(click on individual photos to enlarge)
Continuing from my last post, our next stop was La Fière Bridge. Less than ten minutes (by car) from Sainte Mère Église, is this small, unassuming bridge. On one side is a pullout area with information describing the battle that took place here, along with several memorials devoted to the men that defended this key point. It was in this area that my grandfather jumped as a paratrooper. He was one of the lucky ones and landed close to his mark. Though it’s not apparent now, during the battle, the Germans had flooded this area turning it into a marshland. At the museum we had learned about paratroopers who had landed in the marshes created from opening the locks, many were encumbered by their gear and drown.
Below is a copy from a newspaper article my grandpa was interviewed for on December 14, 1945. One thing the article glances over was his time in Alaska. While on the island of Attu, the Japanese invaded, and for a few hours, he was a POW. That’s the reason he spent the remainder of the war in the European Theater.
“Sure, I was scared we all were,” he said, “but the thought uppermost in my mind concerned the flak and the ships trying to get through it. It was so thick it looked like a curtain and I kept wondering how the planes could ever make it”… “We jumped about six miles inland,” he reported, “and made our way to a small town near a bridge. To prevent a German Panzer division from crossing the bridge and getting to the coast, we held it for hours under continuous shelling until our tanks got up from the beach. Then we moved toward Cherbourg.”
Below, is perhaps one of my favorite photos from our D-Day tour. When I became engaged in early 2000, my grandmother gave me my grandfather’s wedding ring, to give to my soon-to-be husband. We were both very touched by the gesture. I think she saw a bit of herself in us. We were young (20 & 21), like my grandparents had been when they were married; we were heading to Alaska right after we were married (my grandparents first assignment together was at Fort. Richardson, AK – ours would be Elmendorf, AK.); and The (soon-to-be) Hubs was in the Air Force, my grandfather had retired from the AF. There were a lot of similarities between us. I know my grandpa didn’t wear this ring while he was here, but it was his. He had wanted to return for the 50th D-Day anniversary in 1994, but was unable to. In coming to this site, and taking this photo, I felt like I was able to honor him a bit and his desire to return. Both my sister and I have been to Normandy and have been to places my grandpa had been. Being able to do this, and share some of my family history with my children, has been very important to me. It makes me feel closer to my grandpa as I’ve learned things about him I never knew while he was alive. I only wish he was still here so I could share my adventures with him, I’m sure he would have enjoyed that.
Along the bridge, on the side the Allies defended, is an old farm house. It was there during the battle and today is a bed and breakfast. A friend had told me about it and suggested I seek out the innkeeper, an American woman, who fell in love with a Frenchman and settled here. The B&B wasn’t open when we arrived (it’s common in France for businesses to close for several hours in the afternoon). We were there around 2pm and the sign in the door said the lobby didn’t open until 4pm. I was a little disappointed, because I had been told I could purchase a book here that was written by an 82nd Airborne Pathfinder, that covered this very battle; No Better Place to Die. I stopped for a moment to take one last photo (the one below) when someone said something to me in French. I didn’t catch a word of it, and in response, tried to ask if the woman spoke English. She replied that yes, she spoke “American”. I quickly explained why I was there and asked if she knew how I could purchase the book that had been described to me. She became very hospitable, welcomed me in, and showed me exactly what I had been seeking. The Hubs joined me and for about ten minutes we stood in the reception area of the B&B looking at all of the memorabilia and talking to this interesting woman about how she came to be where she was, how she felt obliged to give back and help educate others about WWII. It was fascinating and I was very grateful our paths crossed for a few moments.
With my new book in hand, we headed off to Utah Beach. As we drew nearer, we started seeing these white and blue sign posts. Pulling over at one, we could read the name of the soldier who had fallen in that area. The roads were dotted with these signs. It didn’t matter if you were on a main road or a side road, they were everywhere. A sobering sight.
The tide was low at Utah beach and we walked all the way out to the waves. It gave us an interesting perspective, looking back at the beach head, and trying to imagine what the soldiers would have seen as they approached in the early morning. There is a museum, cafe, and small gift shop here along with more memorials for each of the divisions and units that took part in the invasion. Many were being spruced up or repainted during our visit. I think we had picked a time that was a bit like the calm before the storm… come June this place is going to be crawling with visitors. I’ve heard that it will be the last year they do an air drop, and with our WWII veterans reaching the century mark, there’s just not many still with us. This year, marking the 70th Anniversary, is going to be a big one.
Up next, Point Du Hoc and the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.