International Experience, July 2005
A Summary of Normandy Allies’ Seventh International Experience, July 2005
Story by Walter Carter
Normandy Allies recently took its seventh annual trip to visit the sites of the 1944 landings and battle sites of the Normandy campaign. During July 12-22, ten students and four adult travelers went with a team of four Normandy Allies’ Board members: Marsha Smith, Peter Combee, Charles Frick, and Walter Carter. Gene Johnston, security consultant with the U.S. Embassy in Paris and primary organizer of our activities in France, joined us toward the end of the tour.
The ten students included four from Blair Academy in NJ (Lejla Agic, Steven Brandwood, Ben Browning, Kerry Mitchell), four from Pittsford, NY (Brittany Belt, Joseph Bircher, Robert Connor, Greg Meyer), plus Zachary Kaufmann of Hagerstown, MD and Devon Mace of Winchester, TN. In truth we had eleven students. Marian Damien, a French university student, whose grandfather is a friend of one of our French hosts and supporters, accompanied us each day in Normandy. Marian became a friend and helped us with language translation.
The four adults were two US Army veterans from the Korean War period (Fritz Kucinski of Syracuse, NY and Pat Stark of Walworth, NY) and two teachers of history (Jason Beck of the Blair Academy and Melinda Cullen from Albany, NY).
After using July 13 for landing in Paris, riding by bus to Bayeux, checking into the Hotel Churchill, and resting up, we started early Thursday morning, July 14, with breakfast, an overview of the Normandy Campaign and its place in WW II, and boarding our bus. Our first stop was the Caen Memorial to Peace, which Steven Brandwood found “truly remarkable, both in terms of its breadth of material covered and the depth of each exhibit.” Lejla Agic appreciated the “stunning pictures and memorabilia from the failure of peace after World War I to the vast destruction inflicted on the world by the Nazis during World War II. The pictures, especially those of ghastly faces of prisoners in concentration camps, struck our hearts with the reality of the horrors of war.” We moved on to Pegasus Bridge, where British paratroopers secured the eastern end of the landings in what seemed to Lejla a “phenomenally successful” air drop, and then to Sword (British) and Juno (Canadian) Beaches, where Steven was “able to look through the swath of tourists [and] mentally recreate such a harrowing and significant event.”
Friday July 15 found us at Arromanches and the Mulberry Museum, where a staff member told us, with the use of a very realistic model, about the portable harbor constructed in 1944 by the British and towed across the Channel to make possible the flow of supplies needed to support the inland penetration of Allied troops. Greg Meyer and Rob Connor liked looking out the window at the remnants of “what had been an amazing engineering feat accomplished about 60 years ago.” After lunch we stopped at Longues-sur-Mer to explore the remains of a German large-gun battery, which British ships had put out of action and which British troops from Gold Beach had captured. Back in Bayeux, we visited the British Cemetery, where Steven Brandwood was moved by messages engraved on each headstone: “the fact that each grave was decidedly personal and different from all the others, giving a tangible story to each fallen soldier.” We ended with a viewing of the Bayeux Tapestry, which wove “a tale of remembrance forever engraving the conquest by William the Conqueror,” and the ancient cathedral which miraculously escaped major damage during the war.
On Saturday the 16th we decamped to the American sector and walked the grounds of Pointe du Hoc, where the US Rangers had scaled the sheer cliff to capture a German strong-point and disable its large guns that could have wreaked havoc on both Omaha and Utah Beaches. In the early afternoon we viewed Pointe du Hoc from the water, by boat, which “really made the images of American forces taking the point come to life” for Joe Bircher. Joe thought the lunch with the French hosts of the Omaha Beach/Bedford Association was also one of the day’s highlights, where “the French were very kind and shared their food with us, while we got to know each other better.” That evening we checked into the Hotel Grandcopaise in the coastal town of Grandcamp-Maisy.
We went to Omaha Beach on Sunday the 17th, starting with a ceremony of remembrance led by Zachary Kaufman at the 29th Division Monument. We were joined there by D-Day veteran Donald Miller, who shared his recollections with us. Brittany Belt affirmed that “It was nice of Don Miller to join us so that a veteran could see that we do honor and respect all they did for us 61 years ago.” Further along the beach we stopped at the site of the first (and temporary) American cemetery of the landings, where Gregory Meyer led us in a second ceremony of remembrance.
We spent the afternoon at the American Cemetery at Colleville, of which Brittany said, “Seeing Walter’s father’s grave made me realize that for every grave there is a person and a family that is affected by the death. The actions of that day still reach today’s events and affect people’s lives.” The students participated in the lowering of the American flag at the end of the visit, after which we went to a reception held by the families who served as hosts for the students for the rest of our stay in Grandcamp. Kerry Mitchell wrote in his journal, “Last night I spent time learning about the culture of France from my hosts. We also spent that night with our hosts’ nieces and nephews, who greeted us warmly and shared their questions of America, as we did of France.”
On Monday the 18th we drove to the village of St. Jean de Savigny, where the local citizens have built and maintain a Wall of Remembrance upon which American veterans or their families have placed plaques in memory of comrades or loved ones. We were greeted by Conseiller Général Denis Lesage and enjoyed refreshments served by the residents, then moved on to the Bois de Bretel, where Walter Carter’s father was killed while trying to rescue a wounded soldier in June 1944. Walter related the story of that action at its site, moving Joe Bircher to remark, “It was one of the most powerful things I have ever seen, a man standing on the place where his father was killed.” Lejla Agic led a ceremony in honor of medical battalions.
During the afternoon we visited St.-Lô, where Pete Combee told of the service and death of Major Tom Howie, and showed us the cemetery in which the Blanchette crypt served as a temporary headquarters for the First Battalion of the 115th Regiment as the city was being captured. Jean Mignon told us of his family’s experience during the liberation, and showed us the Chapelle de la Madeleine, of which he is curator, and which has an interesting collection of memorabilia about the 29th and 35th Divisions. Zach Kaufmann said, “I learned that the reconstruction process took much longer in some of the small towns than I ever would have imagined. I was told by my host family that the last of the new windows for the Church in Isigny was installed just last year!”
Utah Beach, our first stop on Tuesday the 19th, has “one of the most moving and respectful museums so far,” according to Robert Connor and Steven Brandwood. We saw a film describing the background and action of the landing, and heard a staff lecture at a very fine diorama displaying the geography of the landing area and nearby towns and crossroads that were the objectives of the US amphibious and airborne assaults. The beach area itself, backed up by flat land leading into the interior, contrasted sharply with the ominous high bluffs and cliffs overlooking Omaha.
At Ste. Mère Eglise we saw the church from whose roof an American paratrooper had hung when his parachute snagged during the airdrop, visited a very fine museum display of gliders, paratroop paraphernalia, and weapons, and enjoyed at lunch the warm hospitality of members of the town council. Later in the afternoon we walked among the dark gravestones of the German Cemetery at La Cambe. After finishing our day with ice cream cones from the dairy at Isigny, Rob and Steve felt that we had had “an eclectic day, yet a series of experiences that left them impressed by the courage and devotion to country of all men in the war.”
On Wednesday July 20, Colombières Mayor Michel Henri described the American crossing of the then-flooded fields around the Aure River, which had to be traversed to push further into the interior. We were given a tour of the 12th Century Chateau de Colombières and an account of its history. We had time to walk around the town of Trevières before another warm welcome and ample lunch with residents who had lived through the German occupation and liberation. Their accounts of their experience “were beyond belief,” remarked Brittany Belt, though none of us really doubted the veracity of these dramatic recollections.
We returned to Paris on Thursday, where we had most of the afternoon for sight-seeing, and a final dinner together at the restaurant Altitude 95, part way up the Eiffel Tower. As we reflected upon our past eight days, several experiences stood out as particularly significant for the students. “Meeting the French people,” “staying with the families,” “seeing the places where the troops were,” “experiencing first-hand what I have learned in textbooks,” “appreciating what was done and the sacrifices that were made.”
From our two history teachers: “A well thought-out program” (Jason Beck), and “I think we as Americans take freedom too much for granted. These people, 60 years later, still thank us for what we did – I think not enough Americans realize that. I will try to teach my students that when I return to school in the fall” (Melinda Cullen). For veteran Pat Stark, the most significant thing was “the vast knowledge of the team and their ability to relate it so thoroughly and completely. Pete and Walter were wonderful.”