International Experience, July 2006
We took our eighth annual trip this summer to visit the sites of the 1944 landings and battle sites of World War II. During July 11-21, three students and thirteen adult travelers that included eight veterans went with a team of four Normandy Allies’ Board members: Marsha Smith (President), Peter Combee (LCT, Ret.), Charles Frick (Sgt. Major, Ret.), and Walter Carter (author). Gene Johnston (LCT, Ret.), security consultant with the U.S. Embassy in Paris and primary organizer of our activities in France, joined us there.
The Johnson Film Group joined us for four days. The co-producers, Joe Fab and Elliott Berlin, had contacted Marsha Smith in advance and worked out the coordinating details. The Johnson Group has also produced “Paper Clips”—a wonderful documentary. The Normandy Allies team agreed to work with the Johnson Group because we want to preserve and honor the history of those who served in Normandy, and we believe that the Johnson Group will do this. The current documentary focuses on the 29th Division, in particular the 116th/A out of Bedford VA, and the cost of war for the soldiers and for those they left behind. More details are available on their website, www.thejgroup.com. The documentary is expected to be released in late 2007.
The Johnson group had filmed in southwest England, and worked with Jimmy Green, the British Navy Sub-Lieutenant who piloted one of the first LCA’s on Omaha Beach and knew many members of 116/A Company. The film crew brought Jimmy over to be with us for four days, and so our complement of five veterans included Alvin Fried (29th Division, 115th), Kenneth Marcotte (29th Division, 175th Regt, 3rd Bn, Machine Gun Platoon), Vincent Rowell (29th Division, 227th FA Bat. Co. C), William Brooks (9th Air Force, 391st Bomb Group, 572nd Bomb Squadron), and Jimmy Green.
The students participated in writing a journal of the group’s activities and we share portions of this journal with you.
July 13, 2006
Our second full day in Normandy! Yesterday we walked around the beautiful city of Bayeux, and visited the Bayeux Tapestry, the Cathedral, the British Cemetery, and the Museum of the Battle of Normandy. We had a chance to rest up from our overseas flight, and begin to enjoy the sights and sounds and tastes of Normandy.
Today, our itinerary includes the Memorial to the Peace at Caen, Pegasus Bridge, and the Abbaye d’Ardenne.
Student Excerpt: In the afternoon we went to the Abbey d’Ardenne. M. Jacques Vico at the Abbey was wonderful. He has to be one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met. He told us his whole story about being in the resistance, and many stories about the Canadians; this was my favorite part of the day. He risked his life to save Canadian soldiers and Jews and it didn’t seem like he ever thought to do any different. I admire that he put the lives of many people before his own and his happiness. As the American veteran Vince Rowell said, the memories are “ingrained” in his head, and I am sure it is the same for M. Vico.
When Alvin Fried, Vince Rowell, Ken Marcotte, and M. Vico were telling stories of their experiences, I realized that these were real guys fighting the war. They had families and friends and they risked their lives for the freedom we have today. I am truly grateful for all the men who fought.
July 14, 2006
Today we travel to the coastal town of Arromanches, where we have set aside some time for visiting on our own. The group events include the Circular Theatre, the Mulberry Museum, Longues s/Mer Battery, and later in the afternoon we go to the Canadian Center at Juno
Student Excerpt: At the Circular Theatre, our group watched a 360 degree film. The movie included added/intensified sound effects that, along with the engrossing effect of the 360 degree screen, brought the scene uniquely and vividly to life, helping to bring emotion and comprehension to the museum exhibits that we have seen and will continue to see.
Another excellent experience was the Canadian Center where our group learned about Canadian society before, during, and after the war… it was especially interesting to view their society through the lens of our Normandy Allies experience. The main thing that I will carry away from this day is the understanding of the sacrifices countries like Canada make in sending their future generations to war.
We have not yet met our host families, but I am continually impressed by the kindness and welcoming nature of the average French person in contrast to what stereotypes have taught me to expect.
July 15, 2006
This morning we gathered our belongings and moved on to Grandcamp-Maisy, our center for the next portion of our trip. Today began with an early morning visit to Pointe du Hoc, a reception at the private home of John-Peter and Therese Chedal-Anglay, a luncheon hosted by the Omaha Beach-Bedford Association followed by a ceremony with members of People-to-People, and then a very moving visit to Graignes.
Student Excerpt: The visit at Pointe du Hoc was certainly an eye opener. Having already grasped (as best as could be possible) the idea that the Allied soldiers fighting in Normandy were mere boys of my own age—I was astounded to see what exactly they had to endure: scaling a mountain with grappling hooks while under German fire; seeking refuge in craters resulting from Allied bombing only to find isolation and solitude—as they could not even hear each other yell from one crater to another…These young boys became men far before their time—and in addition to the literal loss of lives, I was horrified for these boys for the dances they missed, the family time they did not share, even the individual meals they were unable to eat as they fought for the independence of another nation.
The members of the Chedal-Anglay family were so thankful for the Allied liberation. I had always imagined they would be thankful, but had never fathomed to what degree the Normans felt indebted to the Americans. When Madame claimed “No American must ever thank a Norman, it is always the Normans who must thank the Americans”, I was struck. This, combined with the story of the veteran Alvin Fried in which a young lady offered him thank you cards from her 7 and 8 year-old children—only to realize the teacher herself had not been alive for the war, meaning that the feelings of gratitude and reverence for the American soldiers have been passed down from generation to generation, is just amazing.
At the People-to-People ceremony, I experienced a feeling of pride for somebody else—of a completely different nationality. Having known Jimmy Green only one day, he has already stolen my heart with his easy manner and comfortable conversation. Jimmy himself was in charge of one of the LCA’s that delivered American soldiers onto Omaha Beach. At the Omaha Beach-Bedford Association/People-to-People ceremony, when the British flag was raised, billowing dramatically in the wind, I felt so proud and honored for Jimmy. I could just imagine how wonderful it was for him to watch his flag raised, his country honored, and his fellow soldiers remembered.
Finally I was intrigued by our final visit of the day at Graignes: for that site to be considered a “well-kept secret” as Gene Johnston called it—it is crazy! How many other battles were fought? How many other soldiers died anonymously? How many French citizens risked (and often lost) their lives aiding the Allied troops? Nobody will know the answer to those questions—leaving this “landing” a mystery. A mystery filled with the joyous result of Victory, but also held back by the immense sadness of the 50-60 million lives lost.
July 16, 2006
We begin the day at Omaha Beach, with a full morning to listen, walk, talk, spend time on the this ground. Our time included the National Guard Monument, the bluffs, the beach itself, the 29th Division Monument, and the site of 1st American cemetery. In the afternoon, we went to the Normandy American Military Cemetery at Colleville. Our day together closed with a reception in Grandcamp-Maisy for the host families, and the students began their visit with these gracious Normans.
Today was, as one team member said, “a focal point” for this experience. Hearing the Veterans tell their stories with Omaha Beach in the background was remarkable. As experiences like this occur, coupling first hand accounts from familiar people with historic sites, my understanding of World War II and D-Day as an event, not just an historical fact, increases and I gain new perspective on what once seemed a straightforward military endeavor.
The American Military Cemetery at Colleville was simply astounding. The grounds were beautiful, immaculate, and kept with extreme care. 9,000+ white crosses contrasted sharply with the brilliant hues of garden, sea, and sky. The sheer volume of graves, name after name on the Wall of the Missing, walking the grounds, and retiring the colors was an experience I will never forget.
Ironically, I don’t think I have ever felt so connected to and proud of my country as I do now, thousands of miles away. Whatever our faults as a nation, we are populated by people who at a young age selflessly gave their lives to help free a foreign people. That is the average American. The veterans are our country’s inspiration.
Omaha Beach was very surprising to me; I was not expecting a beach so beautiful and relaxing. We could see the relatively clear water for miles. When we walked out to the water at low tide, the beach seemed endless. We went to the bluff and saw a view of the beach that the German soldiers might have seen on D-Day. Knowing that the German weapons could fire from the bluff to the beach was very scary. There was no hiding place for the Allied troops, they just had to run as fast as they could and hope for the best. At the 29th Division monument, I felt so proud for Alvin and Vince and Ken. Since they were in the division, I knew they were incredibly moved by the monument. We spent the afternoon at the American cemetery; now, that was an experience. I’ve never seen such a beautiful graveyard and so many crosses. Marsha gave the 3 students one man’s name each, what division he was in, when he died, where he was from, and where his tombstone was. Although I never knew my soldier, after visiting his tombstone and praying for him, I really felt like I knew him.
Omaha Beach was wonderful today because it truly gave me a sense of the elements working in favor of the Germans. Those American soldiers storming the beaches were fired upon by soldiers hidden high in bluffs, resulting in easy targets and massacre. To realize that even one American soldier was able to survive and overtake the land is unbelievable, and there were many who made it! In addition, walking from the water’s edge to the start of the grass was amazingly long. The American soldiers made this trudge after having been knocked about in boats (and most likely seasick), wading through chest-deep water, and under constant fire. The heroism of these young men is remarkable. And I realized after having spoken with some of the veterans, that they were just average boys yanked from their lives.
I also found Normandy Allies’ idea for the students to “adopt a soldier” wonderful. Spending time with my soldier, knowing that his grave often isn’t visited, gave me a sense of pride. This little bit of my time is all I can offer a man who died in the name of my freedom. I can imagine how sad it must be for a soldier to find his grave unhonored—and I adore the idea that maybe I can give a little something back.
July 17, 2006
Our coach today took us west to Utah Beach where we again walked the beaches. We also visited the Utah Beach Museum and the underground communications bunker. The Town Council hosted a luncheon just for us in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, followed by a visit to the Airborne Museum and some time on our own in this wonderful town.
Student Excerpt: At Utah Beach, we first walked on the beach and saw horses and how defenseless the beach was for the Germans. Afterwards we visited the museum. At the museum, a young Frenchman gave us a tour. After the tour, we found out that he was about to cry with gratitude for our veterans.
In the afternoon, we went to Sainte-Mere-Eglise. There we saw a manikin attached to a church by a parachute; a man was actually attached to the church and played dead so he wouldn’t be killed by the Germans. After the Airborne Museum, we went to Ellwood’s house where he showed us his garden. There he told us stories of the town and what happened in his garden. These stories were so interesting and I would love to hear more stories like it. Today was a very fun day where we learned a lot about Sainte-Mere-Eglise and Utah Beach.
In the Utah Beach Museum, there was a letter from a man who landed at Utah Beach on D-Day that talked about war. He said although men die and there is chaos and violence everywhere, it is necessary for freedom for all. During the tour of the Museum, when the young tour guide started crying, I realized how grateful the French are for D-Day. Although many Americans think the French don’t like them, this is entirely untrue; the French will probably be eternally grateful.
July 18, 2006
Each year, Normandy Allies participants join with the town to commemorate the liberation of Saint-Lo. On this day, we also journeyed into the bocage, visited the Wall of Remembrance, and gathered at rue Captain Carter with Walter Ford Carter, team member and author of “No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love.”
Student Excerpt: It was a really moving experience to listen to Walter Carter talk about his father in the place where his father was killed in action while tending to a wounded soldier. Hearing such personal stories continues to give a human face to the military history we learn daily and lend these facts social context and solemn importance.
The memorial service at the Wall of Remembrance was also quite an experience, for the first time in my life I felt real emotion as the American flag was raised and endeavored to stand as straight as I could and pay every respect. The General Councilor’s speech (Denis Lesage) was a perfect encapsulation of everything I have come to expect of the Norman’s generosity, a sense of living history, and a flair for words. Then, of course, there was the glass of friendship, a tradition I’ll miss when I return to the United States.
From this day, and these two weeks, I’ve learned a French tradition I wish to take home with me: that of living history. To the French, history is not dead, dry facts in a textbook but takes on color and flavor in their everyday lives as we’ve seen when those born long after D-Day tear up about its events. I hope to bring this influence (and the greetings of the Mayor of Saint-Lo!) back to America with me.
Tonight my host family complimented me on my improved French and I was as glad as if I’d won some award. They also explained to me that “canapé” could mean a small snack or a sofa (although they assured me there was no need to eat the sofa).
July 19, 2006
We begin our final day in Normandy with a visit to LaCambe German cemetery where the first Normandy Allies group planted a tree in the Garden of Peace. We went on to Chateau de Colombières and learned more of Normandy’s history as well as being introduced to the inundated area. The Mayor and people of Trevières hosted us at a luncheon where we heard eyewitness accounts of the 1944 landings. We closed our day at the Lebrec Cider Farm—a taste of Normandy!
Student Excerpt: Naturally the luncheon at Trevières was a moving experience which also left me questioning mankind. War is so horrible for soldiers and civilians alike, how could anybody allow it to be repeated? Haven’t we learned our lesson? I realize this entry is full of questions, but today was a slower paced day which left me much time to reflect on previous days and thus left me with questions to which I will never have answers. But I believe it is arriving at these questions that is an accomplishment—had I not seen and heard what I have, would I have ever taken the time to wonder at these questions? Would I have ever tried to imagine a solution?
As before, I was continually amazed to see how ever grateful the French remain. My host family have gone above and beyond to give us a sense of good French country living and to them I am so grateful. I am also happy for the willingness of the French to tell their stories and experiences.
Much of what I carry away has already been tied into the above entry. Ultimately this journey was to learn of WWII, and ultimately learning of WWII should teach us, the future generation, of the horrors of any war—no less a world war—and have us hoping and searching for a way to avoid such a devastation in the future. This war should and does leave any thoughtful person questioning the idea of humanity—and may often leave one feeling pessimistic. That is until somebody who has lived the horrors of war can still find it within himself to crack a joke. Thanks, Alvin!
July 20, 2006
On to Paris—walks on the Champs Elysees, evening strolls to the Eiffel Tower just around the corner from our hotel, a time to catch our breath before we return to our homes—with so much to share!