Thursday, November 25, 2010

Send me an angel...

Stained glass window in the famous church in Ste-Mère-Église depicting the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, and the Paratroopers of D-Day, the village below.

Our second WWII tour in Normandy, the two day "American Experience," was quite a different experience from the first. New guide and new tour members, this time ourselves, a British father and his university age son who were jolly and thoughtful and a husband and wife from the Midwest who made me think, probably unfairly, of American Gothic. The latter were good, honest people, the sort you'd want for neighbors, but not quick enough, mentally, to meet the expectancies of our guide.

He, we could tell at once, was going to be interesting. Maybe good, maybe bad, but definitely interesting. Half French, half American, with either a snobbery issue or inferiority complex, I never did decide. Perhaps that could be traced directly to his heritage. Regardless, it would be entertaining to spend the next two days with him as long as he didn't turn out to be merely annoying.

We were on our guard immediately, as (I am going to call him Travis because while I am going to poke a bit of fun here, and everything is true as I remember it, I would feel terrible if I hurt his feelings) immediately set about being rather bossy and short with the group. The first memorial where we stopped we were told not to read it, as what would be the point of his telling us if we read it and that we needed to stand here, and here, and to not dally and get back into the van and Wendell (from the Midwest) I already answered that question.

Huh. Quite different from our easy-going Alan. Travis then distinguished himself by saying nasty things about how anyone who drove in a way which displeased him must be "tourists" (!) and proceeded to drive rather awfully in a impatient way himself.

I was starting to think I would have to dismiss him, mentally, as an angry little man (little in personality, not necessarily in stature) when he began to speak passionately about a skirmish, and his entire persona changed. He really got into telling the story, with real vim and emotion, making us see it unfold as it had 66 years ago.

Well, alrighty then!

One of the highlights of the day was to stop in the village of Ste-Mère-Église, where the paratrooper Private John Steele's chute so memorably snagged on the steeple of the village church after his group was misdropped, like so many others. Unfortunately for them they came down directly into Ste-Mère-Église.

The town square was well lit that night by a fire burning in a nearby house. Pvt Steele dangled from that steeple for two hours, wounded and having to pretend he was dead while most of his fellow paratroopers were easily killed by the Germans, many of them in the air or not long enough on the ground to have been able to assemble their weapons and defend themselves.

Today, to honor Pvt Steele and the memory of that night, a parachute still flutters from the steeple of the church, now with a paratrooper mannequin dangling beneath.

Now, it must be said that it is on the wrong side of the church, over the square, when Pvt Steele was actually on the other side, (probably a good part of the reason he survived though he made his way down only after being taken prisoner,) but it was adapted as more dramatic that way for the movie The Longest Day.

Who doesn't remember Red Buttons being deafened by the bells and appalled at the massacre being played out around him? I think the French gave a well-practised Gallic shrug and agreed, who are we to argue with such success?

Apparently the previous mannequin was made of wood, and as it aged it deteriorated and eventually fell from the rooftop, scaring the socks off some poor woman who became hysterical, insisting someone had committed suicide off the steeple of the church.

Hopefully the new Pvt John Steele representative will be a little more durable.

Here is Mike next to the very water pump from which the citizens of Ste-Mère-Église filled buckets with water and passed them along a line to try to put out that house fire. Today there is a wonderful Airborne museum where that house stood, including a collection of all sorts of WWII vehicles, a glider, and the Douglas C-47 plane Argonia which pulled gliders and dropped paratroopers on D-Day, marked by the distinctive three white bands on the wings and fuselage that are only seen on aircraft that were part of the invasion.

We also visited Utah Beach, a far, far better place to land than Omaha Beach should you have been an American soldier on that fateful day.

I gathered up a bit of sand. Here I am being a total tourist.

Yes, I am grinning like a moron, but I was having a good time. Note the French and American flags flying side by side.

We learned something interesting passing the town of Isigny. Travis told us that in France you would get a last name, back in the day, by taking the name of that place and putting a d' in front of it. Like d'Isigny, or, as we now know it, Disney. Neat, huh?

Another memorable stop was Saint-Côme-du-Mont, where we stood in the pouring rain to hear the riveting story of 101st Sgt. Joseph ("Jumpin Joe) Beyrle, the luckiest, or perhaps unluckiest, paratrooper of D-Day. He also came down onto the roof of a church. Through a nearly unbelievable series of events, captures, escapes, and misadventures (which you can read about here: ) he ended up being the only known soldier to serve the US and Soviet Armies in WWII, though for the latter he talked his way into a Soviet tank battalion.

Here are the Brits and Mike gleefully (boys!) examining bullet holes in the church cemetery where Sgt. Joe Beyrle first slid down off the roof, jumped over a wall and charged off towards his objective, all the while making as much trouble for the Germans as he possibly could.

When he finally made it back to the United States, Beyrle married his sweetheart in the same church where his Funeral Mass had been held...almost exactly two years before.

I like a story with a happy ending.

This next story is not, one might argue, so noble, but it has been a theme of this blog to boldly describe Going Places I Have Not Gone Before, and on a tour such as this with extended time in the bus, one with a hopelessly tiny bladder like myself has to go whenever the opportunity presents itself.

We pulled into a gravel lot atop a hillside, Travis informing us that there were facilities and that we'd better go if we needed to. Ducking down against the wind and rain he scuttled over to door #1, claiming the closest stall as his own for the time being. No fool I, (again, some might argue this point at which I would have to do my best imitation of a Gallic shrug), I squinched up my face against the weather and made a break for the other option: door #2.

Now, I, and this blog, have gone in some interesting places. But in all our travels, never had I been in this situation.

I was face to face with the solitary plumbing fixture of the room, an elevated urinal.

I glared at the sexist piece of porcelain. Which, frustratingly, didn't do any good. I really had to go. I decided then and there that I had dealt with far, far worse and no stinkin' French urinal was going to get the better of me. Darn it.

Somtimes a woman has got to do what a woman has, well, got to do. But how to go about getting it done? Without getting too graphic, I turned my back, stood on my tippy toes, dropped trou and gave it my best shot.

Would you believe, with the exception of the lack of toilet paper, it was a total success?

I had already half made up my mind to give Travis a hard time for his lack of full disclosure, but when I emerged and peeked into the stall next door which revealed a regular full-service sort of toilet, well, hell hath no fury like a woman...

Gosh, I'm not sure how you would describe my state.

Travis, our funny, finicky guide, was utterly mortified. "I've never actually been in that side!" he protested in horror, verifying the stall's occupant for himself, looking more sheepish than any grown man ought. I let him off the hook at that point. After all, I would never have known what I was capable of had my...comfort zone not been challenged.

We stood on top of that hill and looked into the valley, hearing the tale of the massacred villagers of Graignes, a sad, sad tale indeed, villagers who had risked, and then gave, their lives after they decided as a group to assist the American paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne who had landed nearby, offering them assistance in many ways, including finding and returning equipment bundles that had fallen into swampy areas, hiding the troops, and helping them escape. They were terribly punished for their courage.

Shivering, we retreated to the cold, empty churchyard to hear how the SS had eventually overpowered the Americans with an artillery barrage, and there where we stood they had executed the priest and those who were tending wounded paratroopers, then killed the wounded as well, some where they lay, bayoneting others, and making others dig their own grave before executing them.

As the church steeple had harbored an American sniper who'd made their lives particularly difficult, the SS killed everyone in the church, including two old ladies cowering in their beds. Eventually the Germans ordered all the villagers to leave the town, and shot anyone who argued, then burnt the town, beginning with the bodies of those in the church.

It was a sorrowful place to be. There were other stories, such as that of 15-year-old Joseph Folliot who ferried 21 troopers who had been hidden in a barn by the Rigaul family slowly to safety on his river barge.

But it was our last stop for the day that turned out to be the most memorable.

It was a small place, not in any of the guide books.

On June 6th, 1944, two medics, Private Kenneth Moore and Private Robert Wright of the 2nd Battalion 501st PIR of 101st Airborne established an aid station in the tiny village of Angoville-au-plain, posting signs around a small 11th century church to designate it a field hospital. Neither medic had much medical training, but they set to work doing what they had to do, treating the wounded.

On that day Moore and Wright decided something unusual, something remarkable. They would treat any and all wounded who came to them for help, Allied, German, or civilian. It would not matter which side the patient had fought for. They also agreed they would not allow any weapons inside the church.

For three days the battle continued in and around Angoville, three times Angoville changed hands during the fighting, but the aid station in the church held.

The wounded kept coming.

Moore and Wright worked undaunted under fire in horrible conditions, slipping in the blood of their patients, running back and forth to a well outside the relative protection of the church walls to bring water, tending the soldiers and others laid out head to head on the stone floor and church pews.

At one point a mortar shell came crashing through the ancient ceiling.

The first time the Germans recaptured Angoville they stormed into the church, their guns at the ready. Wright got up from the man he was tending and stood firm in front of them, telling the Germans they would have to lay down their arms if they wished to enter. Seeing both American and German wounded being treated the Germans quietly exited the church, leaving this medical sanctuary alone, and the order was given that the church was not to be bothered again.

In all of that madness, two young medics, boys really, showed what it means to be truly noble.

Eighty men and one child found refuge in their church hospital . The pews are still stained with the blood of the wounded, despite numerous attempts to scrub it out. There is still the mortar mark in the stone floor and bullet scores throughout the church as witness to those days.

Travis, our guide, openly wept as he told us this story. You see, he knew a woman who had lived in the village, 9 months pregnant that June of 1944. She had lived in the family barn with her family while the Germans occupied the house, starving and freezing during the wintertime, and eventually, distrustful but desperate, accepting a ride in a cart from American soldiers and delivering her baby in relative safety away from the fighting.

That baby was Travis' mother.

There are two beautiful stained glass windows in that church in Angoville, in honor of the medics and paratroopers. The first was crafted and donated by an American who had taken the tour and was utterly moved by the story. The second was paid for by the townspeople of the small and poor, but rich in grace, village of Angoville-au-plain.

That night was the night the Brit father and son, Mike and I sat together, far past closing time in a Bayeux restaurant, talking. We went over the day, discussing how what we were learning was affecting us. Thinking back to the stained glass windows of the day, in both the Angoville and Ste-Mère-Église churches, I wondered if the French had seen the paratroopers almost as if they were warrior angels, coming down from heaven to free the people of France.

Sitting at that table after dark, we wondered how we would do the next day, when we would go to Omaha Beach, where so many died, and then the Normandy American Cemetery, where, we felt, none of us would be able to keep it together.

But all of us would be thankful.


*Paula* said...

Amazing Natalie. I've got tears streaming down my face reading these stories.

Mumsey said...

It has been said that heroism is ordinary people doing extraordinary things in a crisis.
You made this all very real. It is good and a solemn duty to remember brave deeds and honor those who gave so much in selfless sacrifice for others.

AKBrady said...

Ach, I must go there. Beauty in an unlikely place in unlikely scenarios.

Anonymous said...

Travis has gotten much better, less about himself more about the story but if would have been nice to tell him up front and not bad mouth him over the internet like you did. As comments like that always stay around it's 2014 now.
Did he tell you that he had lost someone close to him that day? Did mention he found out he had cancer? the day before the tour
He had his moods but he stayed professional did the two day tour....
Weighs half of what he used to, he lost all his hair (chemo not growning back either)its on meds and has been in and out of hospital in the last 4 years, that he's probably not going to make it to 2015, did Travis tell you that?

Natalie said...

Hello anonymous. I am sorry you see my opinion as badmouthing, it wasn't intended that way, We enjoyed "Travis" thoroughly, as, if you read this again, you will see. I would have recommended him as a historian and guide to anyone interested in Normandy. His personality made the tour even more memorable, especially the personal story---amazing!---and it is my wish that nothing I wrote should be taken as anything unkind. My experience of Travis was that he was a sensitive, opinionated, unusual fellow who was, as I said, AMAZING at his job. Here is what I wrote: "It was, we agreed, the most incredible, memorable and valuable part of our vacation," how could any guide desire a more heartfelt thanks for his work? This blog is a truthful representation of our family's experiences as they happened though our eyes, and nothing else. We certainly wish Travis well, are sorry for his loss, and hope he wins his battle with cancer.