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


Setting out the monuments, Normandy 2014

As the touring season starts, the battlefield guides in Normandy turn to one of the hardest tasks of the year, pulling the monuments out of winter storage and setting them back in place for the touring season.

The crew starting in the wee hours of the morning at Vierville

Each year in the fall, the guides and some volunteers painstakingly remove each of the monuments from the battlefield and place them in storage for the winter. Paul Woodadge related to me on our first visit, during the 65th anniversary in 2009, “In 2003, we’d forgotten to put the Walter Mitty Leadership Memorial into storage and it got all knackered up. The artist had passed away, so the Mayor of St-Nulle-Part-Terre-sur-mer sent it to China. What came back didn’t look quite the same.”

Chinese Peace Memorial

The Walter J. Mitty Leadership Memorial

Noted author Kevin Hymel spent the first hour of our work talking at great length about the storms that ravage Normandy in the winter. If you haven’t heard him play the roles of Eisenhower, Montgomery and Group Captain Stagg in telling the story of the invasion, you really haven’t had the full Normandy experience. Someone whispered to me that Stagg actually did not have a cockney accent, but no one ever stops Kevin, because it’s simply hilarious.

The day starts early, with groups meeting each sector of the battlefield for a long day’s work. Professor John McManus told me while he sipped his coffee this morning and rubbed his sore hands, “It really is one of the great unknown tasks performed by the guides. I’ve been coming for several years now, since the physical contact with monuments really brings home just how difficult the invasion was for these young men.”

Up and down the coast, as well as inland, crews are lugging, tugging, and sometimes carrying monuments back into place. At mid-morning, Dale Booth led the team at La Fiere, ably assisted by Russ Littel and his wife Kate Deyermond, plus my wife Melisssa. As he was wiggling the bas-relief back into place, he reminded me that “many hands make for light work.” Indeed, this year seems to have drawn the largest contingent of helpers in recent memory. All the hard work does come with some unforgettable moments, such as Bob Sabasteanski had the year he got to help Major Howard drag Pegasus Bridge back into place.

Dale Booth adjusting the map at La Fiere. I tried videotaping the movement of this from storage, but they needed my help carrying it.

We finished in mid-afternoon, so I was able to sit with Joe Muccia over a glass of Calvados and pen this little note to bring you all up to date on the project. Melissa is enjoying her Pommeau and our dear friend, Tom Soah has a wee dram that he’s nursing.

I got started in the monument re-placement business back in the 1990s, when Tom Desjardin called on volunteers from the Gettysburg Discussion Group to roll those monuments out of storage every April. Following their lead in Normandy, “Le Poisson d’Avril” as they call their group, trudges out in the night in the last few hours of March, to be ready for the 1st of April.

Many thanks for reading and may you enjoy your own “poisson d’avril” today….

Advertisements


10 percent off D-Day Issue
5 February 2014, 18:07
Filed under: Band of Brothers, Magazines, Normandy, Veterans, WWII | Tags: ,

One of my favorite magazines, America in WWII, has offered 10% off their special D-Day issue if you order before February 10th. It’s a hundred pages of articles, photos, maps and other goodies to pique your interest. I’m thinking of buying several so I can give them as presents. You can go straight to the shopping cart, or read the blurb first, then put it in your cart. It will ship around March 6th, so you’ll have it in plenty of time for the 70th anniversary. If anyone is going to the sold out Band of Brothers Actors Reunion (which will also include WWII veterans) in Normandy and is willing to take one copy to get autographed for me personally (no, not for me to sell on Ebay), let me know and I’ll buy you your own as well as the one for autographs.



Top-ranking posts

Being the end of the year, I thought I’d look at some statistics and share them.

My top-ranking posts since I started this blog is dominated by one post, but the top 5 are all good posts:

Thanksgiving 1944         1,413

This got a huge number of hits due to being linked at Ace of Spades, thanks to our friends at Bring the Heat. On Thanksgiving of 1944, Eisenhower ordered that all soldiers have a turkey dinner. For airborne engineer John Carter, that provided a very humorous story that I was able to post the video of. I have some further videos of an interview with Carter and a couple of other stories. He’s quite a comedian.

Young Marine Passes         297

While the Marine Corps is made up of strong men, they also have strong hearts. A couple of times recently, they’ve made young men with terminal illnesses honorary Marines. The story of Cody Green and his honor guard, SGT Mark Dolfini, can’t help but move one to tears.

Denzel Washington at the Fisher House         236

Denzel Washington is among my favorite actors. He has great range and conveys the emotions of his characters very well. Some of his roles have been as military men and he’s gotten attached to the Fisher House. Fisher House Foundation is best known for a network of comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment. When Washington visited the Fisher House at Brooke Army Medical Center in 2004, his generosity launched an urban legend.

The Beast of Omaha         148

Heinrich Severloh was a German machine gunner at Omaha Beach and the horrors he helped inflict that day stayed in his dreams until his death in 2006.

The end of an era         136

For about a decade, Paul Woodadge built up a battlefield tour business in Normandy, expanding from a one-man operation, hiring several others to lead tours. Battlebus was the best tour company in Normandy and even had tours in Bastogne. Unfortunately, running a complex business and dealing with French tax and employment laws meant that Paul stopped being able to lead tours himself. While I lamented the end of an era, it meant that Paul could go back to doing what he loved. He also had time to publish Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day (Normandy Combat Chronicles) (Volume 1)



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.



Airborne Cavalryman in Normandy

I really enjoyed the scene in Band of Brothers when a paratrooper rides up to Easy Company on a white horse. If memory serves, the soldier’s name is Farnsworth, linking in my mind with Brigadier General Elon J. Farnsworth who died at Gettysburg. Turns out that they may have been channeling Mario Patruno of F Company, 3/506th. Patruno visited the Military Museum of North Florida in February to pose with his own mounted likeness. There’s another, more extensive article on Patruno that was published in 2011 in the Mayport Mirror, which starts, “Army Pfc. Mario Patruno was 23, tough and fit. He’d fought in the ring as a youth boxer, and in the streets of Holyoke, Mass., with a brawling gang called the Bond Street Rovers.” Those paratroopers are an interesting bunch!

Of note, one of the other attendees was “C.C. Sprinkle, 91, who was the co-pilot of a B-26 Marauder during World War II and took part in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of South France in August 1944.” Hopefully, we’ll be able to get C.C. up to Washington for the Operation Dragoon Commemoration and Seminar in August.



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.



Normandy in June

This year, for the first time, I ache not to be in Normandy on the Anniversary of D-Day. Facebook and a collection of friends and acquaintances who share my obsession with the history have allowed me to see the photos, get the stories of the events as they happen and, sadly, to only wish Melissa and I could be there. We both love France and Normandy in particular, and I did not realize how much seeing it so instantly would make me miss it more. The crowd around Paul Woodadge, Joe Muccia and the other Trigger Timers who made it to Normandy look to be having a blast.

To soothe my pining, tonight I’m getting together with a military history book club to discuss Stephen Ambrose’s “Pegasus Bridge“. While I have issues with Ambrose, you can’t fault his prose. He is a marvelously enthralling writer and, since this was written in the 1980s, he makes me regret not having had an interest back then. My good friend, Bob Sabasteanski, had the honor of meeting Major Howard when he visited the Bridge in the 1980s and I wish I’d gone back then.

en Francais:

Cette année, pour la première fois, j’ai mal ne pas à être en Normandie sur l’anniversaire du J-Jour. Facebook et une collection d’amis et connaissances qui partagent mon obsession avec l’histoire m’ont permis de voir les photos, obtenir les récits des événements qu’ils se produisent et, malheureusement, seul souhait Melissa et moi pourrions être là. Nous avons deux amour France et Normandie en particulier, et je ne réalisais pas que combien voyant ainsi instantanément me ferait à manquer plus. La foule autour de Paul Woodadge, Joe Muccia et les autres “Trigger Timers” qui rend en Normandie semblent avoir s’amuser.

Pour apaiser mon languissement, ce soir j’obtiens avec un club de lecture de l’histoire militaire afin de discuter “Pegasus Bridge” de Stephen Ambrose. Alors que j’ai des problèmes avec Ambrose, vous ne peut pas blâmer sa prose. Il est un écrivain merveilleusement captivant et, puisque cela a été écrit dans les années 1980, il me fait regretter de ne pas avoir eu un intérêt à l’époque. Mon bon ami, Bob Sabasteanski, a eu l’honneur de rencontrer le Major Howard quand il a visité le pont dans les années 1980 et je souhaite que j’avais fait à l’époque.




%d bloggers like this: