Travels with Bob

Returning to the battlefield

But….”I really don’t want to spend a bunch of time in London” Bob Gray – July 2013

Famous last words – or perhaps famous first words.  When this trip was planned one of the things that Bob indicated (strongly) was that he had no desire to do anything but pass through London quickly – he was interested in France.  OK – so we plan our trip accordingly but do allow one day in London more or less as a buffer in case we have any huge travel issues.  Better safe than sorry (new motto for this family)

We arrived in London on Sunday evening via the Eurostar, which frankly was pretty anti-climactic.  Fast train, smooth train but that’s about all I can say about it.  We hailed a cab from the station to take us to our hotel near Hyde Park.  Quite a delightful chap (as they say) who was extremely talkative and also informative.  Also, we could understand him so we were thankful that he was not too cockney nor did he speak French.  He deposited us at our hotel, the Rose Park, promptly at 7:30 PM, we checked in and got our rooms and Bill and I headed out to fetch some “take in” food – found a small store around the corner and bought a random sampling of items most of which we had never seen before but could vaguely identify.  Returned to the hotel with these and decided to eat, go to bed and then somewhat over Bob’s protests, catch the “hop on hop off” double-decker red bus the next morning for a brief tour of London. In the morning as we walk to the bus departure area Bill becomes fascinated with what he calls “the London honeymoon suite” just sitting on the sidewalk – always amazing what people find interesting, in Bill’s case it’s a bunch of old mattresses piled up on the sidewalk.

Honeymoon suite?

Honeymoon suite?

We get to the station and now we definitely have Bob’s interest.  He is fascinated by the bus and on we go.

Our London chariot of fire

Our London chariot of fire

Bob  wants to ride on the top, so up we go and there is a tour guy with such a thick accent that we are not sure he is actually speaking English, but apparently it is, and we pick up every third word and follow along on the map.  Bob is in little boy heaven – for someone who didn’t want to see London he is putting on a pretty good act.

Now I’m not saying the people who live in London are nuts, I am sure they are pretty nice people, lots of variety and cultural differences, but to drive in this city I believe you must be certifiably insane or on some type of drug.  Obviously, in my opinion, they drive on the wrong side of the road – OK — it’s their country they can do what they want.  But there seems to be few rules and regulations, most of the vehicles you see are buses, commercial vehicles and cabs.  We find out that this is because most of London is what they call a “congestion zone” – really?  You mean it’s not normal to have bumper to bumper to bumper to….well you get my drift.  So private cars pay some kind of a special fee to drive in London leaving most of the drivers on the road professionals who must have wonderful life insurance policies because they are most certainly not concerned about dying, nor taking you with them.  OK, may I exaggerate a bit since we live on an island probably four times the size of London with probably .5% of the people and cars – and we drive on the proper side of the road. Bill likes the police cars, in fact feels kind of left out that he didn’t have a bright red BMW to drive when he was on the force.

Sweet police car

Sweet police car

We find out through our marginally Queens English-speaking tour guide that these are actually royal protection forces – sweet job if you can get it.  And the motorcycle version of this protection force rides BMW crotch rockets – Oh, to be on the force again.

We tour down Regent Street to find they have been infected by NFL fever.  Apparently shortly before we arrived the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers played a game at Wembley Stadium – and I guess that this is a big deal since they had over half a million people apply for the 90,000 available tickets.  Who knew?

Next NFL expansion team?

Next NFL expansion team?

Bob is staring at all this, commenting on architecture, asking questions about the damage inflicted during the war, ears literally perked up and having a blast. Who is this “non-London” person?

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London architecture

We finally get Bob off the bus about 2PM for lunch – found a small cafe in an alleyway away from the crowds and ate a moderately good lunch with a fabulous desert – we certainly enjoy a good desert these days.  After our lunch we say to Bob “Shall we head back to the hotel?”  Response, “No, let’s get back on the bus”.  OK, his trip, his rules.

We re-board the hop-on hop-off and head out for more sights.  In Trafalgar square we discover that they have found a new and different way to control the pigeon poop on statues, they hire falconer’s to release their hawks in the square several times a day which gives the pigeons a really good reason to NOT be there.

London pigeon control

London pigeon control

We also find in Trafalgar Square one of the more unusual statues we have ever seen.  Apparently there is some tradition here. There are four plinth (columns) in the square. The fourth plinth, as it is known, is in the square’s north-west corner. Built in 1841, it was designed to hold an equestrian statue – like its twin, in the northeast corner, that depicts George IV. But funds ran out and it remained empty. In 1998 the first in a series of temporary sculptures for the plinth was commissioned. This is the statue that is now on the fourth plinth and will remain for 18 months:

No comment

No comment

I am not sure of its artistic value but I think of material for comedians it has no limits.

Bob also gets to see the Tower of LondonLondo upon return 063

And the new and improved London Bridge:

New London Bridge - visit Lake Havasu for the old one

New London Bridge – visit Lake Havasu for the old one

Bob has maintained his enthusiasm throughout this whole day – but finally as dark approaches we mention that we really need to head to the hotel since we must be up at 4 AM for the 21 hour journey home.  At least he didn’t kick nor scream or throw a temper tantrum.  But he was reluctant as we head back to the rooms to pack and prepare.

We have finished this journey except for the flights home.  They will be what they will be. This blog was called “Through my fathers eyes” but in the past few days I have come to realize that you can’t see anything through anyone elses eyes.  What Bob experienced is his, private and privileged.  He can share bits and pieces but to expect to see it as he experienced it is not something that any one can do.  What I have seen has been my father revisiting his past through my own eyes.  I have seen him in awe of the beaches of Normandy, his solitude and soberness at the graves of the departed men he fought with, his thankfulness and appreciation to the young men and women of France who gave so freely of themselves to make the days of his visit all that I believe he hoped for.  I have watched him look at the hills and valleys that he spent that cold winter of 1944-45 in, and I have seen him open himself up to strangers as if they were long-lost friends.  I have been honored, along with Bill, to walk with Bob on this journey.  Whatever he saw through his own eyes I will never know – but what I saw was amazing.  Welcome home Dad.

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The trip home

Once you get to your destination you do not necessarily begin the “return” but the second leg of your journey.  So was the case with Bob.

After spending so many days following his history and memories across basically half the globe it was time to redefine this trip.  We begin with a day of absolutely no expectations at all. We have been everywhere, now we get to experience simply being “here:.  We awake Friday morning to a somewhat gray and foggy morning.  Looking out the windows of our rooms we spot a “farmers marker” that apparently is a fixture in the community every Friday.  So we toss on our clothes and the three of us head down to see what is up.  None of us are particular fans of the US farmers markets as they tend to be anything but farmers.  This is different on a number of levels.

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Back of the truck fruits and vegetables

And of course we found our favorite (out of the perhaps 30 or so we tried) pastry shop.

Absolutely calorie free

Absolutely calorie free

But we have never, none of us, seen mattresses sold at farmers markets – ah…..those clever french

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The town square

We spent the day both separately and together simply exploring this wonderful little village and meeting the people who live and work here.  There were very few tourists – we were actually a bit of an oddity.

Old mother goose in the square

Old mother goose in the square

And Bob made a new friend.  He wandered into an antique store and met a man from Romania who ran the store – actually ended up owning it.  Since Bob speaks no French or Romanian and this man spoke no English I am not sure how they communicated but they seemed to develop enough of a friendship that Bob came and fetched Bill and me to meet his new buddy.  When we all arrived at this mans shop (never did actually get his name) it was like two old buddies meeting after a long separation.  There was a woman in the shop and helping out – she spoke some English/French, I spoke some French/whatever, the man spoke Polish/French and we actually made it work and had a rather pleasant conversation.  Found out he was actually an escapee from  a Polish prison where he was imprisoned by Nicolae Ceausescu for anti government something or other – I don’t think it took much to be anti government in Poland during that period of time.  He had married an Afghani woman and had two beautiful daughters (showed us their picture of his Facebook page – who would have thought that would happen?) Bob purchased a couple of things from his buddy and we bid him “Adieu”.  It was a fun afternoon.

Bob and his new friend

Bob and his new friend

We had determined early that morning to change our trip a bit.  We were to drive into downtown Paris, return the rental car and then hop on the Eurostar high-speed train for London.  Bill did not exactly have a temper tantrum but made it clear that driving into Paris again was not on his bucket list of things to do – we compromised (yeah, imagine that) and left on Saturday for a three-hour drive to Metz where we turned in the car and spent the night at an inn across from the train station.  We purchased tickets to travel the next morning from Metz to Paris and then go to a different rail station in Paris for the trip to London – sounds easy right?  We allowed four hours in Paris to find the second train station  – we are learning that nothing is as easy as we think it will be.

When we arrived in Metz we were informed that there was some type of festival going on that weekend  – arts and such – not real clear on the details.  But we did notice in front of the station as very large cable about three inches in diameter and maybe 30 feet long strung between two poles – attached to this cable for LARGE clothespins – possibly ten feet tall.  Interesting art we thought – until we walked to the station to catch our train the next morning.  It then became very clear how clever the French are

Washing and drying your car - the French way

Washing and drying your car – the French way

Yes, those are full sized cars.

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So, having been pleasantly surprised this morning we board our train for Paris, wonderful ride all the way, arrive at Gare de Est (East Terminal) and are again pleasantly surprised to find the Gare de Nord (North Terminal) is within easy walking distance even with all our stuff and we have time for leisurely lunch at a sidewalk cafe.  Only incident on this leg of the trip is that some moron tried to snatch my wallet from my purse – actually, same guy twice.  Oh boy, takes all kinds.

We jump on the Eurostar and head for London and our hotel near Hyde Park.  More on London tomorrow.

The re-enactors and the Lorraine cemetery

We are up early this morning as we have agreed to meet Linda’s friends at 9:30 AM at the Lorraine cemetery In San-Avold France which depending on the GPS, Google, the desk clerk and others we have asked may be anywhere from one two hours from our hotel – so we set off from Niederbronn at 7:30 AM.  It is once again a lovely drive through the country side – much of it we have seen the previous day as we are following much of the route that took us to Linda’s.  It is clear, crisp, very green and very much farmland and fields.  Many more of those astonishing pure white cows.  I finally screwed up the courage to ask someone about their “white cows”.  They are called the Charolais cattle breed.220px-Vache_de_race_charolaise_avec_son_veauThey are a huge breed and really outstanding to look at.

Bob is quiet – he had a wonderful time yesterday and is very much looking forward to meeting more people from the region. I think he is also very tired.  Too much time in other beds hearing other languages, eating strange food. None of his is criticism – but it is a truism that old dogs don’t learn new tricks easily. We are not quite sure what to expect from the men we are to meet – we know neither age, history nor anything else but as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

We pull up precisely at 9:30 as do the people we are meeting.  We are stopped literally in our tracks,   The gate is closed.  The gate is actually chained and padlocked. The fellows get out of their car and explain that they have phoned everyone they can think of but the fact is, the cemetery is closed to the public due to the shut down of the US Government.  No one is allowed inside.  This had actually crossed my mind the day before but I was pretty sure that we could scurry around, over or through the fence.  After all, this is the largest American Military cemetery on Europe – how hard could it be?  Pretty hard – the gates are huge, and there is a six-foot tall stone wall around the whole thing – guess our government had money at some point .  I had threatened to break in, in act I am sure I could have accomplished and frankly the question of being arrested was not even close to the top of my list. But there was absolutely no hope of getting Bob over the wall.  So we stand at the gate and all look inside to the rolling fields and visible markers and monuments – and then, with reality staring us in the face, we turn and leave.  The guides for the day are in one car and we are following in our rental.  I help Bob into the front passenger seat, Bill climbs in the driver’s seat, our friends set the GPS in our car for our next stop.  Except for one thing.  The last door slamming was actually me getting back out of the car to take a picture of the closed cemetery.  Bill really should check his rear view mirror more often.  As I stand and watch they scoot off down the road oblivious to the fact that they are one passenger short.  And as I stand there wondering what just happened I decide – this is a photo opportunity if there ever was one.

Bob and Bill on the way to their next stop  - sans Deb

Bob and Bill on the way to their next stop – sans Deb

Text on cemetery gate

Text on cemetery gate

The cemetery gates - not to be breached

The cemetery gates – not to be breached

As men tend to do, eventually they remembered that someone was missing and returned – elapsed time about five minutes.  I think our new friends now believe we are lunatics..  They might be correct.

It took me quite awhile to work up the courage to ask Bob what his thoughts were about not being able to enter this ground where his fellow soldiers were buried – he didn’t answer, I don’t think there were even words to explain the feelings.

Our guides went to every possible effort to make sure that the remainder of Bob’s day was up to and surpassing his expectations.  Since they are re-enactors they are familiar to the smaller, more intimate details of this war and were able to take Bob to Spicheren Heights which was one of the places he most remembered and the place where his actions resulting in him being awarded the silver star.  This area has been art of various wars dating back to the 1800’s and now with the European Union has a unique plaque which shows the old border between France and Germany. We walked the lands that he had walked 69 years ago and it made him happy.

Bob and his new friends at the Memorial to the 70th Division

Bob and his new friends at the Memorial to the 70th Division

The boys

The boys

Sign on the military path to Saarrucken and through Germany

Sign on the military path to Saarbrucken and through Germany

Official (not really) military car insignia

Official (not really) military car insignia

One final balloon for a French child

One final balloon for a French child

We had a wonderful lunch and bid adieu to our new friends.  On the way back to our hotel Bob’s only comment was “I’ve seen what I needed to see.  We did what we had to do. Let’s go home”

And so we shall – Bob faced his war – now we will come home.

Wingen sur Moder

Today (Wednesday here) we are going to meet up with Linda Bergman – she is the mostly official historian for the 70th Infantry Division in Europe and from our correspondence seems to be a fascinating woman.Niederbronn, Wingen and alsace 008

Linda and her husband Jackie greeted us warmly and as , again, we were family.  We viewed Linda’s museum made up for collected and donated items all representing the battles in and around Wingen.

tapestry made as gift to museum from member of 70th Infantry Division's wife

tapestry made as gift to museum from member of 70th Infantry Division’s wife

More information within the museum

More information within the museum

Bill was fascinated by the fact that in addition to all Linda’s work with the Division she and her husband also run a Moto Guzi motorcycle shop – had to practically drag Bill away for the tour.  Niederbronn, Wingen and alsace 025

But drag him away we did and we proceeded to visit some of that spots that Bob remembered from his days here.  I think it was hard for him to realize that nothing was the same after 70 years.  But he seemed to find comfort in the greenness of the area, the buildings that had been severely damaged and repaired and particularly the pride that the Wingen people took in the allied victory that liberated them.

We returned to Linda’s home for a brief respite and she had prepared a wonderful lunch of mushroom/potato soup and sandwiches.  She is a fabulous chef! Then, God bless her, she helped me change a car reservation, reschedule this and that and did it with a smile.  Oh, how I wish I spoke French.  She was an angel. If I had tried to do all these changes I am sure there would have been an international incident.

Church where 100's of allied POW's were held

Church where 100’s of allied POW’s were held

Bullet holes from the battle to take the church and city and free our POW's

Bullet holes from the battle to take the church and city and free our POW’s

Inside of church

Inside of church

Unfortunately at this point my camera died so there will be no more pictures.  However, Bob was shown all the areas he wishes to revisit and any questions he asked were explained with ease and clarity by Linda.  We bid her and Jackie “Adieu” in the late afternoon and returned to Niederbronn.  Among the other things Linda has done for us is schedule us to meet a group off “re-enactors”, young men and women who re-enact WW2 all over the area much like our Civil War Reenactors in our southern states.  We very much look forward to this as they will show us Spichnern heights and the Cemetery at Lorraine where many of Bob’s fellow soldiers are buried.

Bob is happy – he is content – he is not talking but he is good – whatever he wanted to get from this journey he is getting – and for that I am grateful.

A few historical pictures

Bob and unknown civilians early 1944

Bob and unknown civilians early 1944

3rd squad May 45 front 001

3rd squad May 45

Learning to drink champagne 1945

Learning to drink champagne 1945

Cemetery at Spichnern Heights 1944

Cemetery at Spichnern Heights 1944

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Bob 1944

We cross France with the help of our GPS – named Matilda

We regretfully depart from Normandy, not because we are not anxious to go the Alsace-Lorraine region, but because this has been such an enjoyable part of our trip. The people that we met, the activities we were involved in and the places of history that came alive through the translations and assistance of those who were so very willing to help brought about a renewed faith in mankind.  We have programmed Matilda to take us to Chalons en Champagne which is a small village approximately 40 kilometers east of Paris. It is our mutual feeling that avoiding Paris may be the wisest thing two American drivers on French roads with very little if any knowledge of the French language may be the wisest thing to do.

We have made a reservation at a hotel in this village, program that information into Matilda and depart. The countryside is absolutely beautiful, large green fields with cows and sheep grazing in them, corn fields both cut and waiting to be harvested, all types of the final remains of the harvest.  The drive is along a winding country road with vegetation on both sides, old stone houses are apparent everywhere, some with much repair having been done to them, you see the occasional American WW2 tank, jeep, artillery, and other unidentified artifact from the conflict.  It is increasingly obvious from the amount of artifacts we are seeing that the allied army pulled out took their men and left the rest.  Bob is quiet.  He had a wonderful time in Normandy and voices that opinion.  He feels “honored and fortunate” to have net Marc and his band of brothers.  He has picked up a stone from the beach at Omaha.  “Now, I have a piece of their history”.

As we travel across the county it has become a concern that our direction is not North around Paris but East, directly towards Paris.  By the time I pull out a map, a Google translator and figure all this out we are on the main highway through Paris.  No, to be truthful, we are in downtown Paris (or whatever the French call it) and playing a very strange game of dodge ball with small foreign cars.  Bill is a rock.  He handles this all very well as I sit it the back seat cringing, Bob is in the front having the ride of his life and Matilda continues to guide us.  Good news – we survive, get to the east side of Paris, no one as wet their pants  or will admit it) and we are only 20 kilometers from our destination. We have learned NOT to program Matilda for “quickest way”, but instead “least use of freeways”. We arrive, we are alive, the town of Chalons en Champagne of quaint and easy to navigate, the hotel is very good.  All in all we have had a good day.  Tomorrow we head for Niederbonn to meet up with Linda Bergman and begin the tour of Bob’s personal battlefields.  Below is an excerpt from what he calls his memoirs – this is his view of the war from his eyes when he was twenty – we shall see what his view is at 89 in the days to come.

 

From Marseille to the battlefield

After less than a week at C.P.2, we were ordered to prepare for the train ride to the front.  The box cars were from W.W.1 and were supposed to carry 40 hommes or 8 horses.  Luckily our set up called for 20 to 25 G.I.s per box car.  Cold air came in from many holes and cracks in the cars.  Some of the G.I.s built fires in the corner of the cars, but this was very dangerous with straw on the floor and the old wood of the cars. The trip to Brumath, the end of existing track took 5 day  and from there we walked to Bischweiller to arrive on Christmas Eve. For the first time in a month we were able to sleep in buildings for the night. It was an emotional experience, we were cold, homesick scared, lonesome and the sound of artillery in the distance added to these emotions. We survived.

Shortly out of Marseille I developed frozen feet, a carbuncle on my leg and ptomaine poisoning.  Boy: was I a mess.  To this day, I believe that if it were not for the care of Staff Sgt. Ed Haller, I would not have made it.  From Bischwiller I was taken back to a field hospital for 3 or 4 days. Best thing about the hospital. other than the nurses, were the pancakes.  They tasted so good and I made such a pig of myself.

By December 29th, I was back with my outfit standing guard duty on the   West bank of the Rhine River. We could see the Germans on the East bank, but there was little exchange of fire.  We seemed to have an unofficial truce for the time between Christmas and New Years. Later records showed that this winter was the coldest in recorded history for the area.  On guard duty we found  a small remedy for the cold – double distilled potato schnapps.  One jigger would help warm you and the story goes that you could see a red trace thru many layers of clothes as the stuff  entered the body.  It was very,  very  potent.

Then for a week or so we moved every night by foot, amphibious truck or regular truck.  These were very dangerous operations on slick roads in extremely cold weather.  Found out later that our line was so undermanned that the movements were intended to make the Germans think we had many more troops than we actually did.

This story of my experiences is not intended to give the big picture of what actually happened to the 7th Army or even to the 70th Infantry Division and Task Force Herren.  That story is told and retold in a number of books. Here I am intending to tell of my experiences as I remember them.

However it should be noted that the Infantry of the 70th Division spent several long weeks being attached and then re attached to several units that were having trouble against the German 6th SS Mountain Division. In effect we were used to plug holes in an undermanned  line.  The 70th, a new and untested unit was commended for a remarkable holding action.

On  January 5th we were near Rothbach with most of the 274th, preparing            to march up Rothbach Creek to remove any Germans in that sector. It happened that L Company, 3rd Platoon and my squad was at the point and I was in the lead.  We left our packs and bedding to be picked up later. After crossing several high spots, we were looking down into a ravine with several caves and a bunch of Germans.  Don Behren fired several rifle grenades into the area.  Several Germans were killed and the rest surrendered.  It was dark by then and we were told to prepare for the night.   We found out that Germans had stolen our bedding and it was very cold.  Several men went down and salvaged coats from the dead Germans.  The rest of us crawled into the plastic body covers that were intended as protection from poison gas.  They were not warm and also made so much noise that the Germans must have thought we had thousands of men. Late that night, we found out that we were in the wrong area and were pulled back to get ready for a major attack up Rothbach Creek.

Late that night, we found out that we were in the wrong area and were pulled back to get ready for a major attack up Rothbach Creek.

At 4:00am on January 7, we started the major push up the Rothbach Creek Valley. As so happened, I was in the lead again, with Rocco DiGeorgio right behind me on the left side of the narrow valley. We moved up the valley over several rises without seeing any opposition.  Then at another high spot we encountered a huge rock.  As I peered around it, there  was a machine gun emplacement with three Germans.  Luckily they were concentrating in another direction and did not see me.  I took out a hand grenade, pulled the pin, counted five(a quick five) and tossed it over the rock in their direction.  I didn’t know if it had been a hit and I was out of grenades.  DiGeorgio  gave me a WP, phosphorous grenade, I pulled the pin holding the handle and  prayed.   If they were they still alive and waiting for me?  What then?   The first grenade had done the job. It is my firm belief that the three Germans retreated leaving a small trail of blood.  However the wording of the Bronze Star award for this action stated that the three were killed.  If so, I do not remember it. We pushed on up the valley meeting stronger opposition as we moved.

An interesting thing occurred – Ken Kirby who was probably ten years older than me and he always preached “keep your rifle clean and ready because it is your best friend.”  Kirby brought his rifle up to fire on some Germans on a hill.  His rifle jammed.  He held it between his legs to pull the bolt and an enemy bullet went thru one leg, thru his gun and out the other leg.  The bullet did not hit any bone, or cartilage or muscle.  He was in a field hospital for only a week to make sure that no infection occurred.

Late in the afternoon we were relieved by another outfit and went back to Rothbach for the night.  We slept in a schoolhouse on bare floors. I remember waking up in night shaking like a leaf from reliving the prior day.

For the next month we were involved in defense of a line behind which was the German 6th SS Mountain Division.  This was an experienced outfit spearheading Hitlers Operation Nordwind  in  an attempt to breakthrough and retake the land  West of the Rhine River.  This period is nearly a blank in my memory except that I can remember very cold weather, many moves and patrols and very little warm food.  C and K rations were the menu. I do remember that while some men were up and on guard, others were sleeping.  We rigged it so three men would sleep under blankets and shelter-halves together.  One night I ended up with W.D. (Byou PomPom) Lawrence in the middle and me on the outside and I don’t remember who was the other one.  About midnight W.D. kicked a couple of times and we realized that he needed to urinate.  There was three inches of snow on top of our bedding. Up in the air went all the bedding, down on us came the snow.  I don’t remember where he slept the rest of the night, but not with us.   He found it difficult to find bed partners after that.

Somewhere in the vicinity of Behren, I developed strep throat and  was running a high fever.  By that time I was a squad leader and balked at going back to a hospital.  My squad found a house with a motherly type woman  and instructed her to take care of me, get me well and if not, she was in big trouble.  She nursed me with schnapps, and whatever else and within four or five days I was back with the squad.

During this time period we inherited a new Company command “the brow”.  His actual name was Mark Doane, and he was pitiful as a leader. On one occasion that I remember, we were going up a small hill to face the Germans.  As we moved up there was Doane, face to his arm on the ground with the other arm waving us on. More on Doane later

It was at some point during this period that we found out that our unit was not far from the Swiss border.  We also knew that once in Switzerland  we would be interned for the rest of the war.  This became our safety valve so to speak.  Have never really determined how serious we were.

On February 8th 1945 the 70th Infantry Division was again united with all units –artillery, engineers, support and other units to become self-supporting.  Task Force Herren was dissolved with an exceptional record. On February 14th, our complete division was included with several others to go on the attack with the object of capturing Saarbrucken. We would be going from defensive positions to offensive attack.  At this time we were only 6 or 7 miles from Saarbrucken, but in our path were the dominating Kreutzberg and Forbachberger Ridges which were key to the success of our mission.  Later we learned that this sector contained the strongest remaining part of the Siegfried Line.

Much of the time from February 14 to our attack on the Simon Mine is a blank in my memory.  I do remember some fierce fighting, several advances and several retreats.  Several incidents do stand out.

After several patrols it had been determined that I was able to get around with much more ease and less noise than most of the other troops.  This was a result of my outdoor experiences in the Forest Service.  It was a requirement that at least 3 people on patrol but I was afraid of the commotion that other soldiers tended to make.  On several occasions I would take a full patrol out several hundred yards from out bivouac, have them sit down and be quiet, while I accomplished the goal of the patrol.

As I remember, it was much more comfortable for me not to have the confusion and responsibility of troops with no experience in the woods .

Somewhere on a wooded slope just a short distance from the Sigfreid Line and Spichnern Heights, L Company prepared to set up for the night.  About that time, the German artillery started in with “tree bursts” which was causing a panic in the outfit.  John Cathy came to me and suggested that he had heard about a pillbox just over the hill, with German troops ready to surrender.  It would be much safer to go down to them than stay under the shelling.  Seeing the sense of this action, away we went.  At the pillbox we tossed a grenade through one of the apertures and hurriedly opened the door. Inside was a little old man with his rifle on his lap and his hands in the air.  What little we could understand of his talk let us believe that he was a shoe cobbler and all he wanted to do was go home and cobble.  He let us know that the full complement of the pillbox was back for a warm meal and would return soon.  We turned their machine gun. fully loaded, toward the door and waited.  My memory is that the Germans all surrendered with the exception of an SS Officer who wanted to fight.  He was squelched by his own people.  We then took all prisoners (10 or 12) back up the hill to be turned over to our intelligence people. 

Somewhere in the vicinity of Spichern Heights I liberated a Colt 45 from a dead German tank soldier.  He must have gotten it from an American POW or KIA.  This gun had been in moisture so long that a bullet going out the business end would start spinning sideways and put a hole in a wall the size of a softball.  The only time that it was used was to shoot locks off of doors and cabinets. In my spare time after combat I remodeled the grips to have plexi-glass  with a picture of Betty Grable on one side and I do not remember who was on the other side.

About six months after returning home, I decided that guns were no longer necessary in my life.  I gave the Colt along with a German P-38 to Stacey Reeves who was a State Patrolman out of Bingen, Wa.

Although it was not my Company that liberated Spichern Heights, it was my privilege to stand on this site.  The Heights was a memorial to honor Germans who had at one time or another caused so much trouble to the world.  Many monuments had been placed there for involved units and Adolph Hitler had declared that it would not be taken by the Allies. It was.

By March 4th we had reached the flat area adjacent to the Metz Highway.  The Germans had amassed their firepower on the far side of the highway and were giving us much trouble.  They were using “screaming memmies”,  88s and heavy mortars.  Oh Yes, the memmies were rockets shot from a series of mounted tubes and were capable of 20 or more rounds per minute. The noise of them going over was scary – if they hit nearby it was worse. On the next day we saw a long stream of people coming down the Metz Highway.  At first we thought it was a German counterattack, but on closer observation we saw that many were staggering and could hardly walk.  They were Russian prisoners who had been held in a mine on the outskirts of Forbach. They were emaciated and near death.  We had all of the captured Germans help get them out of range of enemy guns and to where they could be trucked to field hospitals.  They were given all the food that we had, but it did not agree with them – too much starvation.  Later I went down into the mine on a ladder – 30ft. give or take.  It was indescribable. On March 6th L company was ordered to attack the Simon Mine. We pushed up a road to the mine structure thru a wooded area into an area with swamp and shumines on each side.  If I remember right, we captured a dozen or more Germans.  As we neared the wall that surrounded the site, German snipers opened up on our column.

Pvt. Zoebelein stepped on a mine and lost a foot.  I remember his comments before the pain set in “oh god, I will never be able to dance again”

As we got to the perimeter wall, the German fire made it inadvisable to enter the gate without first lessening that fire. John Cathey on one side of the opening, told John Bissenger to bring the bazooka to him and to hurry passing the opening.  Bissenger at his usual pace of loping was hit several times in the chest and died.  PFC Roger Wagner was also hit and was killed. Cathey hooked the bazooka with the forward sight on his rifle and fired one shot into the building which did nothing to slow the fire. Then the Germans opened up with cannon, machine gun, mortar and rifle fire The entire company was pinned down outside the wall. At this time we decided that some tanks were needed, so Cathey and I went back up the road to where the L Company command post was.

Now comes a memory that I will swear to, but John Cathey later firmly denied.  At the C.P. our Company Commander, Mark Doane was sitting with his head in his hands with absolutely no knowledge of what his Company was up against, let alone any plans to rescue them.  John Cathey put the business end of his “burp gun” up to Doane’s chest and told him to get on the phone to battalion and immediately resign.  Lt. Carlson was appointed Company Commander.

In the C.P were two tank commanders who volunteered to go down the road to the wall if we would ride along and show them the way. Cathey rode on top of the front tank and I rode inside the second one. When the front tank got to the wall, Cathey jumped over the wall and went after a machine gun emplacement.  The tank fired four rounds and the Germans answered with anti-tank fire.  Cathey was hit and seriously wounded. I had jumped off the second tank and the tankers decided to get out of there and raced back up the road out of range. Our people could not get Cathey out of there during the day because of the German fire.  That evening S. Sgt Joseph Kohn pulled Cathey out of the enclosure and back to litter bearers for transportation to a hospital.  He was very seriously wounded with broken bones and bullet wounds. John Cathey was awarded The Distinguished Service Cross and he earned it.

I received a Silver Star and have often wondered for what.

Other awards for that action, a Bronze Star Medal went to 

S/Sgt Neal C.Gibbs

PFC Juan Torres

Sgt. Wm. A. Smith

PFC Bernard F. Robinson                   

PFC W.D Lawrence (P)

PFC George W. Kreiling

PFC Kenneth F. Kirby

PFC  Rocco Diorgio

PFC Robert A Hessell

Sgt Homer C Hysell

PFC Earl King (Silver Star) 

PFC Urban A. Kaufman

PFC Roger P. Wagner (P)

I think that 1st. Lt. Kenneth R. Carlson was awarded a Bronze Star Medal.

We were pulled off the line that night to regroup and to fill the positions that had been wounded or killed during the past few days.  We spent the better part of the week in reserve. During the night of March 19th, everything we had in the way of artillery was fired at the German side of the river in the biggest display of firepower that I ever witnessed. On March 20, Regimental Commander Col. Sam Conley sent orders to Battalion Commander  Lt. Col. Karl Landstrom  to send patrols across the Saar River. Col. Landstrom balked at sending troops into the river unless guaranteed that no friendly artillery would shoot over them with the possibility of short rounds and casualties from our own troops. Regimental Cmdr.Conley relieved Landstrom as Bn. Commander.  For the next 24 hours, patrols in rubber boats went into the river to test the reaction of the Germans.  They were still on the other banks of the Saar River and very active. Landstrom was reinstated as Cmdr. of the 3rd. Bn. 

Also, during the night the Engineers brought up small boats to take us across the Saar.  At 3:00am, we packed up and started the march to the river.  The boats started moving troops across at 4:30 and by 5:10  all of the 3rd Bn. was across the Saar River with no appreciable resistance.  The Germans had retreated during the night of March 19th.

For our Company the fighting was over.  General Patton’s 3rd. Army cut in front of us and with his mobile units were able to chase the Germans.  We had no vehicles.

Several days after the capture of Saarbrucken and a few mile up the road Eastward, we came to an abandoned  farm  where we decided to spend the night.  We found a large pottery cask full of water and EGGS. It had been months since fresh eggs and we reacted.  A large stove in the back of the house was somewhat scrubbed on top, a fire was lighted, bread was acquired and wine was found. Eggs in groups of four were tossed on the stove, cooked lightly, tossed on a chunk of bread and eaten with a bit of wine to spice them.  My memory is that I ate over two dozen eggs that evening.

At some time during the period between our end of combat and the end of       the war with Germany my squad came upon a chicken house with nice, big, fat chickens.  We were ready for stewed chicken.  One of the squad from mid America had experience in how to get them ready for stewing.  First, one of guys would the grab a chicken and hand it to him. He would take it by the neck and crank it a couple of times until the head separated from the body.  Another person would catch it and immerse it in boiling water to loosen the feathers.  The cook then took over and dressed it for stewing.

That was the best tasting chicken that I have ever had.

On May 8 the war in Europe ended.

 

So, there are his memories – we go to these places in the next few days – we will see what they shall bring.

This history of the 274th Infantry Divison in Europe

274th Infantry Regiment

The 274th Infantry Regiment was activated with the 70th Infantry Division 15 July 1943 at Camp Adair, Oregon. It trained there for its combat mission for the next 12 months. During that period, the division was tasked to provide replacements for U.S. Army losses in Europe and the Far East. This required new replacements and retraining of the regiment’s  small units. In late July 1944 the division entrained for a transfer to Fort Leonard Wood, MO, and resumed training there. The last of the replacements arrived in early October 1944, and the next month the  regiment went with the division to Camp Myles Standish, MA to stage for shipment to Europe. On 10 December it landed at Marseilles, France and was trucked to a staging area to make final preparations for combat.

On 20 December the regiment boarded 40 and 8 box cars and traveled north toward the front line. Christmas Eve and 500 cold and snowy miles later it arrived at. Brumath, France,  and walked carrying full field gear and weapons to Bischweiler ready for commitment. The areas in which the 274th Infantry Regiment fought are described in this home page and include:

Phillipsbourg, France
Nestled deep in the Hardt Mountains near the German border, this village was important to   both adversaries because it was located at an important  intersection on highway  N62 and also on a key rail line. The Germans wanted control of this village so badly that they would sacrifice almost anything. They almost succeeded, but the 274th Infantry was as determined and in the end, prevailed.

Wingen, France
2d Battalion, 274th Infantry won the Presidential Unit Citation for the capture and liberation of Wingen. This battle was the initial mission of this battalion. They became veterans overnight by decisively defeating the best in the German Army, in what later proved to be a major battle of the winter campaign. In this victory, the battalion destroyed two German battalions, liberated over 250 Americans from another division being held there as prisoners of the German forces, and recaptured a significant number of American weapons and vehicles.

Rothbach, France
The first week of January, 1945 was a critical one for the American Seventh Army fighting in France. The Battle of the Ardennes was still in a decisive stage. The Germans held the initiative. From Belgium to Strasburg,and from Bitche to Hagenau. This is the German operation North Wind. 274th’s 3d Bn helps plug the gaps which finally stops the German’s final offensive of their winter campaigns.

The Siegfried Line
Germany’s defenses in this section of the Saar Basin rested in the hands of some 125,000 soldiers of the German First Army manning the Siegfied Line here, and the 274th Infantry Regiment must crack it in its drive to capture Saarbrücken.

Saarbrücken, Germany
Key to the Saar basin was capture of the city of Saarbrücken. To do so required a hostile crossing of the Saar River. This was done by the doughs of the 274th Infantry the night of 19-20 March 1945, and is completed with the capture of Saarbrücken.

The American Cemetery

Sometimes this whole venture seems like a symphony building to a crescendo – More and better things appear around each corner or curve in the road.  Today we head for The American Cemetery.  A brief history:

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France is located on the site of the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery, established by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944 and the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II. The cemetery site, at the north end of its half mile access road, covers 172.5 acres and contains the graves of 9,387 of our military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. On the Walls of the Missing, in a semicircular garden on the east side of the memorial, are inscribed 1,557 names. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified.

The memorial consists of a semicircular colonnade with a loggia at each end containing large maps and narratives of the military operations; at the center is the bronze statue, “Spirit of American Youth.” An orientation table overlooking the beach depicts the landings in Normandy. Facing west at the memorial, one sees in the foreground the reflecting pool; beyond is the burial area with a circular chapel and, at the far end, granite statues representing the United States and France.

OK – there is the black and white – now we will fill in the shades of gray.

We begin on Omaha Beach at the site of one of the temporary graveyards from the war – after the cessation of hostilities all bodies that could be found were disinterred and reburried at what is now known as the American Cemetery.  But this is one of the original burial sites

Original American Cemetery Normandy 1

We had been told yesterday by the gentlemen who works at the cemetery to go to the reception desk and identify ourselves as a WW2 veteran (that would be Bob of course)  That we did – and immediately the people at the front desk call a Mr. Daniel Neese, who is the superintendent of the cemetery, to the front.  He greets us warmly and explains the functions and intent of the American Battle Monuments Commission

http://www.abmc.gov/home.php
He explains that as a WW2 veteran Bob is entitled to a VIP tour with a guide and in a motorized cart – boy, we are living now.  He introduces us to Eric, who is a Canadian working at The American Cemetery and will be our guide.  Bob is about ready to pop at this point.  His ego is on the large side and he is puffed up like the proverbial rooster in the hen house.  He feels important and appreciated – and we are happy for him.  So, off we go — first stop is the monument Day 2 Normandy 096

Bob is being thanked in many languages for his service – we cannot always understand the words but the intent is easily apparent.  This place is beautiful, quiet, laid out with military precision and also with an artistic aura of joy and harmony.  We visit the graves of the five women buried here – one was a Red Cross Volunteer and four were from the 6888th batallion

The 6888th: Women Who Managed the Military’s Mail

The United States Army remained segregated during World War II. A group of African American women played a significant role in maintaining troop morale during the conflict. These women belonged to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, part of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).

The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was made up of 855 enlisted African American women and officers. The battalion was commanded by Major Charity Adams Earley, the highest ranking African American woman in the military by the end of the war. The 6888th was the only all African American, all female battalion. It was deployed overseas first to Birmingham, England then later to Rouen, France.

Boy, didn’t see that coming at all.

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Elizabeth A. Richardson

The other female buried here is Elizabeth A. Richardson, so of course Bob had to have his picture taken at her grave.  We visited other grave sites of those both known and unknown and at all times the reverence, the care, the remembrance was evident.  From the thoughtful layout of the place, the special marble headstones (Latin Crosses and Stars of David), the grooming, the random layout of PFC next to General, the dignity of those who died is cared for by those who live now,

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Silent sentinels

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Medal of Honor Winner Roosevelt gravesite

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They say silence can be deafening – it certainly was here.  But still, no comment from Bob.

After being presented with American and French flags that had flown on one o the gravesites on Memorial Day we are off to Pointe du Hoc – site of the landing of the Rangers

The World War II Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument is located on a cliff eight miles west of Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which overlooks Omaha Beach, France. It was erected by the French to honor elements of the American Second Ranger Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. James E. Rudder. During the American assault of Omaha and Utah beaches on June 6, 1944, these U.S. Army Rangers scaled the 100-foot cliff and seized the German artillery pieces that could have fired on the American landing troops at Omaha and Utah beaches. At a high cost of life, they successfully defended against determined German counterattacks.

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Bob and Deb Pointe du Hoc emplacement

Bob and Deb Pointe du Hoc emplacement

The most impressive thing about this place is that the original bomb craters fro 69 years ago are still apparent in the hillside – overgrown with grass but still remaining, silent sentinels to carnage once wrought. Bob is once again surrounded by people thanking him for his service – mostly French – lots of pictures taken of him and of course, lots of business cards handed out.  Who knows how many new friends he will have on the internet when he returns home.

We return to the hotel where Bill departs to deal with the GPS for tomorrows trip.  Bob wants to walk the beach so we head down there – just the two of us and we walk.  And we walk. And when we are done we sit down and just look at the water and Bob says ” I know I should be feeling some emotion, I have had so many people tell me about tears streaming down their faces when they are here, but I can’t, they are not coming, what’s wrong with me?”

How do you respond to that? What can I say to an 89 year old man who asks this question?  All I can do is hug him and tell him that we all feel things in different ways, that it’s OK, that it’s all right, and that we will go on together to see the rest. We have more journey to come. Tomorrow we begin the journey across France to the site of Bob’s 89 days of combat.

Meeting Marc

Up bright and early….OK…..slept through the alarm and flopped out of bed at 8:10 knowing we had an 8:45 AM rendezvous with Marc.  Down the stairs, wake up Bob, back up the stairs, throw on my clothes, pull Bill out of the shower, hit the dining room for coffee and croissant and voila’ we are actually ready when Marc arrives.

He is not what we expected.  Someone with an affinity and passion for Normandy such as he expressed on-line and in his blog should be much older.  He is in fact a 26-year-old French soldier (Lieutenant) that believes history needs to be remembered.  He was accompanied by his beautiful wife Violet and his father Dennis. He was warm, cordial and we all immediately had the feeling that we were with family.  Sometimes that just happens – and it is a wonderful feeling. We pile in our two cars, Bill driving and following Marc and head to our assembly point where we meet the others in the group.  Surprise number two – they are almost all French – possibly French tourists from other areas but several are local, ages range from about 8 to about, well Bob wins at 89, and we even have three dogs as escorts.  And all want to learn more about the joint American, Canadian and British invasion of Normandy – Operation Overlord.

Operation Overlord was the code name for the Battle of Normandy, the operation that launched the invasion of German-occupied  western Europe during World War II by Allied forces. The operation commenced on 6 June 1944 with the Normandy landings (Operation Neptune, commonly known as D-Day). A 12,000-plane airborne assault preceded an amphibious assault involving almost 7,000 vessels. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on 6 June; more than three million allied troops were in France by the end of August.

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Our Normandy family

Marc has a website you may want to visit

https://www.facebook.com/pages/DDay-Overlord/220165171439430

It is full of information and  comments from those who treasure the past of this area.  One comment that Marc made to us came as he was explaining that there were some people who visit this area that feel the  beaches should not be used for any type of recreation – that they are sacred places.  And, he continued, they are correct.  But if these places cannot be used for the living what was the purpose of those who fought ad died on them? A very thoughtful comment from a very impressive young man.

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Monument to The Big Red One – 1st Infantry Omaha Beach

Our first stop of the day was a place on the extreme east end of Omaha Beach which is not frequently visited.  It is adjacent to the American Cemetery and not well-known.  This was where The First Infantry Division (nicknamed The Big Red One) came ashore on D-Day.

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1st Infantry Normandy landing

We trod the fields and walked the bunkers where the men from both sides fought and died.  Bob even managed to get down into a bunker and pop his head out much like the misled gopher to be met by two of the three dogs our tour.

Bob in the fox hole

Bob emerging from the bunker.

Although our French is minimal at best Marc and his wife and father proved to be wonderful hosts and not only provided a wealth of information but also answered questions both wise and not so much. My attempt here is not to explain history, but to capture Bob’s actions and reactions.  And to say the least he is in a world of his own.  He is extremely honored at all the attention he is getting what with people stopping to shake his hand and say “Thank you for your service” or “Merci”, he seems to be withdrawn even more into himself about expressing his feelings but is talking freely about some more experiences on the war.  The shadows are lifting a bit – but the question comes up time and again “Why did I survive?” And there is not answer. Some repeat platitudes about  why but one man who actually works at the American Cemetery and is a French national responds with the most honest answer “Monsieur, you will not know the answer to this question until you meet your  maker, and perhaps not even then.”

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German bunker – gun is authentic WW2

We continue through the country side – visiting places, seeing history – it becomes apparent to me that it is not WHERE we are or WHAT we are seeing but that WE ARE HERE.  Walking in history – honoring his fellow soldiers, trying to visualize what they felt while remembering what he felt. But he is still not ready to verbalize.  I am not sure he ever will be.

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National Guard Monument Omaha Beach

We make our next stop at a small cafe where we eat and talk and more stories are shared – but still they are the “funny” ones.  When we are doing with lunch Bob is tired as we all are so we take our leave from the group and head back to our hotel – but not before Bob get’s the last say – He MUST make a balloon dog for all the pretty ladies in the group – wouldn’t be Bob if he didn’t.

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Marc, Bob and Marc’s wife Violet

Tomorrow the we visit The American Cemetery and other places to be determined.  Bob has returned.DSCN1987

 

From Poole to Normandy

Having arrived somewhat haphazardly in Poole we spend the evening at the Inn and prepare in he early morning to board the Brittany Ferry Barfleu for a sail to Cherbourg.  While we are waiting for our taxi Bill and I strike up a conversation with a Vietnam Vet from Delaware.  He tells us he is spending a month visiting friends in the Poole area.  Then he asks ” what brings you here?” and we recount the tale for Bob leading up to this point and on to his battlefield.  By the time we are done telling Bob’s story this rugged man has tears streaming down his face – which he assures us are tears of happiness and gratitude for Bob, his service and the service of all the others before and since.  Definitely a moment of pause.

Our taxi arrives and we depart to the ferry dock.  When I made the reservations I noted on the form that we wish a cabin in case any of us required a rest on the five-hour trip and that we were traveling with an 89-year-old WW2 combat vet.  I received an emailed reply to please report to the launch one hour before departure.  That sounded all right and proper so we arrived as requested figuring they would let us walk on board before the cars and other passengers.  Nope – wrong again oh wise person – we were met by a wheel chair accessible van and drive who took up out to the dock, on board the ship in the van and delivered us to a special elevator where two attendants met us – one to escort us to our cabin (very nice with large outboard window) and the other scooted off with our luggage informing us to return to the pursuers lobby as the boat docked.

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The trip was lovely, smooth, we eat well, napped and reported as directed as the ferry was docking where they unloaded all cars and passengers and then repeated this process in reverse – never saw customs, immigration, nothing.  Just ended up at the taxi stand with one other woman who had missed her departure announcement and was late getting off the ferry.  As our car rental was quite near the train station and she required a ride to the station to catch her train to Paris we invited her to share our taxi.  Which was brilliant as she was fluent in both French and English and helped us our at the rental, with all the directions our to our hotel and was a total angel then quite literally disappeared without us getting her name or giving her our thanks.  Another of those moments of pause.

We are off to Normandy, more exactly du Casino Peugeot which reportedly is near Omaha Beach.  And, oh surprise, this little has a GPS – we are blessed once again. After a 90 minute drive through a lovely french countryside we arrive at our hotel and it is more than we expected.

Du Casino our hotel

Du Casino our hotel

our rooms are the center and right dormer and they look out at:

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View from our rooms of Omaha Beach

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Monument at the center of Omaha Beach

Bob is very introspective, quiet, not saying much.  Tomorrow we will be met by a gentleman named Marc who I contacted through the internet, inquired about a small tour he was conducting and asked how we might join and got the response “we would be honored to have your father and you on our trip.  I will pick you up at your hotel Saturday morning.”

We wait to see what tomorrow will bring.