Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Walking with Ghosts

ED NOTE:  This isn’t the complete story, just my recollections of the fantastic and fascinating day we had trying to track down my father-in-law’s war experiences. 

Don’t you just love it when you have one thing planned and then something unexpected happens that totally changes your plans?  Well, maybe, not always, but sometimes Serdipity comes to play.

Yesterday, we had planned a day with a tour guide to take us through the Normandy Beaches.  In talking with him about what we wanted to see, he asked if we had family that had died in Normandy.  Bob, Rob’s dad, had been critically injured at Argentan, on August 18, 1944, so I mentioned that to Rudy.  He began drilling down, wanting Bob’s unit particulars, dates, etc.  He suggested that we spend less time on the beaches, and go to Argentan to see what we could find. Sounded like a great plan to us!

When we met up with Rudy, he suggested we head first for Argentan, about 40 miles from Bayeaux.  As we drove, he and Rob talked about what had happened to Bob, his later years after the war, his life.  We had copies of some articles written about the 318th Division (Bob’s division) from the internet, and there were several historic photos and a couple of maps.  Rudy was able to determine exactly where the battle took place from the maps, and we first drove through the forest where the German tanks that the 318th fought were hidden.  Then, Rudy decided we should go find the little village where much of the battle took place, and see if we could find the Mayor’s office.  He has had good luck with this strategy, as often someone in the office has more and/or better information than he has.  After he got back in the car, he said, “I have a surprise for you.  Let’s see if he’ll talk to us, but the ladies in the office say there’s a man in this village that saw the battle.”  Whoa.  An actual witness! 

Rudy knocked on the man’s door, and we were promptly invited in.  Serge, the witness, was 9 at the time of the battle and living in a house just up the street in the same village.  His wife, Micheline, sat quietly as we listened to Serge tell his story through Rudy. 

Serge remembers the first day of the battle quite well because the fighting was pretty intense near where his house was.  All the villagers left that night and came back a few days later.  He remembers piles of discarded equipment and materiel.  At one point, he mentioned the farm where the American troops had to cross a little stream, and that they had to cut down all the trees so that their tanks could cross.  Then, he offered to take us to the farm, which was just down the road from his house. 

He and Rudy kept talking.  Serge talked about finding a pile of discarded items and among the items were 5 helmets, each with a single hole.  He spoke for a long time about how poor and hungry everyone was and how his father managed to get a little something for his family when others couldn’t.  It seems his father was the town’s only baker and as such, was immediately conscripted into working at the castle baking bread for the Nazi officers.  Since he had access to the bread, maybe sometimes, it didn’t all make it to the Germans. 
Rob, Serge, and me at the farm
Listening to all this, and occasionally adding a comment of her own, was Micheline.  She finally interrupted her husband and told her story.  Her family was from the same village, although she was only 13 mos. When the battle happened.  Her father had been executed for being in the Resistance, and when the battle started, fearing for her own life because she was also in the Resistance, her mother fled the village with her two children.  They found refuge in a barn, but a shell hit the barn, and pretty much nothing of her mother remained.  Her 3-year old brother sustained significant shrapnel wounds, but survived to the age of 38, succumbing to the health effects of the shrapnel.  Micheline and her brother were declared orphans, but her brother was sent to live with their grandparents, while she grew up in a girls orphanage.  Because her mother is considered a victim of the war, she has a permanent resting place and can never be removed. 

Then, Micheline took off into the kitchen, looking for something.  She came back with two sheets of paper.  This was the story of her aunt, Odette, and how she made it through the war. Odette and her husband had a casino, according to the account, in Oujstrehan, which was on the very north end of Juno Beach and heavily bombarded.   A missile hit the casino, and Odette scrambled to help people out before it collapsed.  She got two of her friends to hide in a foxhole big enough for one person, so their heads and shoulders stuck up above the protection of the hole.  She lay face-down next to them with her feet toward the beach.  A shell hit near where she lay, severely damaging one leg, blowing off one of her buttocks and injuring her in the abdomen.  A male friend of hers was also severely injured.  The British medics who eventually came, tried to evacuate her to their hospital ship, but she wanted to wait for her husband, who was off on a mission for the Resistance. She convinced her friend to go in her place.  Plus, she didn’t didn’t want to go to Britain.   After some time, they told her that her husband had arrived and they were going to take her to him (knowing the gravity of her situation, they lied.  Some lies are ok to tell.)  Instead, they loaded her onto a transport barge, which was then hit by a German torpedo.  Being of compartmented construction, it didn’t sink but they did have to raise the patients up to keep them from getting wet.  Ironically, the male friend died when the hospital ship was also torpedoed. 

After 6 months and many surgeries in Britain, she was sent home with a prosthetic leg.   Odette and her husband rebuilt the casino and she could often be seen in the kitchen, leg stump propped up on a stool, doing all the cooking for their guests and family.  The prosthesis was very uncomfortable for her, and she did without it whenever she could.  The casino/hotel was sold in the ‘70’s because the children were not interested in running it, however, Micheline remembers many good times with her aunt.

After about an hour and a half of listening to Micheline and Serge, Rudy thought it might be time for us to go, but Serge insisted on showing us the farm.  It turns out to be the exact farm pictured in the articles that we had read about the battle.  It’s almost without doubt that Bob crossed over this farm on the way to the edge of the Argentan forest where, only hours later, he would be wounded.  The German Panzers were hidden in a tree line and shooting down the hill into the American forces.  Bob jumped into a foxhole  for cover, and the guy next to him started trying to take out one of the tanks with a bazooka.  The Germans fired on the bazooka and shrapnel took off most of the front of Bob’s skull.  When the Germans advanced, the Americans left him for dead, as did the Germans.  The next morning, when the Americans retook the position, they noticed that Bob was moving and evacuated him to a field hospital.  We assume that once he was stable, they moved him to the hospital at the castle where he remained until he was evacuated by ship to England, where he spent 6 months recuperating. 
The farm in 1944

The farm in 2015
After seeing the farm, we went to the Chambois memorial, where the grander outline of the battle, actually called the Falaise Encirclement, could be seen.  Earlier, the British and Americans had tried to encircle the remaining Germans escaping from the Normandy fortifications.  Through ego on the parts of Montgomery and Patton, 40,000 managed to escape and try to mount a counter attack.  Canadian, Polish, British and American troops finally managed to encircle them at Falaise and the Polish and Americans were the stopper at the bottom of the bottle, so to speak. 

Having heard and seen all this today, I couldn’t help but feel the presence of the dead and the remains of the battles.  I kept trying to picture the farm, the countryside during the war, and it wasn’t difficult.  Perhaps because I’d seen so many pictures, but I think also because their presence and their deeds remain so fresh in the memory of the people and in the memory of the land. 

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