We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


One-day Normandy tour choices: Omaha Beach sector

Earlier today, someone asked me about tours in Normandy and, while they are not using one of my three favorite guides, I provided some commentary on places to see. Most guides will tailor their tour at your request and there are some places I see as better spots to visit than others. There are some sites that are basically meaningless without a guide and others in which you’re not really using the guide’s knowledge.

If you have a single day to tour the battlefield with a guide, you want to maximize your time with the tour guide, sticking to sites that are close to each other and where the guide can provide the most impact. Each guide’s knowledge and enthusiasm is different, so I’m just providing my commentary.

I would say that due to the stark images and the general silence and emptiness of the German military cemetery at La Cambe, that it is a must, especially if your guide has stories to relate while you’re there. The small museum there is very well-done. Every guide should be able to relate some of the story of the cemetery and place it in context, so it is better with a guide. You might find it odd that I place this first, but I think that you don’t get as much of both the German perspective and a reminder of the horror that is war anywhere else in Normandy.

Now, since I’m looking at all this from an American perspective, I will only talk about the American sector in this post. My experience in the British and Canadian sector is far more limited, so I can’t speak as well to that.

Pointe du Hoc is absolutely required. If you’re not read The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion by Douglas Brinkley or watched Reagan’s historic speech in 1984 (speech written by then-unheralded Peggy Noonan), you really ought to do so before you go. Reading that will give you the structure and provide an emotive basis for your visit, but nothing really can prepare you for the level of destruction visited upon the landscape by the bombardment. Going down into one of the craters will truly give you a sense of it, but you’ll also get to see how most of the fortifications survived intact, requiring the Rangers to root the Germans out the hard way. Some guides will go with you into the bunkers and continue to explain, while others will simply let you wander. I prefer those who have more stories to tell, so it might be useful to determine in advance which kind of visit to Pointe du Hoc that the guide plans on.

Of course, as an American, you must visit the American cemetery. It is incredibly moving and feels like you’re back in the US, in a good way. You’ll note that all of our boys are facing home. The American cemetery does not allow guides to conduct tours on the grounds, so you are generally given some guidelines and advice, then explore on your own. I prefer to tour that by myself rather than using the guide’s time.

The Church at Angoville au Plainis one of the more moving stories in Normandy and if at all possible, you should try to visit there with Paul Woodadge, whose book, Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day, details the experience of two American paratrooper medics caring for the wounded between enemy lines during the battle. Since this is more in the northern, airborne sector of the American battle zone, I would suggest it only be done as part of an American airborne tour rather than combined with the American cemetery or Omaha Beach. While someone who has read Paul’s book will understand what happened here, someone who has not will have no real understanding without a tour guide to explain. Similarly, having the guide present will make one who feels familiar with the story learn far more.

On Sunday, they were showing Tom Brokaw visiting the village of Graignes with three veterans of the fight there. A number of paratroopers of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment were mis-dropped by about 20 miles and gathered at the village. They held off the 17th SS Division, helping their comrades secure Carentan, allowing a link up between the landings at Utah and Omaha. It would be particularly hard to experience this without a guide, even if you read Tragedy at Graignes: The Bud Sophian Story. It is also remote from much of the other sites.

If you’re only doing a one-day tour, I would recommend you visit Omaha Beach, the American and German cemeteries and Pointe du Hoc. If you manage to study Angoville au Plain or Graignes, you might seek one of those, but likely need to skip something. If you’re seriously into paratroopers or gliders, or have a veteran or other link to Utah Beach, visit those with the guide rather than thinking you can visit everything.

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Reunion Report: Anzio 69th Anniversary

8 WWII veterans, seatedAs I’d mentioned, I was able to attend the reunion of the Anzio Beachhead Veterans over the past few days, and it was a wonderful experience. Having helped with the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket events, I was already familiar with the logistics of wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown, so I was able to be more helpful than I’d expected.

One of the first things we did on arriving at the Amphitheatre was to visit Audie Murphy’s gravesite, which is right across the street. We were able to get the four veterans who would be in the wreath-laying grouped around Murphy’s headstone for photos. There were a dozen or so other visitors who happened along at the same time and our veterans got a wonderful experience of being “rock stars” with gratitude from everyone and requests for photos. It was a wonderfully heart-warming experience for me, seeing these men thanked and seeing the tourists get such a treat – to meet men who served with Murphy when visiting his gravesite.

I was able to bring along my own M1 Garand to the banquet and in this photo, you can see George holding what they all remembered as having been a far lighter weapon 69 years ago. George had enlisted in the Army and been assigned to the 9th Cavalry Regiment. Yes, George was a Buffalo Soldier, but when the Regiment reached North Africa, it wasn’t long before the Army decided to break up the unit. George ended up as a Sergeant in the 401st Port Company, unloading ships at the Anzio beachhead among many other places. He ended up making a career of the Army, retiring in 1967 as a Major, having served 24 years.

To George’s right is Billie Stone of the 39th Combat Engineers. Billie’s unit was, like George’s, not organically part of a specific larger unit, so they moved wherever the engineering work, or at times, the need for riflemen, was found.

Louis Kinofsky, C Company, 133rd Regiment, 34th Infantry Division, asked at the banquet when I handed him the M1 if he was going to get to take it home. Fortunately, he has one of his own there, so I get to keep mine. He had a lot of interesting stories, suggesting that when I read certain veteran memoirs, I take things with a very large grain of salt.

I sat with Frank and his wife at dinner and he related that despite this being the 34th reunion held by the Anzio veterans, it was the first he’d attended. Shortly after the war, He’d been to a few reunions of his unit, but since they’d always been held in the same location, after a few years, numbers dwindled as people hadn’t wanted to always visit the same place.

Ralph Joe Reid also served in the 34th Infantry Division, having arrived as a replacement before the Battle of Monte Cassino. When I sat talking to Joe on Thursday night, we talked about the aftermath of that battle. When his company was relieved by an Indian unit (I guessed Gurhkas, but am not sure), Joe, 13 other men and Captain Garfield were all that were left of his company. He also heaped praise on the 3rd Infantry Division, as the 34th replaced the 3rd and enjoyed their well-constructed foxholes in the Anzio perimeter. Joe said it was like living in the Sheraton after having only piles of rocks as protection at Cassino.

Current President of the organization, Ed Benezech, was a field artilleryman in the 141st Field Artillery Battalion, but when I had him pose with the M1 for photos in front of the organization, he went through an impromptu manual of arms. He’d drilled men with the rifle enough times that he felt completely comfortable with it.

John Boller, second from the left, is a former President of the group and it was through John’s notices in the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division newsletter, Watch on the Rhine, that I’d learned about the reunion. Without John, I’d have never known about it. His service with the 3rd ID during the war has continued in these decades since, and, as I said, seeing John explain to those tourists that he’d served with Murphy (though not known him personally) is a memory I’m sure they will treasure, as I know I will.

Among the issues discussed over the weekend was the continuing existence of the organization. With so few veterans still living, these organizations are turning to the children and grandchildren of the veterans. The organization’s modern website was designed by Bob Rickmeyer and we were joined by Barb Bossi and her brother, who have started work on a Anzio Families website that everyone will work to integrate into the existing setup. Hopefully, the energy of everyone can be harnessed for a grand reunion down in Orlando to celebrate the 70th anniversary next year.

At the far left of the photo is Louis Amato, who’d served as a medic in the 45th Infantry Division and then continued serving as a medic in POW camps after he’d been captured. Like most of these men, he’s quite a spark plug, the energy and humor bursting from him.

As I attend these reunions and meet these men, I am always struck by the obvious bonds they have for each other. While none of them knew each other during the war and some hadn’t met the others even before this event, they’d all been the same places and seen the same dangers. In the years since, those experienced shaped them, but when they have the chance to be around others who understand, it’s always good. Sitting with them and talking, knowing some of the context or being able to let them handle their weapons or uniforms from the war brings them to a comfort level where, as Joe said to me Thursday night, they can talk about things they’ve not spoken of for 69 years. Sometimes, their eyes light up and they speak with great animation about their comrades and the good times, or they pause, remembering those who never came home.

At a dinner party once, a woman asked me how I could devote so much study to something so terrible as war. For me, it’s the stories about people. While I enjoy studying the campaigns and knowing which units went where, the truly compelling thing is the people. War brings out extremes of the human condition – men doing terrible things and men doing completely selfless things.

“It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.”



The Men He Couldn’t Save

“He still gets nightmares, and he thinks back to the men he couldn’t save,” Bernard Friedenberg’s wife, Phyllis, told FoxNews.com.

Sergeant Bernard Friedenburg was a medic in the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry. When he landed on Omaha Beach, 40 minutes into the landings, it was a nightmare. He came in near the D-1 “draw”, outside Vierville-sur-mer.

As a medic, he was trying to save men, but he is haunted by the terrible calculus of war. Trying to treat one soldier with a sucking chest wound, he had to give the young man morphine and move along to less-wounded men. He could save more of the others, but he is haunted by the memory of that one. He went into a minefield to save five men, only failing when the sixth man rolled over onto a mine. For that, they awarded him a Silver Star.

He ignored heavy fire in “Munsterbusch, Germany, to treat and evacuate wounded comrades. This earned him his second Silver Star.”

While his memoirs seem to be hard to find, both the memoirs and an oral interview can be found at The Veteran’s History Project of the Library of Congress.



Du kannst zum Teufel gehen
23 December 2010, 15:35
Filed under: 101st, 327th, 401st, Battle of the Bulge, Medics | Tags: ,

A few years ago, while I was looking for information of Joseph H. “Bud” Harper, I found an interview in the St Petersburg Times of Ernie Premetz. During the Battle of the Bulge, Harper commanded the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment and when the Germans came to demand the surrender of Bastogne, they came into the 327th’s sector.

Everyone knows the basics of the story, about “Nuts”, but Ernie Premetz can say “I know what happened. I was there.” You see, Ernie was a medic at the time, and, based on his post-war profession, marine biologist, probably one of the smarter men standing in the snow on the 22nd of December. Ernie also spoke German, so when the two German officers and two German enlisted men approached American lines, Premetz walked out with a sergeant to find out what they wanted. After GEN McAuliffe responded “To the German Commander, NUTS!, The American Commander”, Harper was accompanied by Premetz to deliver the note to the Germans.

Needless to say, the Germans couldn’t quite figure out what it meant. To quote from Jeanne Malmgren’s interview with Premetz….

Harper and Premetz discussed how else to convey the message.

“You can tell them to take a flying s—,” Harper said to Premetz.

Premetz thought a minute. He knew he had to be clear.

He straightened up and faced the Germans.

“Du kannst zum Teufel gehen,” he said.

You can go to hell.

Those boys had some brass ones. If you talk to any veteran who was in Bastogne, Patton didn’t rescue them in Bastogne. They had the enemy right where they wanted them.

The Germans’ faces darkened.

“We will kill many Americans,” one of the officers said in English.

“We will kill many Germans,” Harper responded.



Replacement Medic heads into the Bulge
21 December 2010, 22:38
Filed under: 501st, Battle of the Bulge, Medics, Veterans | Tags: , ,

Being in the Battle of the Bulge was not easy. Being a paratrooper was not easy. Being a medic was not easy. Being a replacement was not easy. On 19 December 1944, Leon “Jed” Jedziniak, had all four of those challenges as a replacement medic in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, going into his first fight. Eric Bradley wrote a great article about Jed in the Dialy Breeze out in Torrance, CA.

You tell people the story, Jedziniak said, and they don’t seem to understand.

That worries me. I know I’ll never quite understand because I’ve never been there, but as a military historian, I work to get as many of the stories as I can, in hopes that we can begin to understand.




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