D-Day Normandy
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 the
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 granddaughters
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 us.

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 70th
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.




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