June 8 2013
Dearest Old Bolds, Friends, Family,
Sending you fond greetings from the bottom of a deep tub in a
hardwood floored, antique-filled room looking out over splendid
gardens surrounding a beautifully restored castle in the Normandy
countryside just outside of Bayeux.
No complaints here.
Wednesday Charley and I flew from Hamburg to Paris and drove up to
the Normandy coast. On initial assessment, the lack of hotel rooms
in Bayeux when I planned this trip some months ago was distressing.
But it turned out to be a blessing for us because we found this
gorgeous manor house bed-and-breakfast at an amazingly affordable
price, certainly cheaper than the hotels in town. There are just the
right number of rooms for Charley and I each to have our own
palatial digs, while the other beautiful rooms go to an American
combat veteran and his family.
When we arrived, we dropped off our things and then drove an hour
further to the German cemetery at Orglandes. Our way wound through
La Fiere, where 82nd Airborne troops fought fiercely to prevent
German reinforcements from reaching the landing beaches. Our new
WWII veteran friend from the New Orleans museum, Tom Blakey, fought
here. We can't wait to email him our pictures and regards for his
service and sacrifice.
Once we reached the tiny village of Orglandes, and the vast
cemetery, we were touched by the graves of over 10,000 German
servicemen who rarely, if ever, have visits from family or
countrymen. Seeing so many marker stones, all with 6 bodies per
stone and grave, was upsetting for Charley. But we were glad we came
to pay our respects to these largely forgotten men, who were once
somebody's father, brother, son.
We drove back to the highway but before moving on, we stopped at
Ste. Mere Eglise to pick up some flowers. As one might expect, the
town was bustling with jubilant energy, tourists, re-enactors, and
American jeeps. The church bell tower was adorned with the effigy of
John Steele (no relation!) hanging in his chute, just as he did on
D-Day, pretending to be dead as the Germans shot up at him.
Ironically, about 20 German Bundeswehr soldiers stood in the square,
intently listening to a lecture about the battle here. Charley and I
walked over and hovered. As we got closer, we saw they were Panzer
troops. Charley winked at them, and we listened for a while, but in
the chill weather, we soon decided to slowly head back to the car.
Before we could leave though, some colonels caught up with us,
having let the troops go for a while to explore the town and museum.
They remembered Charley from the annual tank reunion in their small
garrison town, and wanted to pay their respects to him and (in
absentia) our friend Guenter Halm, who won the Knight's Cross in
Africa, and who accompanies Charley in laying the wreath for the
21st Panzer Division every year.
After our short but pleasant visit, Charley held the flowers on his
lap as we headed to La Cambe, the big German cemetery by the landing
beaches. Once there we found the grave of German tank ace Michael
Wittman and placed the flowers gently by his marker. Enjoying the
beautifully-kept surroundings, we made a round of the graves, and as
we do at every war cemetery, wondered how God can let so many young
people die so tragically (many never identified, to the subsequent
agony of their families).
Leaving late and famished, we ate dinner in Bayeux, where I enjoyed
local vintage. We arrived back at the hotel at nearly 10 pm with the
sun still illuminating our entrance. There we found an American WW2
veteran, also named Charlie, surrounded by 3 daughters and 4
grandchildren, who had all made the pilgrimage to be with him in
this very special place. In a wonderful melodious voice with a hint
of a southern drawl, our American Charlie told us how he came in on
Omaha, was wounded and survived.
Naturally the two Charlies instantly bonded, and we stayed up late
while they genially reminisced and visited, the daughters and
listening intently, the grandsons rough housing outside.
Thursday morning we were overwhelmed at a
communal breakfast table about to buckle under the weight of the
chocolate croissants, fresh fruit, baguettes, homemade jam, yogurt,
coffee, freshly made omelettes, confections, and other delightful,
scrumptious delicacies. After gluttonously eating far more than we
should have, or even thought we could have, we were off to the
museum at Arromanches, in the British sector, where we met up with
the Sherwood Rangers. We were so happy to see Charley's longtime
WWII combat veteran friends Graham, Stan, Bert, and David, with
their family members, and the younger Sherwoods who work hard to
make these annual outings possible. After
a very short few minutes enjoying the spectacular views, we then hit
Gold Beach where the Sherwoods had come in on D-Day.
Bert, a Sherwood tank driver who, with his crew, found himself
swimming in to the beach under his own power due rough sea
conditions which swamped their swimming tank on D-Day, was whisked
away by reporters to be photographed. When he rejoined us again he
got a few moments to talk a little about his experience, but his
words were swept away by the wind and rush of the sea in front of
Then, the Sherwoods and their entourage piled back into their
remarkably large bus (or as they would say, coach) and lumbered off
to the next location through narrow back roads, with us and another
pair following in our cars like ducklings in tow. We stopped and
visited with them happily on the side of the road in a sleepy
village while they had a picnic lunch, and then followed behind some
more. But once en route again, we saw they kept driving and driving,
even past the place where Graham was shot, badly wounded, and left
the war. As we saw they didn't intend to stop, we sent all our best
thoughts out to Graham and the others on the bus, and took full
advantage of our independence to break away.
Charley saw a sign for Villers-Bocage, and since his wish is my
command, we instantly veered off to make our way to the site of a
famous one-sided tank battle between the British and Germans. Once
there, and in desperate need of refreshment of the caffeinated sort,
we dropped into a French bar (complete with Frenchmen standing at
the bar staring at us with detached curiosity while drinking their
afternoon aperitifs). Once adequately fortified, we explored the
battlefield while reading about how Wittman and his comrades had
used their Tiger tanks to do in quite a few British tanks, armored
personnel carriers, and just about anything or anyone,
unfortunately, in firing range.
Once we made it back to our manor house, it was almost time to leave
to meet a very special friend, make that two, in Bayeux.
Ken Ewing was the first Sherwood Ranger that Charley met when he
reached out to his former African opponents over twenty years ago.
Ken always made Charley feel welcome as a brother and proud honorary
member of the British regiment. Over the years, Charley developed an
especially strong friendship with Ken and his family, that has
continued on past Ken's death. In Bayeux, we met one of Ken's
grandsons and a retired British special forces friend of his.
As we chatted over omelettes, there simply wasn't enough time to
even begin to scratch the surface on all the fascinating topics we
found ourselves engrossed in, about African combat then and now, the
state of good and evil in the world, and many, many others. We
ruefully broke off only when the restaurant staff made it clear that
closing time was upon us, but easily could have spent hours more
lost in conversation with these outstanding gentlemen.
Up early again, we prettied ourselves, and attended the ceremony at
Bayeux celebrating the Sherwoods (and Essex) for liberating the town
June 7, 1944. After the boys enjoyed their ham
sandwiches in the sun (I couldn't even look at food after another
indecently extravagant breakfast), we sadly said goodbye to our
Sherwood Ranger friends.
Charley and I drove down Omaha Beach, and up past WN62, where I felt
much more qualified to play the tour guide. Then we met with my
French friend and fellow researcher Arnaud at the American cemetery.
After our young British friends also arrived, and with the
tremendously helpful staff, we were chauffeured out to the graves of
Robert Sweatt's crew with British, French, German and American
representatives all jumbled up in our golf cart limousine.
The staff put Omaha Beach sand in the etched white gravestones,
which lit up the names like inlaid gold. Arnaud laid flowers, while
I filmed and struggled, again this year, to keep the tears from
streaming down my face.
DeWitt, Wilhite, Saunders and McConnell, whose final resting place
is here, have all become so much more than just names to me as I now
embark on the journey of writing their story. My only wish is to
adequately honor them and all the others who made the ultimate
sacrifice for our freedom.
By the time we left the cemetery Arnaud and Charley had become fast
friends over the deeply emotional honoring of this American B-24
crew which has become such an integral part of all of our lives.
Ever the ambassador of the honorable German soldier, Charley has
melted the hearts of all the French people he has spoken with,
seemingly much to their bemusement.
Today, with hopes that we may all meet here again next year for the
anniversary of D-Day, Charley and I return to Germany.
Every now and then I hear a Spitfire or Mustang fly overhead, and I
think of you, my cherished Old Bolds. With all my love, and deepest
appreciation to you, whom I miss so terribly and think of so often.