International Experience July 2012
International Experience 2012: July 15-27, 2012
“Normandy Allies is a group that promotes friendship between the United States and Normandy by honoring the history of the 1944 landings.” So said, former Vierville s/Mer mayor, Jean Marie Oxeant, as he introduced Normandy Allies’ President Marsha Smith to current Mayor Antoine de Bellaigue. The opening and closing events of this year’s journey area metaphor for this mission. We began at the Wall of Remembrance, remembering and honoring American soldiers in the presence of French veterans acting as flag bearers. We closed with a heart-warming reception at the Vierville s/Mer home of Madame Therese Chedal-Anglay. Throughout our journey, we shared glasses of friendship, enjoyed the wonderful cuisine, and witnessed the French honoring American veteran Duane Miller of South Dakota.
In addition to Mr. Miller, our group included students (Ray Baird, NY; Caitlin Marden, VA; Freddy Stein, NY; Tyler VanVliet, NJ) and teachers (Michael Galgano of James Madison University, VA; Christopher Krintzline of Clyde High School, OH). Additional travelers were: Bonnie Carter, MA; Virginia Galgano, VA; Robert & Robin Gilbert, VA; Ed Miller, SD, son of Duane Miller; Cathy & Jim Weaver, NY. Cathy’s uncle, S/Sgt Benedict A. Smith was killed in action on July 30, 1944 and is buried in France.
The group was led by the Normandy Allies team: Marsha Smith, Peter Combee, Charles Frick, and Walter Carter.
Each day of our journey focused on a particular aspect of the Normandy Campaign. LTC Peter Combee, with detailed maps and extensive primary source materials, provided the daily orientations. The reflections of Ed Miller, son of veteran Duane Miller, provide an overview of the journey.
July 17, Arrivals:
From the first evening, our group enjoyed each other’s company as well as the trip. The group gathered from seven states—from east coast to west coast—and the opening dinner in Paris seemed to be the catalyst that started things off in the right direction. The next morning, en route to Bayeux, the first stop was the Caen Memorial which is extensive and gave an overview/background of the world events leading up to American/allied involvement in WWII. It is an excellent museum for tourists, scholars and European/world history enthusiasts, one of the first stops in the annual program.
July 18 – Wall of Remembrance and the Commemorations in Saint-Lô
The Wall of Remembrance is dedicated to the 29th Division and the local residents welcomed my father with a plaque bearing the 29th insignia. The ceremony there was a nice way to start/continue friendships between Normandy and the US (and they provided refreshments – thank you!) After the Wall ceremony the bus continued to a rural area near Percy, to the site/ridge where my father was wounded and Marsha Smith’s uncle was killed on the same day (July 30, 1944.) Michael Yannaghas provided an overview of the area from a ridge overlooking the Norman hedgerows. It effectively showed why the hedgerows were so difficult and deadly for American soldiers.
The picnic with the Saint-Lô/Roanoke VA group was a nice way to sample some local food, and was very good (thank you, Jeanine Vérove.) After the picnic we visited the Blanchet Mausoleum, The Chappelle de La Madeleine and the Church of Notre Dame in St Lo (which was heavily damaged by the war.)
The commemorations in Saint-Lô were formal and colorful. They were especially meaningful to me and my father as he was considered an honored guest throughout the day, (at the 35th Division ceremony; laying a wreath at the Howie Memorial; being presented the Legion of Honor medal by Préfet Colrat; and being named a citizen of Saint-Lô by Mayor Digard during his presentation.) Many people personally introduced themselves to my father including the Mayor, the Préfet, and several of their deputies and assistants. It was a great day and my father really enjoyed it. Special thanks to Michael Yannaghas.
July 19 – Orientation Session/Normandy Campaign; walking tour of Bayeux Tapestry; Bayeux Cathedral; British Cemetery
The orientation session led by Pete Combee in the hotel gave an introduction to the Normandy Campaign, which served as an overview or outline of the days ahead.
The Bayeux Tapestry was very interesting because of: 1) the history of what it is, and 2) the history that it tells. Fascinating, very old, very detailed, a must-see in Bayeux. The tour of the Bayeux Cathedral was very interesting. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and quite effective at pointing out the cathedral’s smallest details and its most intriguing secrets (which we were allowed to visit.) Later that night we returned to the cathedral for an outdoor animated light show.
The British Bayeux War Cemetery was our first introduction to the human cost of the war. The setting was serene and very colorful (the Europeans like their flowers.) Thousands of white tablets listed the names, military units, and the (young) ages of those who gave their lives for freedom. The monuments also included personal notes or tributes from the family, often reflecting a profound sense of loss.
July 20 – Juno Beach; Merville Battery/Gold Beach; Pegasus Bridge; l’Abbaye d’Ardenne & Rembrance Ceremony.
Juno Beach was enlightening because of its contrast to Omaha Beach (the flat beach and shoreline relative to the cliffs/bluffs along Omaha Beach.) It seemed like an amphibious landing would be much easier/safer here compared to Omaha Beach.
The Merville Battery is nearly intact today showing what a German artillery compound was like during the landings. This site is/was in the British sector and many of the tourists around the site were British. It was interesting talking to them and getting a feel for their perspective on the site, the war, and what it means to them today.
Pegasus Bridge was an excellent stop because of its strategic importance on D-Day and because of the way it was captured by the use of gliders. We saw the new drawbridge in action and the original one in the museum. The museum staffers were highly motivated to tell the story and were very knowledgeable. My father enjoyed this stop because he met another WWII vet (who served in the Pacific) but also because several people in the museum introduced themselves to him and thanked him for his service. Some were quite emotional; the war must have had a personal impact on their families.
We also visited l’Abbaye d’ Ardenne, a compound used by the French resistance during the German occupation. The site originated well before the 1940’s and holds other historical significance as well. However, perhaps the main reason for visiting this site involves the Canadian POWs that were executed here, another senseless Nazi atrocity. We honored the soldiers with a remembrance ceremony, placing a maple leaf on the monument as each soldier’s name was read out.
July 21 – Longues s/Mer Battery; Boat Trip/Port-en-Bessin; Arromanches: Circular Theatre & Mulberry Museum.
Longues s/Mer was an excellent stop because of its layout and well preserved condition. The layout showed how the battery was strategically sited between Omaha and Juno Beach. The condition of the casemates, the artillery and the observation bunker gave indications as to how the site operated (and its firepower.) Nice site for photos.
The boat trip from Port-en-Bessin was a fun way to tour battle sites without having to walk! The boat sailed to and through the Mulberry artificial harbor giving us an up-close view of how large the harbor components were/are and their condition 68 years after installation.
The Mulberry Museum was very informative to me, one of the unexpected surprises on the trip. The highlights of the museum were their glass encased models of the mulberry harbor (showing the harbor components.) The models demonstrated how ships could dock at the harbor and unload their cargo for transport to the shore.
July 22 – Pointe du Hoc; LaCambe; Isigny s/Mer; Graignes; Reception for host families in Grandcamp-Maisy
Pointe du Hoc revealed how difficult it was to remove the German defenses along Omaha Beach. Even though bombing was extensive, bombs alone couldn’t take out the site. It took the courage and determination of Army Rangers using ladders and ropes to scale the cliffs to eliminate this threat to the landings (incredible mission, well done.)
The German cemetery at LaCambe is a well-kept but somber final resting spot for 20,000+ German soldiers. The brown crosses, monuments and grave markers reflect a significant and sad loss of life. It makes me wonder “why”, why were their lives wasted?
I wanted to see Graignes because of the story: 182 paratroopers dropped 18 miles from their D-Day objective (landing in water, at night, behind enemy lines.) There’s not much there today, but the memory of those courageous paratroopers and townspeople lives on.
We enjoyed good food and drink at the reception for host families in Grandcamp-Maisy, and the locals welcomed my father and presented him with a town medal. Also, thank you to Hilary Cornet for everything she did to make our trip enjoyable (translating, providing a portable chair for my father)
July 23 – Morning at Omaha Beach; Luncheon with Omaha Beach/Bedford Association French Hosts; Remembrance Ceremonies (29th Division Monument and first cemetery); Afternoon visit to Normandy American Military Cemetery at Colleville.
This was a big day for me. Walking on Omaha Beach with my dad (where he landed in 1944) was one of my main objectives of the trip. We also took the American flag onto the beach and photographed it with my dad and the students. We visited the 29th Division monument, the first American cemetery site, other casemate locations along the beach and the first allied landing strip in Normandy above the beach. We held ceremonies at the 29th marker and the cemetery site.
The luncheon at Omaha/Vierville was good, meeting the locals, etc. I wish I was able to speak/understand more of the French language, as some of the hosts didn’t speak English.
The visit to the American Cemetery was another big highlight of the trip for me. The staff apparently made preparations for our group: the videos in the hall featured Capt Carter and our tour guide was wearing a 29er pin. We took photos at Capt Carter’s monument, including some with Walter Carter. We also took monument photos of other 29ers, including Maj Howie, the Hoback brothers, etc. Perhaps the biggest event of the day was raising, retiring and folding the US flag (the same flag we carried across Omaha Beach) and having it presented to my father (thanks to SGM Charlie Frick.)
July 24 – La Fiere; Utah Beach & Museum; Ste Mere Eglise, Luncheon with Town Council; Visit of the town; the Airborne Museum; Lebrec Cider Farm.
The site near La Fiere was another seemingly small bridge that had major strategic importance to the allies. It’s a peaceful, serene location today, what a contrast to 1944.
Utah Beach was interesting (again noting the contrast to Omaha; Utah is mostly flat versus the bluffs/cliffs on Omaha.) The Museum was extensive with life-size exhibits. The museum staff noted my father’s presence and gave him a citation and some gifts.
Sainte-Mère-Eglise was another interesting story involving airborne troops. The luncheon with the town council and the director of the airborne museum was good, as we were again warmly welcomed by our hosts. The Airborne Museum has many life-size exhibits including paratroopers and their gear and some aircraft actually used in the drops.
The setting at the LeBrec Cider Farm was like a step back in time. The building site was centuries old and must hold intriguing stories. If only those walls could talk.
July 25 – Visit to Chateau Colombieres & marshlands; Luncheon with Trevieres Town Council and French residents; rue Captain Carter & Remembrance Ceremony; Reception at home of Mme Chedal-Anglay.
Visiting the marshlands gave another viewpoint of what the inundated/flooded areas were like and what the Allied paratroopers and infantry had to overcome. The Chateau was a fun experience because it held not only WWII history, but even more than that going several back centuries earlier. Charles de Maupeou was enthusiastic describing how the Chateau was used by the US for psychological operations (psyops.)
We enjoyed another reception/luncheon in Trevières; this one made special by several French citizens who survived the German invasion and occupation and witnessed the allied landings and liberation of their country. Many of the French citizens spoke of personal tragedy (imprisonment, execution, injury and death by the fighting, etc.) This showed another dimension of the war, the impact on civilians.
Visiting rue Capt Carter and the site where Capt Carter died was an emotional stop for the group. The remembrance ceremony honoring Capt Carter and his noble contribution to our freedom was humbling; it personalized the losses of the war (thank you Walter.)
The reception at the home of Mme Chedal-Anglay was relaxing and informative. Her home site is next to the Vierville church steeple, which was used as a navigation point by the 29th on D-Day (“work your way toward the steeple.”) However, at the time her home was occupied by Germans and was destroyed during the landings. I had met Mme Chedal-Anglay at the Omaha Beach Lunch reception and found her engaging and outgoing, even though our exchanges were generally very basic due to my limited understanding of the French language. Many people in our group signed her guestbook.
July 26 – Return trip to Paris; Afternoon in Paris on Champs-Elysees near Arc de Triomphe; Trip to Eiffel Tower; Closing dinner at Mercur Hotel.
The return trip to Paris was a nice bus ride through the French countryside, lots of fields and farms. It was a time to reflect on the events and sites of the last several days.
The stop at the Arc de Triomphe was on my list of things to do because I wanted a photo of my dad wearing his Legion of Honor medal while standing next to this Parisian icon of French military history. Mission accomplished.
The Closing Dinner at the hotel gave the group an opportunity to bid each other farewell. An interesting development occurred after the meal as each participant took a moment to speak about anything on the trip that seemed most significant to that individual. It was enlightening to hear the different perspectives on freedom, sacrifice, hope, endurance, commitment.
Generally there was something significant and/or meaningful in every location or event of the trip. We must remember (never forget) that these men fought and thousands died to provide the freedoms that we have today. We must respect their contributions and honor their sacrifices by trying to earn the freedoms that they have bestowed upon us.
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