Thursday, 06 June 2019 22:28

Dispatches from Normandy Part III: Reminders of the Allied expedition

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Jon Ring stands outside the church at Saint Maire Eglise. Jon Ring stands outside the church at Saint Maire Eglise. Photos courtesy of Jon Ring

I woke to a quiet Normandy coast — very different than the morning of the 6th of June, 1944. The German defenders were expecting quiet in the area — they had been convinced that when the Allies finally committed to attacking, the attack would likely be elsewhere. The German commander, Erwin Rommel or the Desert Fox, was so comfortable and confident that he was out of the area — on a personal shopping trip to buy a birthday gift for his wife in Paris. BIG mistake. 


I put on some shorts and went out on the beach. I had planned to take a swim in the English Channel on this morning. Turns out that it is quite shallow for a long way out even at low tide. I walked out until the water was just over my knees. The water is cold and quite salty. I ran back to shore. Not under fire and not dodging obstacles. Actually, the sand is very soft under foot. Tranquil is the best word for the stretch of Utah Beach that I was on today. Thank you, Lord. 

Utah Beach, 75 years after the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II.

 

The president of the United States joined the French president and several other heads of state at the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach for the official ceremony today. Traffic around the Cotentin peninsula is restricted. This is a good day to visit many of the Airborne battlefields and monuments. 

Reminders of the Allied expedition are all around the area. There are some temporary, commercial decorations for this special time, but there are more permanent memorials than I can say. Statues and signs in town squares. Plaques and markers in random places where events transpired — some large and decisive engagements while others seem less significant. I've come to realize that there are no insignificant engagements when blood and sweat and life and future are spent. The history here is preserved down to the individual level when possible. Units are memorialized in many ways. Roads are named for specific units and troopers. Stone markers are scattered around. Families paint American unit insignia on their houses and other buildings. I found a stone/brick house with Airborne insignia carved out or sculpted into the entire end of their place. 

To me, most interesting long-term memorials are in the churches. I went to three different churches in towns that were Airborne objectives in 1944. There first was the 82nd Airborne Division's objective of Saint Maire Eglise where the famous paratrooper John Steele landed on the church steeple. The town is wall-to-wall with reenactors, tourists, residents, and soldiers from many countries. When I walk in this old stone church, my eyes are drawn to the stained glass windows. They are spectacular —And they are saturated with Airborne things: unit patches and crests as well as full-sized paratroopers and parachutes. There is one with Saint Michael ,who is the patron saint of paratroopers. Awesome!

The 101st Airborne Division's objective was Carentan and was the next stop. There is a completely different atmosphere in this town. It is obvious that the real party is in Saint Maire Eglise since there is considerably less congestion. I check out the church and find parachutes on the stained glass here, too. There remain some scars from the war. I recall a veteran of the fight there once recounting his story of damaging the church door with a grenade. He returned and apologized several years later. I think they had gotten over it. 

I head toward the small village of Angoville au Plain. Some of the Band of Brothers paratroopers landed here on D-Day and then fought their way to Carentan. Two medics from the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment established a casualty collection point and treatment facility in the church to care for those who had been wounded — including a small local civilian child. There are stained-glass memorials to them as well as to the 501st, 506th, and the 101st Airborne. I am moved as I read the window with John 15:3. Even more moved when I touch the still-blood-stained pews in the church. I know the mayor of this small town, but I don't see him around. He is a busy farmer and undoubtedly working hard somewhere. Since I'm here, I do a recon of the drop zone that we will jump on the 10th. Nice fields ... cows all over. Hopefully they will be moved before the jump. I know what they'll leave behind and I hope I don't land in any of it. 

One more stop at Chef du Pont to visit the site where Capt. Roy Creek of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment along with a group of his troopers had the fight of their lives. Or the first fight of their lives, as it were. His unit was charged with securing the bridge across the Merderet River to allow the forces landing at the beaches to move inland. There was significant resistance, retired Col. Roy Creek later told me. The paratroopers were almost completely out of ammunition and had many casualties. Miraculously, at the pinnacle of their desperation, a glider crashed right in the center of their perimeter with ammo and a heavy weapon. The paratroopers of the 507th PIR captured that bridge. The next fight was at La Fiere causeway which was the other way to get across the Merderet. Young Roy Creek was ordered to move and assist the effort at La Fiere and handed off responsibility for Chef du Pont bridge. My guess is that control changed hands again because the placard at the site gives an account of the bridge not being secure until the 14th of June. Roy Creek has passed on, but his photo and memory are at the site and around the entire area. 

I stop at my friend's house near La Fiere causeway to check on our plans for tomorrow. We have planned to conduct a jump onto drop zone T in the afternoon. This was the 507th planned drop zone in '44, but very few landed there. It holds special significance to me and others within the 507th brotherhood and I'm looking forward to it. Problem is, the winds are going to be very high tomorrow. We shall see. Weather changes quickly here and all we need is a window. 

Today was good. Relaxing with time to soak in the surroundings of the inland battle areas. Peaceful. Reflective. Worth the time. I sat down in each of the churches today and thanked God that so many gave up their tomorrows for our todays. President Macron said today that we all must keep an eye on continued peace into the future. We must. 

Vive la France!

Vive la Liberte!

 

Retired Army Lt. Col. Jon Ring, JROTC instructor at Richmond Senior High School, is a member of the Liberty Jump Team and will be participating in events this week commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Last modified on Thursday, 06 June 2019 22:57