International Experience July 2009
Video of our 2009 trip to Normanday (Produced by Joe Kells) on Vimeo
Our travelers tell the story—the following excerpts are from the journal written by the students who received additional travel grants, and from the written evaluations of the trip. So we begin by introducing the group members and their home states.
The students: Matt Cable (New Jersey), Ben Connor (New York), Joe Kells (New York), Joe Moore (Maryland), Collin Stahlkrantz (New York), Teresa Stubler (New York), Kelly Warner (New York), Holly Wenger (Virginia).
The World War II veterans, all veterans of the 29th Division: Robert Henne, 115th Regiment (Arizona and Ohio), Archer Martin, 110th F.A., (New York), Vincent Rowell, 227th F.A. (Tennessee).
Additional participants: Tom Byrne (Massachusetts), Bonnie Carter (Massachusetts), Donna Coulson (New Jersey), Colleen Green (Montana), Bruce Henne (Washington), Peter Henne (California), Joan Markey (New Jersey), Margaret McNamara (Montana), CPT Steven Miller (Virginia), Cheryl Slater (Tennessee), Lou Stark (New York), Pat Stark (New York), Susan Wenger (Virginia).
The team: Marsha Smith (New York), LTC Peter Combee (Virginia), SGM Charles Frick (Maryland), Walter Ford Carter (Massachusetts), Gene Johnston (Paris, France).
July 14: The group arrived in Bayeux to begin the International Experience.
We were all meeting for the first time as a group, so that first afternoon was simply a time to settle into our wonderful Hotel Churchill and then enjoy a dinner together at L’Assiette Normand.
We began with an orientation by LTC Peter Combee and team members, followed by a walking tour of Bayeux including the Bayeux Tapestry, the Cathedral, Museum of the Battle of Normandy, and the British Cemetery.
“First day was great—the Hotel Churchill was very nice…I thought it was a great idea to start out small on the 1st day with the history of the war. Loved having free time to explore Bayeux.”
“Great day, I thought the Tapestry was amazing—it was all amazing.”
What an ancient town! 2,000 year old Roman fortification wall. A wonderful Hotel Churchill.
“Orientation was top notch. This was a briefing that could well have been taped. The handout is really valuable and I’ll use it frequently in the future.”
Our day included the Caen Memorial to the Peace, Pegasus Bridge & Museum, Café Gondrée, Abbaye d’Ardenne where French Resistance member Jacques Vico spoke with us, and a Remembrance Ceremony in the Jardin des Canadians. All of our evenings were free to enjoy the restaurants and the ambiance of Bayeux.
“At Pegasus Bridge we heard the story of the British miraculously landing the gliders and quickly taking the bridge in mere minutes and with few casualties. We were able to actually walk on the old Pegasus Bridge and see the bullet holes in the side. I also really liked being able to see part of one of the original gliders. There were monuments where the gliders had landed and it was interesting to view the proximity in which they landed.
We also visited the Abbaye d’Ardenne. Both the church and grounds were beautiful. We met Jacques Vico, who was part of the French resistance and had lived at the Abbaye. His father, mother, and sister had all been part of the resistance and all of them survived. The Canadian memorial was located in the Abbaye garden. There we were told about the execution of Canadian prisoners, and how the story survived because a Canadian officer escaped. During the Ceremony of Remembrance we placed a maple leaf on the monument as each Canadian soldier’s name was read.
The French were very kind and forgiving of our lack of knowledge of the French language. At the Museum they are very interested in the veterans’ stories. I think it is interesting that they call D-Day “Landing Day”. Jacques Vico was a very good story teller, and his story about his life in the resistance was informative.
Today the history of WWII was really brought to life. I usually read these stories in books, but to be able to hear first hand accounts from the veterans and Jacques Vico, and to see where actual battles took place was truly amazing. I could better understand the sacrifices that these men made and begin to really picture what happened.” —Holly Wenger
A very important part of the journey—the British and Canadian contributions to the Allied effort are explained so well here.
I enjoyed the movie (Caen), the way it was set to music and the split screen. At Pegasus, the model of the Horsa glider was a highlight. I heard “They don’t land, they successfully crash.” I closed my eyes and I felt the indents from the shrapnel which killed the father-to-be.
We visit the lovely coastal town of Arromanches with stops at the Circular Theater & Mulberry Museum, then explore the Longues s/Mer Battery and stop at Port-en-Bessin.
Today we went to Arromanches where we visited a museum and found out exact locations of certain ships in the harbor. Then we walked down to the beach and saw some of the mulberries that are still there. The whole beach was so beautiful and it was cool to think that so many years ago that beach was filled with thousands of ships.
Another thing we did was visit the Circular Theatre and watch a film that showed D-Day from the perspective of the Allies. The theatre made us feel like we were actually there because the screen went around the room 360 degrees. Then the group went to see the German guns at the coast of the Atlantic Wall. Imagining all those American ships suddenly appearing was cool for us to imagine from the German perspective.
At the museum at Arromanches, our guide gave a speech about the French appreciation of the American landings and then handed each of the veterans a medallion of Arromanches. It was amazing to see that 65 years later they are still so grateful.
Something special that I’ll always remember from this day (besides the beach) is the reactions of the veterans when they received the medallions (at the Mulberry Museum). For that moment, the looks on their faces were those of brave and proud American soldiers.
The Mulberry Museum was eye-opening to me. The facilitator was so sincere and I saw the gratitude of the French towards Americans. I was deeply moved.
–Cheryl Slater (Cheryl’s father, Normandy veteran Vincent Rowell, received a medallion here.)
Today the remains of the artificial harbor truly brought home to me how much planning had to be done prior to the landings, and how even with all the planning the Allies couldn’t account for everything. Again, the many miracles that occurred on D-Day and beyond blow me away.
Circular Theatre—A+, Mulberry Museum very good. I appreciated the recognition with appropriate gifts for the veterans, including my dad. Longues s/Mer Battery—I began to understand the Atlantic Wall
—Bruce Henne, son of veteran Robert Henne
This presentation (at the Mulberry Museum) was exceedingly instructive, the presentation of the artifacts was excellent—an account that will be more and more important as the sea continues to remove the actual remains.
—Robert Henne, Normandy veteran
We visited the bocage area on foot including a stop at the new 29th Division memorial at Hill 108. We spent the remainder of the day in Saint-Lô, attending the dedication ceremony of the new 35th Division memorial, the annual wreath-laying at the Major Howie memorials, concluding with the customary and convivial reception given by Mayor Digard and the Town Council. Our three veterans were honored and made honorary citizens of Saint-Lô. We are grateful to our friends Jean Mignon, Jeannine Verove, and Michael Yannaghas for their welcome and hospitality throughout the day.
Today’s first event was visiting the bocage area to see the hedgerows. The farm we went to has been kept almost exactly as it was during the war. The owner of the land generously keeps it so in order to allow us and others to see what the sunken roads were like for the 29th to fight in. Even though the fields seemed tended and we were in broad daylight, we could all imagine the fear of being in the hedgerows at night while under fire.
As we processed from the new 35th Division monument to the Major Howie memorial, Marsha was able to get us a ride in the military vehicles with the re-enactors. The vehicles stopped, but not at the memorial. We had no idea what to do, but we got in touch with Marsha and got to the memorial. It added a little excitement to the day.
The French have always seemed very appreciative of the veterans. Even lots of young Normans came to the ceremony.
Seeing the hedgerows really made me think about the fear and danger that the 29th encountered while fighting through the bocage.
Great day—I was honored to represent the 29th Division and the 116th Regiment in the ceremonies.
—CPT Steven Miller
Once again, the gratefulness of the people of Normandy stood out to me. Their love of the vets was incredible. The fact that 65 years later, the citizens of Saint-Lô still celebrate the way they do, and honor the memory of Major Howie is just wonderful and awe-inspiring. Seeing the damage from shrapnel on the mausoleums at the cemetery again gave a different perspective. I can’t even imagine how terrifying it must have been for the citizens of Saint-Lô.
We checked out of our Hotel Churchill, grateful for the warm and hospitality of Madame Hebert and her staff. Participants enjoyed an open morning in Bayeux before we headed for the Canadian Center at Juno Beach. In the evening, we checked into the Hotel Grandcopaise in Grandcamp-Maisy, our base for the explorations of the American sector. The students began their stays with host families, and we all met and mingled with Mayor Bigot, Jacques Chambon, the host families and town leaders who honored our veterans with medallions and gifts. The story of each veteran was explained by Jean-Claude Joussard, so that all could appreciate what these men had experienced in Normandy in 1944.
This morning I attended Catholic mass at the Cathedral Notre Dame in Bayeux. It felt so similar but at the same time was brand new. I understand only basic French but the beauty of the organ and priest’s voice still amazed me. Even in my handicapped state, I followed with the mass as if it were my local church. This was an enjoyable experience. I was accompanied by Kelly and some ladies from the trip.
Our first stop of the day was at Juno Beach/Canadian museum. This was a very educational stop for the group. I was shocked to see how level the Juno beachhead was, and how long the beach was at mid-tide. While in the museum, I learned various things about the Canadian veterans of the Battle of Normandy. This may have been the first stop where no one kissed Archer on the cheek, but even so the Canadians were very hospitable.
Today we had two interactions with the French people. 1.) We had a reception in Grandcamp-Maisy. While we were there the mayor honored the veterans and part of their history was read. 2.) Then it was time to meet our families. I now feel like I know how a blind date feels. Louis and Jacqueline Ledevin are my hosts and are very kind to us. They made cider for us and that was very good. We had a nice dinner and we got to explore the farm with M. Ledevin. He took us on a car trip to see a monument to the 325th US Airborne Division that landed nearby.
As most days, I gain more respect for the veterans and appreciation of the French hospitality.
This broadened everyone’s perception of the war—not just the US, but Canada as well. I enjoyed the reception; I enjoy any interaction with the local hosts. They make us feel very welcome.
Juno was very much appreciated because of the passion displayed by the Canadian students for the Canadian contributions during the landings. —Pat Stark
I truly enjoyed the special hospitality of Madame Rima Hebert and the staff of the Hotel Churchill. I enjoyed the street scene and the evening walk with music on Tuesday in Bayeux. The host family program is wonderful for the students.
An early morning visit to Graignes, and then on to Pointe du Hoc with Jean-Claude Joussard and a luncheon with Omaha Beach/Bedford Association hosts Bertrand LeJemtel and Daniel Lebrec. In the afternoon we visited the Lebrec Cider Farm and monument to the 147th Engineer Battalion, and were welcomed to a reception at the Chedal-Anglay home in Vierville s/Mer. The students continued their stay at host families, and the other participants had a grand meal at La Trinquette, one of Grandcamp-Maisy’s fine restaurants.
Graignes was a great place to visit. It was very interesting to learn the story of the airborne troops that defended the area and how they interacted with the town. It is amazing how much of the town was destroyed.
Pointe du Hoc has definitely been the best place to visit so far. It was amazing to see the craters and how much destruction came from the early bombardments. Also, the cliffs climbed by the Rangers are outrageous. You cannot fathom how they could have accomplished such a feat. Unfortunately, still no casings to be found…
Especially in the area of Normandy, the French seem almost obsessed with the invasion and the liberation. The home of my host family, the Lefrancs, is filled with memorabilia from the landings.
I will always remember how much the French, even still, appreciate the sacrifice of the men who liberated their nation.
The warmth and hospitality of the French people for the USA and Normandy Allies is quite moving. Our own people and children should have the reverence and respect for our WWII vets. I thought it was a great day, and the food made it even better.
Peter’s comments on Graignes were of much interest to me. It was my hope to gain more knowledge of this conflict and he has helped me. Pointe du Hoc is always a favorite, and Jean-Claude Joussard was excellent.
Graignes was brought alive for me. This day was a highlight because of the Lebrec and Chedal-Anglay visits.
—Archer Martin, veteran
We were reminded how important historical facts can become lost (Graignes); of how plans go awry, how great a role military intelligence plays. The continuing sacrifices of those tiny towns and villages, even in a very difficult economy is marvelous. The Lebrec and Chedal-Anglay families will be in my memory for as long as I have one!
—Robert Henne, veteran
We spent the entire morning at Omaha Beach, and then went on to the Normandy American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Mayor Thomines of Colleville-sur-Mer invited us to a reception at the Town Hall, where our veterans were again honored and received gifts including Calvados!
Vincent Rowell was in the second wave near Vierville s/Mer, and he described his landing. Seems pretty traumatized—described how the water was saturated in blood, bodies everywhere, etc. Vince and I talked while the rest of the group visited some of the bunkers near Omaha and he described how he made it all the way from Normandy to Berlin. He said that by the time the US Army had reached inner Germany, the Germans began conscripting kids under 15 and men over 60 due to desperation and lack of manpower—it was a heartache, he said, to pull the trigger.
Colleville cemetery was an intense experience. Many of us, myself included, got choked up when we saw the 10,000 or so graves. Every so often the crosses would be punctuated by a Star of David, indicating a fallen Jewish-American soldier. I made a point of visiting these while Walter Carter visited his father’s grave and those of us lucky enough to be led by Tom—myself not included—saw the resting place of Major Howie, an American hero.
We students got to retire the colors at the cemetery—this made me nervous but was also a great honor.
The French treated our veterans like rock stars—many either wanted to take a picture with them or simply shook their hand. My host family, like the vast majority of people I met in Normandy, have been extremely kind and give me wine and delicious cheese.
I am extremely proud of my country.
St. Laurent draw was a good location for a briefing—fairly quiet and good seating on the steps. I enjoyed the free time to walk the beach and at the cemetery. —Bonnie Carter
I finally walked the sand where my Father landed.
Best day. Best experience was retiring the colors.
A very full morning at Utah Beach, including the Museum and Communications bunker. We were welcomed by Joseph Leprieur and other members of the Sainte-Mère-Eglise to a luncheon and a visit of town and Airborne Museum. We went on to La Fière and stopped for some wonderful Isigny ice cream on the way back to Grandcamp-Maisy.
On Wednesday morning we visited Utah Beach. After visiting Omaha Beach the day before, it was nice to compare the landscape. Whereas Omaha Beach has a long beach stretch, then a huge bluff, Utah Beach is flat, the only high ground being small sand dunes. Seeing the different topography helped explain why Omaha Beach was harder to take than Utah. In comparison to Omaha, Utah was a cakewalk. However, we remember that many men did die at Utah and their sacrifice should not be minimized. At Utah Beach, we walked the shore and visited the museum. There were many dioramas showing the German defenses and the Allied attack. It was nice to learn about the Utah landing, because it is so often overlooked.
In the afternoon we visited La Fière Bridge. The bridge was one of the core objectives during D-Day, imperative to capture and defend them intact, because the bridge and a few others were the only opening for the Allies to penetrate further inland over rivers and the marshes of the inundated areas. I was surprised at how small the bridge was! The stone bridge covered perhaps only 20 feet. It was hard to imagine an army operation taking place there, that two opposing sides would so fiercely desire such seemingly small insignificant land. I also learned that this was one of the three main objectives of the 82nd Airborne. I was very proud that they accomplished their main goals, despite being horribly dispersed by the weather. Additionally, I’m glad to learn about the La Fière Bridge while overlooking it. Military movements become easier to imagine when standing on the actual battlefield.
The French are extremely hospitable. I left my French host today and Madame Colette (my host) and her brother and sister-in-law all invited me to stay with them if I ever was in France again. Everyone is also extremely generous. Colette bought me posters of the Port and D-Day for my brother, because I mentioned getting him sand from Omaha. The government officials of Sainte-Mère-Eglise gave us a wonderful lunch. Even the Airborne Museum gave our group gifts of “crickets”, postcards, and a collectible coin. I am awed by their giving spirit.
I now realize the importance of the La Fière Bridge and bridges like that. I learned that some of the largest military objectives are some of the smallest locations.
Peter again did a great job, what a contrast to Omaha Beach.
Utah Beach and the Museum were wonderful. The reception at Sainte-Mère-Eglise indicates the sincerity of the people of Sainte-Mère-Eglise and the appreciation they have for what our troops did on June 6, 1944. Because of the importance of La Fière to me, it was a highlight of the day.
Just imagine— Sainte-Mère-Eglise has budgeted 77,000 euros this year for affairs like this one for us, from a general tax!
—Archer Martin, veteran
As with the other luncheons that we had, the local people make you feel so welcome. I believe they will never forget.
The day started with a stop at the German Military Graveyard at LaCambe. We then went on to Colombières, where Michel Henry provided historical input on the inundated areas, followed by a visit to Chateau de Colombières, welcomed by Charles de Maupeou who has begun collecting the history of psychological warfare in the area. We had luncheon with Mayor Jean Pierre Richard and the Town Council of Trevières and heard the accounts of three French citizens who were witnesses to the landings and liberation. Our day concluded at the Wall of Remembrance at Saint Jean de Savigny where Vincent Rowell unveiled his plaque, and rue Captain Carter where Walter shared the story of his father’s death—a combat doctor killed attending a wounded soldier. Denis Lesage and Colette Labbé with other members of the Wall of Remembrance Society preserve the memory and welcome Americans to this site in Normandy.
The day started out just like any other, groggy, hungry but eager to visit the day’s sites. Although we had to make a slight delay to look for a student’s passport, we had the opportunity to visit LaCambe. Seeing 20,000 stones, representing mass graves of “the enemy” evoked raw emotion. I realized that these poor young men (80% under 20) were loved by family and friends just like the Allies. They may have been brainwashed, led astray, or truly believed in the Nazi ideals, no matter what their situation, it does not fill in the void their deaths left for their families.
In addition, visiting the death site of Walter Carter’s father was a very moving experience. I could feel his pain as he bravely read us letters and interviews collected about his Battalion Surgeon father. I appreciated his feeling of loss much more when visiting the site where his father fell. The overall mood of the day has been a somber one, no one wishing to leave Normandy and head back to the real world. Alas, all good things must come to an end.
My host mother and brother were at the luncheon in Trevières and translated first-hand accounts of French people on June 6th. I loved seeing them again for one last time. I’ll really miss their friendship and hospitality.
The most significant thing for me today was the realization that the tens of millions of lives lost affected hundreds of millions in a very real way.
Once again, a different perspective on the war and the lives that were affected, both French and American. Hearing Walter Carter share his father’s story, and his search to find out more, was heartbreaking. Listening to the three French women share their stories was also heartbreaking, but extremely important. I will never forget. Thank you Normandy Allies for all of these experiences.
Colombières—the Chateau—the Trevières luncheon and stories of the citizens—the French at the Wall of Remembrance, and Walter’s stories of his father and family, made for a fitting final day of our journey.
The Wall of Remembrance was great—especially loved that Vincent got to unveil his plaque—people were so nice!
Naturally, Dad’s (Vincent Rowell’s) name on the Wall of Remembrance seems to be a closure for me. Generations to come will know that he was there.
An afternoon in Paris, evening dinner together at Bistro 121, night-time visit to the Eiffel Tower—our last day in France before returning home with memories and stories to share.
The connections I have made and the memories created on this trip are ones that will last a lifetime. The veterans may not realize how much it meant to me that they came out to dinner with the students and told stories continuously for over two hours. They were the thing that I will never forget. We talked about the war of course but also their lives before and after the war. I sat with Bob Henne and he had hilarious stories but also sad stories of loss and death. This experience has helped me appreciate the history I have learned.
—Ben Connor, student
The ability to experience Omaha and Colleville cemetery was by far my most meaningful experience. I enjoyed listening to Pete and the vets, and I also enjoyed the opportunity to be alone to walk the beach and cemetery. Listening to Vincent recount his experience set the tone, and the day finished well with the students retiring the colors.
The significance of this trip is that I now have a 10-fold increase in understanding D-Day, the Normandy Campaign, and the experiences of the people who lived through these harrowing times. Thank you so much to Pete and the rest of the team. You have given me something I will remember forever, and something I will pass on to my students.
—CPT Steven Miller, soldier and teacher
Thanks for all your efforts before, during and after this amazing trip. I learned much of the landings and Father’s personal experiences. I experienced French history, culture, and people. I’m thankful for the students included and enjoyed them and the entire group. Thanks for making it all possible and wonderful. —Bruce Henne, son of veteran Robert Henne
In closing I would say that my understanding has deepened regarding the war. I was able to see through others’ eyes the fear, losses, honor, gratitude, and oneness that has resulted from the sacrifices of so many. Peace is not free. It is gained and protected by strong values and tremendous sacrifices.
—Cheryl Slater, daughter of veteran Vincent Rowell