Vierville Draw, local resident Suzanne Hardelay recalled her experiences during the bombings on D-Day. Alex served as translator since we arrived before our friend and translator, Jean-Peter Chedal-Anglay.
During lunch at le Plage de Omaha, we listened to Madame Watel’s experiences of the landings. Jean-Peter and Therese Chedal-Anglay joined us. The restaurant fronts on the beach and offered us extra time there.
We spent the afternoon at Colleville cemetery, where we visited the grave of Captain Norval Carter, whose story we would hear later in the week.
The participants also had extended time here, to be on their own in this place that so profoundly moves each visitor.
At the close of the day, our students retired the colors with Deputy Superintendent Fred Rhodes. We are grateful to Gene Johnston for arranging this honor annually (among all the details that he arranges!)
Day Five: Col. Michel Henri met us at the inundated area near Colombieres and provided the details of the fighting in that area. Standing in the midst of the marshland allowed the participants to imagine the extent of the flooded terrain. Col. Henri has greeted us annually and continues to grace us with his historical understanding.
On the edge of the marsh stands the Chateau Colombieres; named for an inhabitant of an earlier structure who was a companion of William the Conqueror.
The current Count de Maupeau guides our annual visit. He told us that he was 13 in 1944, living east of Caen in a home partially requisitioned by the Germans. The family was informed during that summer that an additional bedroom would be needed for an injured soldier to recuperate and so our guide had to surrender his bedroom. The visitor was never named and the visit kept secret; but the young boy peeked as the visitor came in and recognized General Rommel!
Phillippe Ygouf and members of the Omaha Beach-Bedford Virginia Association welcomed us for our annual luncheon at Vierville s/Mer. Here we heard the experiences of Edward Scelles and Janine Chambrun, residents of the area in 1944 who provided an insight into the history that cannot be matched.
In the afternoon, we visited the Cider Farm of Robert Lebrec (Anna’s host and President of Normandie Allies France). There, we sampled the wonders of the harvest and bought some to take home. We also visited a monument to the 147th Combat Engineers, located behind the walls of the Lebrecs’ fortified farm in Englesqueville de la Percée.
The day ended with a delightful reception at le Manoir de Than, home of Jean-Peter and Therese Chedal-Anglay. Each year, this family has opened their hearts and home to our group; another instance of the great friendships we cherish.
Day Six: We spent the morning at Utah Beach, visiting the excellent museum there and also the underground communications bunker; access through the kitchen of the restaurant; annually arranged by Gene!
We continued the study of this sector as we traveled to Sainte Mere Eglise. Mayor Marc Lefevre and Secretary Joseph Leprieur welcomed us with a reception at the Town Hall followed by lunch at a local restaurant. Here we openly discussed many of the issues that face our countries today, and renewed our friendship and our mutual pledge to honor those who liberated Normandy in 1944.
The Town also provided our entrance to the newly reorganized Airborne Museum, an essential part of any visit to the town.
We continued on to Le Merderet and the Iron Mike monument. The French have added to site, providing greater historical background on the airborne encounter in the marshlands of La Fiere.
Our final stop of the day was the German Military Graveyard at LaCambe, where our group was welcomed by supervisor Lucien Tisserand. There, Anna, Becky and Alex viewed the tree that the first Normandy Allies students planted in 1999 in the Garden of the Peace at LaCambe.
Excellent planning by Pete Combee, our driver for the day, allowed time for a quick visit to the Normandie Caramel shop in Isigny. We then returned to Grandcamp-Maisy, where the students returned to their families, and the adults to La Grandcopaise.
Day seven began at rue Captain Carter, where Pete recounted the history of Captain Norval Carter’s heroic action to save injured soldiers, and his death in the line of duty. This always brings home the great work of the medical corps, and the sacrifice of families like Walter Carter’s, who live on without those they love.
We were met at the site by members of the Wall of Remembrance society; the group of Normans who constructed and maintain the wall at Saint Jean de Savigny. We briefly returned there with them and their new president M. Jeanne Edouard.
We were also met by Jean Mignon and Igor Letribot of Saint Lo 44, who would be our guides for the remainder of the day. In recent years, it has been more difficult to find sunken roads and hedgerows to visit. Igor has been tremendous at finding places for us to visit and see examples of the towering hedgerows that blocked the GI’s advance.
Jean Mignon brought us to the barn where his family and another family sought refuge during the bombings; another insight into the experience of French civilians.
Becky Williams’ great-uncle, Pvt. Elmer Manan Gideon, landed at Normandy on June 12, and was killed August 4 near Percy. His body was found a month later and he was buried in the American Military Cemetery at Le Chene Guerin. The family has never been sure where this gravesite was located, and though they repatriated his body, they would like to know his original resting place. So, we asked Igor to help us. Web resources stated the original site was east of Saint Lo, but Igor insisted that we follow him to a site east of Percy. Sure enough, he had done his research and we found the marker. This was a special moment for Becky, and for all of us who shared it with her.
We returned to Saint Lo to visit La Madeleine, Notre Dame, and the Blanchett mausoleum before taking part in the annual July 18th observance at the monuments to Major Howie. Each student was invited to accompany a French dignitary for a wreath-laying.
Then we all processed down the street to the church where Major Howie’s flag-draped body was laid. Mayor Digard then invited our students to join him at the reception tent while he addressed and welcomed the crowd of visitors, including many friends of Normandy Allies.
Day Eight: The Lebrecs and Duponts returned Anna and Alex to the Grandcopaise as the students prepared to spend their final night in Normandy at the hotel with the adults.
We had made arrangements to pick Becky up at the Ledevins, so we could visit the lovely church of Cricqueville en Bessin where the Rangers gather when they return to Normandy. The Ledevins treated us to coffee and conversation in their lovely home, with pledges to greet one another next year.
We went on to Trevieres for our annual luncheon and renewal of friendship with several wonderful citizens.
Mayor Richard greeted us along with Deputy Mayor Renault. After our generous luncheon, we gathered in a circle to listen to Mme. Lemiere, M. LeRoutier, Sr. Durant, and M. Morel. We truly missed Gene’s abilities at this point as we had no translator; however, Alex stepped in and with some coaching by Marsha and Mayor Richard, opened the door to understanding the stories that are in Trevieres. Marsha had to laugh; who would ever think that she knew the French word for “Tank;” but her vocabulary has greatly expanded in the past five years!
The time at Trevieres gave us a broad sense of the civilian experience. The students this year especially commented that these stories provided details they had not heard elsewhere and that each story built on the other to give such a cohesive picture. We are always so grateful for the generosity of this town.
In the afternoon, we returned to Colleville because lightning had deterred us from visiting the 1st Division Memorial on our earlier trip. Pete led the students through the bunkers and continued his teaching on the other side.
This kind of encounter has become the hallmark of Normandy Allies; to go into the field with knowledgeable people and spend quality time absorbing the history that fills the Norman landscape.
Pete once again demonstrated his organizational skills by allowing enough time to visit the dairy coop in Isigny where we sampled the wonderful ice cream!
We returned to Grandcamp-Maisy for our final night in Normandy and dined at La Belle Mariniere, a lovely restaurant a short walk from the hotel. Then, we enjoyed an evening stroll that took advantage of the late Norman sunset.
Day Nine: Our group drove to Caen, dropped off the van, and then boarded the train for Paris.
A few hours later we checked-in at the Mercure Tour Eiffel, and then quickly took off for a boat ride on the Seine. Our trip was on Les Vedettes du Pont-Neuf located near the Cathedral of Notre Dame. A refreshing hour-long journey allowed us to enjoy the great views from the water! After the boat ride, we traveled over to the Champs-Elysees for a bit of shopping and seeing the sights.
During the afternoon, we returned to the hotel for dinner. After a wonderful meal, we took a short walk and visited the Eiffel Tower. As evening fell, the group walked up to the first level and learned first-hand why Paris is called the City of Lights!
Thanks so much to everyone who participated and those who helped make this trip possible. Thanks to Laurent and his family for their kindness and understanding. We look forward to seeing all of you next year!