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….

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Uncle in the 15th

A few years ago, I’d joined the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division after meeting and helping CPT Monika Stoy and LTC Tim Stoy with the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket reunions/commemorations/seminars. I’d developed an affinity for the 36th Infantry Division when I was assigned that as my research task, enhanced tremendously when my good friend, SGT Russ Littel deployed with the 136th MEB, of the 36th ID, to Afghanistan.

Roy Navarre headstoneI was utterly shocked then, a few days ago when my sister dropped me a note asking if I knew anything about the 15th Infantry Regiment. It turns out that our father’s uncle, Roy Joseph Navarre, served in Headquarters Company of the 15th Infantry Regiment during World War II. My father, Russ Navarre, never met his uncle because he was raised in the St Francis Home for Boys (which unfortunately burned in 2011 and was demolished). So, this comes as news to all of us. Fortunately, Tim is the historian of the 15th Infantry, so I fully expect to be able to learn far more about Uncle Roy.

For those who don’t know the story of the 15th, or it’s parent unit, the 3rd Infantry Division, in World War II, it fought in North Africa, in Sicily, at Anzio, landed in southern France (Operation Dragoon!), fought up the Rhone River valley, then through the Colmar Pocket and into Germany. I’m not sure when Roy Navarre joined the Regiment or if he remained in Europe to the end, but it will be interesting to discover and explore.

Now, I can join the 15th Infantry Regiment Association as well!



Weekend Wanderings: Mid-December 2012

It’s been a while since I’d posted a Weekend Wanderings, so let me share some of the interesting things I’ve found of late:



Denzel Washington at the Fisher House

I’d seen on Facebook a great photo of Denzel Washington down in San Antonio with several soldiers. There was an urban legend attached to it, but what Denzel did for the Fisher House was almost as good as the legend.

Our friend Kate managed the Fisher House here at Walter Reed when we met her and her husband, Russ, so we got to see what they’re like. The Fisher House provides a “home away from home” for military families while a loved one is hospitalized for illness, disease or injury. Sometimes, soldiers in rehabilitation have their families stay for months, which they would never be able to do otherwise. One of the great things for Kate and Russ was that many famous people would come by for events or just to thank the soldiers for their service. This meant that Kate and Russ got to meet a lot of those folks – Kate even appeared in an episode of Kathy Griffin’s “My Life on the D-List”.

In the urban legend, after visiting the Fisher House in San Antonio, Denzel Washington asks, “How much does it cost to build one of these?” Given the number, Denzel pulled out his checkbook and wrote a check for that amount. Great story, but a bit of an exaggeration. Just like me (perhaps the only similarity between Denzel Washington and myself), he doesn’t carry a checkbook around with him. However, his reputation for generosity is well-earned and he did, in fact, send a substantial check to help sponsor the Fisher House. Cary Clack of the San Antonio Express explained of the six-figure check, “It wasn’t enough to build one facility, but went a long way toward helping to build one.”

If you’ve been looking for a way to show veterans you care, 96% of donations go directly to helping veterans. Donate.



The Vacant Chair

I don’t know if it’s fair to say that I miss someone I’ve never met, but I do feel that I do. My father-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Henry Henderson, passed away before I ever met my wife and though I know he was not the easiest man to get along with, I suspect that Dick and I would have been friends.

Born in 1935 down in Uvalde, Texas, Dick grew up outdoors, competing with and conspiring with his brother, much as my own brothers and I had. He must have had the same wanderlust that drove me to find a way out of Michigan, but Dick’s way out was the Army. Commissioned in 1957, he “found a home in the Army”. As a young officer, he met his bride, Mary Lou Cammisa, and took her away from New York on an adventure around the country and the world. While he was stationed in Germany, they drove around Europe, exploring. The stories of the places they stayed and the mis-adventures pepper our conversations with my mother-in-law. Every time my wife and I turn in a rental car in Europe, I imagine Dick and Mary Lou sneaking away and breaking into a run as they leave behind the rental car in which a case of red wine had burst in the back seat. I can even, given the photos and descriptions from my wife, imagine Dick’s quiet, amused little snicker.

The Signal Corps was good to Dick, until it wasn’t. The good part was the training in technology and the advancement in both rank and leadership that occurred over the years. The bad part was over in Viet Nam. Signal Corps doesn’t sound so bad – you’re in the rear areas, and in some cases, he dealt with data processing. How dangerous can that be?

When Melissa and I went to France the first time, we visited the Loire Valley. I was able to connect with a retired US Army Signal Corps soldier – Bill Messner – who had married a French woman he’d met while serving at Signal Station Saumur in the 1950s. Bill had also served in Viet Nam and when we told him that Dick had cancer, Bill told us that a lot of Signal Corps men he’d served with in Viet Nam were dying of that as well. The bad thing about serving two tours in Viet Nam in the Signal Corps was that you had to drive up and down Route 1 a lot, checking and repairing the wires and equipment. So all those Signal Corps men got plenty of their share of Agent Orange.

Dick loved his girls, but Melissa never realized how much she’d miss him until the day of his funeral. He’d been a tough man, inspiring Melissa to write about growing up in his house as “Living with the Gestapo”. Of course, he was just trying to instill discipline and raise his daughter right. He didn’t make it easy for her to be close to him, but she tells me that despite the many times they’d butted heads even into her adult years, she wept uncontrollably at his funeral.

When we hold the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket seminars, they always conduct a ceremony for the missing in action and prisoners of war, both at Arlington National Cemetery and again at the banquet. In this ceremony, a vacant chair and a place setting are laid out for the missing. I always think of the haunting lyrics of the Civil War era song, The Vacant Chair, “We shall meet and we shall miss him. There will be one vacant chair.”

At our wedding, Melissa and I wanted to include her father, so our good friend, Russ, who is a Sergeant in the National Guard (and will be deploying overseas next year) was able to get a Bronze Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster for Melissa to carry on her bouquet to signify his presence walking her down the aisle. When our brother-in-law Steve Murphy escorted Mary Lou down the aisle, he carried Dick’s flag from his funeral in Arlington. As the flag passed Russ, wearing his immaculate dress uniform, he rose to his feet and delivered a crisp salute. Steve placed Dick’s flag on a vacant chair next to Mary Lou, so that his presence would be known to all.

This year at Thanksgiving, and every year at family events, my mind may well drift to the man whom I know would have been my friend. I will thank him for giving me his daughter and I will miss him.




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