Arriving in Normandy – Our trip to rediscover where our Dad once fought

by Kim on September 5, 2013

LaDouve-Kim Paul and I picked up my sister Jane and  her husband Bill at the ferry in Calais and then drove to Bayeux France, our base for our Normandy explorations of the battlefields and beaches. We had stopped for lunch in the delightful town Honfleur that was near the sea. A chapel was performing wedding every 30 minutes and there were several brides that rainy day. There were boats by the sea, a town carousel, and an organ grinder to boot. We drove on to our hotel Hotel D’Argouges, which was a very old building in the middle of Bayeux. It would be our staging ground for a few days to explore Dad’s haunts.

The next morning we met with Francois ( a guide that we found on the web that was highly recommended by others online who taken this trip before us. We had given him a list of what we wanted to accomplish, our idea of where our Dad had been, and a specific task of finding the spot where our Dad was hit for the second time in the battle fields near Bois du Hommet. We wanted background information and wanted to know where the enemy was shooting from, what the soldier experience was, we wanted him to verify what we had found about specific battles and we wanted him to recreate for us the experience that our father may have had. It was a tall order for a 1 day tour, but Francois was up to the task.

The first stop of the day was to go to Utah beach. It was a rainy morning and uncommonly cold for this time of year. The beach was beautiful and we saw it at low tide as it would have been when the troops were coming ashore. It dawned on me as I set foot in the sand that this was it. This is what my sister Jane and I had been wanted for over 10 years, a chance to be where Dad was when he was in the war. I looked out at the water and saw him in the landing craft – jumping out and getting his balance before starting toward the shore. Would he have been seasick from the strong current in the English Channel? He would have been weighted down and likely carrying a large gun over his head to keep it dry. How did one make progress, taking steps toward a place that you didn’t really want to go? He already knew from personal experience what could happen in a war. In a very weird way, it bothered me that his pants would be wet and would stay wet for days. His socks would be soaked and he would not be able to dry them. His boots would  take him the 100 or so miles that would be required of him during his march through France. Did he think of his family, his other 3 brothers serving in the war? His 7 year old brother at home. We walked where he marched, but we still didn’t know how he felt about coming ashore. It was like becoming acquainted with our father again, with a different set of lenses on. When he was 22, it would have been usual to think about girls, food, and fun. Instead he had to focus on survival, carrying with him just what he needed to survive.

Our access to the beach, was his access off the beach to encounter the German soldiers. I imagined him trudging through the water with all the weight of equipment and gear, wondering when he would meet enemy fire as he had in Africa and Sicily. Our Dad came to this area June 10. We arrived June 23rd and the weather was probably similar, though we had not received as much rain as they had that year. There were no cliffs to climb for him as they had at Omaha and I was grateful for that. There was also no enemy to meet him at first. Francoise explained the role of the paratroopers from the 82nd airborne and the density of their effort to come ashore before my father did. They secured the area to prepare for the arrival of the infantry. I tried to put myself in his boots, imagining coming to a new country that needed his help. I collected some sand from the beach to take to my kids. It seemed right to take something away from that place to take home with me. It was a hallowed place.

When Dad came away from the beach area, he could see a church in the distance. He could also see the marshy flooded land and the hedgerows that could be hiding danger for him. I never totally envisioned what hedgerows would be until I saw them. They made great fences for the small farmers, but were ominous to the soldier. I had imagined my father seeing his enemy when he fought, but between the hedgerows and also the capability of the enemy gun as explained by our guide, I realized that my father rarely saw those that were shooting at him. Artillery fire and mortars launched, the enemy could be up to 2 miles away and be effective with their weaponry. They would only see them eye-to-eye only when they captured them or saw them lying on the ground injured or dead. I didn’t want to think about the casualties of war as we traveled off the beach.I know my father didn’t have a choice but to face it.

NormandyMonumentFrancois, our guide,  explained the role of the paratroopers in securing the area before the infantry approached the area just south of the coast. Two tanks were used, first a bazooka to clear the enemy and push them further back and then a second tank to keep them from advancing to the US position.

We moved onto the Douve River Bridge and got a lesson from Francois about where the enemy was and the battle that took place at this bridgehead site. He further explained the difference between a bridge and a bridgehead. He gave us an early lesson on the importance of bridges during the entire war, both in France, Belgium, and Germany. There were three bridges in the area on the small country road. We parked the van and got out and really couldn’t understand why taking this bridge, this small bridge was so important to taking control of the area. There was water running in the small river, but it didn’t look ominous to get across. There had been rain and current was swift, but not so swift to prevent movement of people and supplies. Francois explained how marshy the area was during that particular time and also the flooded the field area was around that particular area. He explained where the enemy fire was coming from and how far this area was from where the majority of the US troops were.

I knew from reading After Action reports from the military that my Dad’s company was surrounded at times on three sides by the enemy and also that they went beyond their objective for the day. The men were running out of ammunition and the valiant effort that was required to fight the enemy at this particular battle. I really couldn’t connect what I was seeing with what my Dad went through to earn a Presidential Unit Citation. Taking the Douve River  Why is it so difficult to see our parents as people, to know them in a way other than a caretaker? It was sinking in to me that Dad was a hero long before he was a father. I felt like I was just beginning to know something about my father that I never considered before and that he never talked about: He, along with other young men,  saved the world from Hitler.

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