Monday, December 6, 2010

Smoke gets in your eyes...

Our last day of hearing stories and visiting sites from the D-Day landings in Normandy.

I had to work up to writing this post.

Tomorrow is December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day.

Highly appropriate, so let's get to it.

One tiny exhibit in a sea of museums. One small story, one beautiful little memorial. The last part is a bit hard to read: Bill Farmer was killed in the Invasion of Normandy. These existing two pieces were returned to Normandy in September, France in Sept 1998 by Don Furlong.

Our group began that last day at the La Cambe German Cemetery. Such a somber place. Through a narrow passage in a thick wall, meant to evoke both the beginning and end of life, to a field with dark granite Saxon crosses and a hill in the middle, beneath which 300 German soldiers, most of whom are unknown, were laid to rest in a mass grave. On top of the hill is another dark cross, with sad figures of a mother and father sorrowfully surveying the graves below.

Travis, our guide, told us that his French Grandfater had hated Germans until the day he died, so much so that he refused to have anything to do with a lifelong friend after that friend bought a Mercedes. German made, you see. Travis told us he is uneasy every time he comes to the German Cemetery, knowing that there would have been no placating his Grandfather if the old man, now passed away, knew his grandson would go there. "But it's part of the tour..." he sighed, c'est le travail.

German schoolchildren come on their vacations to tend the graves, along with the Volksbund (German War Graves Commission) in an effort to promote peace. Skinhead Nazi wanna-bes who show up are given the boot. By, basically, everyone.

There are sad, sad stones there, far too many of them, really, bearing the legend Ein Soldat Deutsch or as below, Two German Soldiers.

The sign at the entrance to the cemetery tells the tale best:

The German Cemetery at La Cambe: In the Same Soil of France

Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21,000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.

Travis' grandfather notwithstanding, we all agreed it was important to have gone there and remember that there are two sides to any story.

From the German Cemetery to Pointe-Du-Hoc, where US Army Rangers scaled impressively steep cliffs and entered a moonscape of craters courtesy of heavy bombers and the USS Texas dropping and firing the total explosive equivalent of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

After hearing the tale of the incredible bravery and sacrifice of those men, I picked a flower from the hillside and slipped it into my pocket. If we ever get a really good dog, Ranger will have to be his name.

And then, well, we scampered around like kids through the bunkers, looking at the enormous gun mounts and around giant pieces of concrete from the fortifications, blasted far from their origins, and climbed down one of the craters, now eroded to merely half their original depth. It was like a land for giants.

The craters are this big

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be a German under such an attack? Terrifying. It's amazing any of them survived such an onslaught.

We poked around in one bunker, which was impressively defensible (there we imagined trying to take one of these things) and, with the assistance of Travis, had our photo taken while popping up like gophers and flashing peace signs -his idea, which might have seemed flippant, but was honestly felt.

If there was one thing we learned it was that war, well, it sucks. There is nothing romantic or noble about it. Peace is better.

We looked out over the sea and skies and imagined them packed with dark shapes, tens of thousands of ships and planes, bearing down on the coast in the early morning hours.

Then we went down to Omaha Beach. Bloody Omaha Beach, as it is sometimes known.

As I believe anyone who has seen the incredible opening scene in Saving Private Ryan would agree, imagining the young men, brothers, fathers, and sons struggling to get out of the Higgins boats and up the beach and being mercilessly mowed down by machine gun fire, Omaha Beach was indeed the Gettysberg of World War II. 2,220 American soldiers died there.

There we stood on those sands, watching Travis draw out a battlefield schematic of how the beach landings were divided, and how it was supposed to go, and, then of course how it really went.

The beach is very wide, and from the water across the sands would be one heck of a run, even without fear and grief choking you, weighed down by all that gear and horror.

Travis was showing his pique, declaring it beyond rude for anyone outside of the tour to dare sidle up to try and eavesdrop on what we were learning. He would stop dead in the middle of a sentence and glare, in a most unfriendly fashion, until the person would move on. When he did this on Omaha Beach it was with such venom the result was a bit unsettling.

There was no attempt at lightness or humor during this portion of the tour, and all of us later said we felt nearly helpless in those moments, wanting to stay longer and somehow pay our respects, but ending up being shuttled back to the van.

The next stop was a museum there by the beaches, where we learned more about Operation Overlord, cried our eyes out in the dark (well I did, and I saw a lot of eye wiping when the lights went back on) watching a film, first in French and then in English, about the D-Day landings, and also from where I took the pictures of black and white photos in this post.

Throughout our trip Mike and I had enjoyed seeing signs like Do not climb upon the canon and Do not climb upon the bomb, imagining Thomas and his penchant for climbing and anything "boy". Perhaps Travis sensed we needed some release, or perhaps he's merely mischivious, but he pointed out one of the original tanks from the landing, sitting impressively in front of the museum, sporting yet another great sign: Do not climb upon the tank.

It doesn't say you can't climb into the tank, he said slyly, cutting his eyes at the Brit university student, if you get down on your belly and slide down under there then you can pop up into the inside of the tank...go on!

Being young and impetuous, certainly not the sort to shun a Puckish opportunity when offered one, and being egged on by his father, our Brit did just that while we grinned and tittered nervously. His voice was muffled as he clanked and clambered around inside, finally sticking his fingers out the turret to prove he'd made it and then rapidly evacuating the metal beast.

Here he is climbing back out from beneath. It was more than a bit tight in there, he reported.

Our next stop was a German defense position away from the usual tour areas, the Widerstandsnest 60, where there were trenches and more batteries overlooking the beach.

We walked through the long grasses, watching to not fall into the mostly concealed trenches from 65 years ago, and heard the story of the bravery of Lt. Jimmie Monteith. In civilian life a varsity football player and then mechanical engineering student, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless actions on June 6th. Trust me, if you were awarded that medal on that day, you were a man among men. Here is an article about him and the other 3 men honored with a Congressional Medal that day, if you're interested:

Finally, to the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.

You enter American soil when you, with millions of others each year, visit there. Entering past a large, perfectly manicured lawn for the U.S. President's helicopter to land upon (Travis told us that he'd never dared set foot upon that grass, sure that nice men in Ray-bans and good suits would hustle him off for questioning), and then into the cemetery and memorial itself. There is a reflection pool like the one at the Washington Monument in DC, over black stones, and the green of the burial grounds stretching away beyond.

A mighty bronze statue, Spirit of America's Youth, encircled by a collande, stretches magnificently and poignantly to the skies. We are entreated to Think not upon their passing, Remember the glory of their spirit.

There is a Garden of the Missing, the names of 1,557 men who were killed in Normandy but whose bodies were never recovered. The other 9,387 soldiers buried there are beneath white crosses, and it is both stunning and devastating to look out over the rows and rows. Young lives given, young lives lost.

The contrast between this and the German Cemetery is staggering. Our group drifted apart, walking the rows, looking at names, some looking for one grave in particular, maps in hand, others, like us, wandering with no real purpose through the silence, feeling a sadness and grief that is hard to explain.

I was looking for a grave, but not one of anyone we knew. A random grave, to put the wildflower from Pointe-Du-Hoc, perhaps one of an Army Ranger. What I found was this one:

PFC (Private First Class) Albert C. Jaspers of the 175th Infantry, 29th Division. From Washington State, died June 19th.

The soldiers' birth dates are not given on these crosses. I have no idea how old he was. I know he lived somewhere near Wenatchee, perhaps in Cashmere, WA. I also know the 175th Infantry of the 29th came ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus one, June 7th. They made their way through the carnage, and by that time the bodies of their fellow 29th, easily recognisable by the blue and gray patches on their shoulders, were stacked like firewood.

The soldiers who survived Omaha Beach did so through sheer numbers, by luck, some by being concealed in the smoke from burning vehicles.

Albert Jaspers survived the landing, though how he died, I haven't been able to find out, yet. Perhaps he was wounded during the landing and eventually succumbed, perhaps he made it to the hedgerows and towns, met the Germans he was fighting and French civilians he was fighting for.

The fighting was fierce in those first weeks, and men were lost left and right. There is a raw spot in my heart that I can't somehow honor him, thank him for his sacrifice, any better than we did. Just another soldier.

Albert C Jaspers d. 1944 Normandy

I've ordered a copy of his obituary from the Wenatchee Area Geneologial Society. I'm reading Beyond the Beachhead, the 29th Infantry Division in Normandy, and The Bedford Boys and re-reading Band of Brothers. I don't know why I can't let it go, but it seems important to me.

I talked to my grandma, who is 98, a little bit about this. She remembers reading the dispatches, the black-outs in the Midwest, huddling in the dark with my aunt as an infant in her arms, afraid to warm formula for her baby since the light for the stove could be seen. A terrible time, she says, a terrible time.

On the way back to Bayeux from the cemetery, our young friend from England, who had gamely slithered on his belly to get into a tank and climbed down into hard to spot German bunkers, normally quite talkative and outgoing, was utterly silent. All those men in the cemetery, well, most of them were the same age as he is, and his friends at university as well.

We got back to town and said our good-byes, me with my little bag of sand and photographs, a few postcards, and so much more appreciation for what happened in those days.

Never before have Mike and I undertaken such an emotionally exhausting three days as we did in the beautiful countryside of Normandy.

It was, we agreed, the most incredible, memorable and valuable part of our vacation.


AKBrady said...

Absolutely. And sometimes it takes trips like that to truly know, as William Tecumseh Sherman said, that 'war is hell'. Indeed.
May our children never have to tend graves on our soil.

Will & Cheyenne said...

Holy intense. I cried through most your post. It's just so heavy. Getting behind the names and understanding that everyone is someone son, or father or husband.......

Thanks for staying in touch! We need to get our families together. Oh, and I need your physical address.

Natalie said...

A copy of Albert C Jaspers' obituary arrived in the mail today. A fuzzy photograph of a man in uniform with a gap between his teeth, grinning, perhaps sheepishly, at the camera. Under the heading "Dies in France" from Sept 28th, 1944, his obituary reads:

"Pfc. ALBERT C JASPERS was killed in Normandy, France, in July, according to information received last Saturday by his brothers, Leo and Tony Jaspers, route 5. A first message several weeks ago reported him missing in action on July 24. His mother, Mrs. Mary Jaspers, lives in Humphrey, Nebraska.
Memorial Services were held Monday morning at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. He is the second member of that parish to give his life in battle."

and that's all it said.

I also found his name the other night in Seattle. It was there among many others on a memorial, listing all those from Washington State who have died in the service of the United States since 1941. It is in the Garden of Rememberance by Benaroya Hall, and I squinted through the dark and rain until I found him.

I feel so sorry that I still know so little about this serviceman who lost his life on foreign soil and never came home.

Natalie said...

...and then I found more. Private Albert C. Jaspers was born in 1920 in Nebraska, so when he died on the 19th of June in 1944, he was 24 years old. He'd been to grammar school and his civil occupation was listed as a fruit farmhand, which makes sense in apple country. He was a single fellow, with dependents, not tall at 5'9" and a 160 lbs when he was enlisted into the service on February 15th, 1943. These little threads from the past...