Saturday, 08 June 2019 20:57

Dispatches from Normandy Part V: The nearly forgotten actions at Hemevez

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A German paratrooper, the only World War II veteran present at a ceremony in Hemevez, lays a wreath at the memorial the the seven paratroopers executed in Hemevez. A German paratrooper, the only World War II veteran present at a ceremony in Hemevez, lays a wreath at the memorial the the seven paratroopers executed in Hemevez. Photos by Jon Ring

The extremely high winds and scattered rains continued today. The jump planned at Graignes was scratched. I welcome the cancellation since I was going to miss the memorial ceremony at Hemevez. Now, I'm able to go.

Even some of the most studied historians of World War II do not know about Hemevez. It is an extremely small farming village in the middle of the country — about four or five miles west of Montebourg. The German Commander of the entire region, Erwin Rommel or the Desert Fox, made the village his headquarters. Gen. Rommel lived in the local chateau or castle. The German soldiers securing the area were SS — not normal conventional soldiers.

During the early morning hours of 6 June, 1944, a single C-47 load of paratroopers from the 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment were miss dropped in this small, out of the way town. Seven of the troops were captured almost immediately while the other seven were able to get away from the early danger of capture. Not without incident, you understand. In fact, one who had gone on a reconnaissance was discovered and captured, but was put with another 20 American prisoners being guarded by only one German — so he escaped. The five privates and two privates first class who were initially taken were brought through a gate opposite the village church and summarily executed by the Nazis. The young Americans were left for the villagers to care for ... bury. 

The local people of Hemevez meticulously cataloged the belongings and identities of the Americans. They continue to care for them and their families to this day — there is a palpable connection between the 507th PIR and Hemevez. As a result of the actions of these people, the Allies were able to properly return the paratroopers to their home or to bury them in one of the overseas cemeteries. Their families were informed of their fates and these young Americans' names go into the annals of history. I cannot thank the citizens of Hemevez enough and I know the families back in America agree. 

The ceremony began about 15 minutes late since a huge cloudburst blew through right at 12:00 with high winds, lightning, and heavy rain. U.S. Army Europe manages the "official" speakers at the ceremonies. Many times, there is no consideration for the individual who is tasked to speak having some sort of connection — individual or unit connection — to the action that happened there. I arrived early for the ceremony and there were two military individuals there — both Air Force TACPs — ready to talk with the C-130J airplanes that will do a flyover during the ceremony. We exchange greetings and salutations. Then I notice members of the official military party arriving. They are from the 1st Infantry Division — the storied Big Red One — not paratroopers. Shucks. 

Staff officers scurry around doing last-minute coordination. The boss arrives. He's obviously the aviation brigade commander from the 1st ID. Hmm. I try my best to hold judgement until I see what he has to say. Some of my favorite people are aviation colonels. The ceremony is meant to begin at 12:00, but at about five minutes before the hour, the sky opens up. The civilians seek shelter fairly quickly in the large fest tent ... the military members follow once they are soaked. By eight minutes after the hour, the storm was gone and everyone took their position. 

The U.S. Army Europe band plays a couple of traditional ceremonial tunes including their version of reveille. Two young kids from the village raise the French and American flags to begin the ceremony. The mayor gives a speech that recounts the atrocities that occurred here and recognizes the contributions of the villagers while expressing hope for the future. He does not translate into English, but I can tell what he's saying. The American commander gives his speech. He has a lieutenant who is translating for him so it takes more than double the time. The colonel gives a history lesson. He focuses on the Geneva Convention and lectures the audience on doing right. My opinion: he missed the mark. I wish he would have spoken more about the young privates who died within the first hours of combat. And their families. And the villagers who compassionately cared for the paratroopers. It's normal to do your research about an action and to focus on that, but it didn't go well. 

I'm not completely sure how to reconcile the strange dynamic played out at Hemevez today. The only WWII veteran in attendance was a German paratrooper. He is 98 years old and made at least one combat jump — he lost his leg at Monte Cassino. Perhaps it's just me, but I would not have come to this village if I were a German WWII veteran. It took some courage. I talked to him and toasted a lasting peace. He told me about his girlfriend, who is 18 years younger than him. Paratroopers ... some things are consistent. 

I run into an old friend who has hosted me at his house during previous visits. His family has owned the famous Veritable Cherbourg umbrella company for generations. He invited me over for lunch. Who am I to say no?  Next thing I know, I'm eating foie gras and expensive meats and other hors d'oeuvres in their house that was built in 1630 — and was the German cookhouse during the occupation. Everything is awesome and the gratitude of the French people is constantly reinforced throughout the afternoon. Jean Pierre's brother and sister-in-law are also visiting from Martinique. We have great discussion while we enjoy several courses of food. Christophe begins telling me the story of his family and their actions in the days and months leading up to D-Day. He gets help from Jean Pierre. 

Their mother, grandfather and grandmother took into their home, in Cherbourg, children who were orphaned by the war. In the evening, they would move into protective bunkers at the base of the mountain overlooking the city for protection from the bombing. On one particular night, their mother, for unknown reasons, demanded that all of them — including the 45 children under their care — evacuate the bunker and seek shelter under a nearby tree. Miraculously, the bunker took a direct hit and was destroyed. None of them were injured. Their lives were saved and they survived to continue future generations. If that doesn't get you in the feels, there is something wrong. Those children would visit the umbrella factory for years and relate their gratitude to the mother!

Another great day recognizing the commitment of young people to the cause of freedom. I only wish the seven paratroopers who died at Hemevez would have made it home. Who knows what their children and grandchildren could have accomplished? 

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 Saturday, 08 June 2019 21:27