06 Jun 2004 “I Have Wanted to Revisit France, Since Being There in WWII…”
Readers of this blog will recognize the name of Edward Kitsch, an e-mail correspondent who from time to time has shared observations with me that he has been kind enough to allow me to post in this blog.
Recently, quite by accident, I learned that Mr. Kitsch is a World War II Vet who landed on Omaha Beach. When I wrote to him, he not only confirmed this, but also shared with me a letter he sent to family and friends recounting his return to France, in 1998, including, among many other interesting observations, the reactions of French people he met there, when they learned of his war service.
Readers of this blog know I am not a cheerleader for France. But Mr. Kitsch’s recent experiences there give me some hope. It could go without saying that his earlier experiences there, in 1944, are, like those of so many others, simply inspirational.
I excerpt some of his letter here. For those of you who would like to read it all (and I do recommend it) the entire letter can be found online here.
I have wanted to revisit France, since being there during WWII…
I had a wonderful time speaking with the French people, especially their kids. They always thought that my command of French was humorous, and I did get many hearty laughs when I used the wrong words. My French teacher at Springfield High (Illinois), told me. “Vous parlez Francais comme un vache Espanol,” which translates to: “You speak French, like a Spanish cow.” It is apparently a common expression, because several children finished the sentence for me when I started into it, followed by raucous laughter, as they remembered it from their childhood.
To a person, they were anxious to help me find my destination or hotel, and of course, because of my age and white hair, usually asked about “La Guerre, Grande.” I received many “merci-hugs” from people of all ages, along with some unsolicited kisses of gratitude from ladies, old and young. They value their freedom far greater than we can appreciate. This was a reward to me, because I had not felt that they treasured all America had done for them…
When Paris surrendered to the Allies, we rode through in six by sixes, and all of the streets, including the Champs d’Elysees, were lined with grateful people, waving American flags, throwing flowers into our uncovered trucks, as well as fresh French bread and wine.
I booked a tour to the Normandy Beaches, which left at 7:00 AM and returned at 10:00 PM that night. It took three hours in spite of a high-speed toll road to Caen. We visited Pointe Du Hoc at the western edge of Omaha Beach, where they have preserved the nearly destroyed German bunkers and artillery emplacements. Pointe Du Hoc was a very difficult beachhead to take as the cliffs are over 100 feet high and had to be scaled with grappling hooks and climbing gear. Hitler thought these fortifications to be impenetrable. Pointe Du Hoc received its name from the shape of the coastline, which is shaped like a hog’s rear leg, viz, a ham-hock. On D-Day, the 2nd Ranger Battalion initiated their assault at this point, and suffered many casualties. The original ruins of the bunkers had six-foot thick roofs. The roofs were laminated reinforced concrete, which spalled off when hit, allowing the upper layers to dissipate the energy of the shell burst or bomb. This preserved the integrity of the lower structural layers.
Most villages in Normandy have a monument, or museum to the heroes of WWII. I was a little surprised to be the only veteran of WWII on the bus, and I did not deserve all of the attention that I received. I was the last person getting back onto the bus at Pointe Du Hoc and got a round of applause. I was so embarrassed as I thought they were putting me down. I was apologizing in broken French, but a French woman stood and admonished me: “Nous attendons, parce que vous etes un hero Americaine.” (We wait because you are an American hero.) The guide had apparently told them of my landing, with the 3rd Army at Omaha Beach, which encompassed Pointe du Hoc.
The French tourists would bring other French friends to meet me and praise me, and by the end of the tour, I was starting to believe them all. The 95th Infantry Division was not in the initial assault, so we had an easy time of it, and lost very few men, until north of Paris. When I tried to explain this to them, they simply paid no attention to my protestations. I was a field medic, not a rifleman, but that didn’t seem to matter to them, as I couldn’t turn them off. Anyway, I’m happy to learn that we were so deeply appreciated by generations younger than me. There were many expressions of gratitude by the people of France. Some of the most passionate praise was from young people, under 60 years old, down to college age.
From Pointe du Hoc we went to the Village of Omaha Beach, which is to the east of the spot where we landed, and in a valley that reaches the ocean. We avoided the flat valley, for tactical reasons, as Hitler had massed many troops, tanks and artillery there, assuming we would take the easy route. It appears to be a fishing port. I believe that this was where our mechanized artillery and supply trucks came ashore, once it was secure for the Allies. When we landed, the beach was already reasonably secure, as we had light artillery fire and some strafing, but not the withering barrage of the heavy guns during the initial hours of the landing.
Our riflemen still found German soldiers hiding in barns, houses and air tunnels of the defense system, as the lead divisions could not delay their advance to search these complex tunnel systems. One of these tunnels ended in the kitchen floor of a farmhouse, which had a wooden floor. Our men recognized that at that time, most kitchens in Normandy had dirt floors, and were a step or two below the living area of the house. When we tore up the floor, we found an exit from one of the bunker systems, and about twenty German riflemen hidden there.
Our division landed at a point probably three or four miles east of Pointe du Hoc as we had this very difficult cliff to climb, and once there, had no mechanized or artillery support. Our purpose was as a backup division in case of an Axis breakthrough, so straggling German snipers were the priority…
In the American Cemetery at St. Laurent, the graves of the dead from the second Ranger Battalion were heavily clustered from Company A, then a few less from company B, C and on. The military does everything by the numbers, so the fortunate men were in Company F. It was quite evident that few of the first men onto the beach lived through the assault. I counted well over 100 graves from Company A, of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, before I gave up. An infantry company is about 250 men, but there were excess personnel at the start of the onslaught to compensate for casualties. I was not the only man sobbing uncontrollably there.
The Normandy Military Cemetery was on land deeded to the U.S. in perpetuity, near Caen. The grave of my closest friend Peter Holwerda was found for me on their computer, but he was buried at a cemetery in Lorraine, which is west of Metz, near the German border. He was also a medic. I had thought his death was before we advanced through Paris, but it is so difficult to remember something that happened so long ago and which we want to forget…
The French Underground did help our riflemen get out the snipers and sympathizers, but they had little firepower and were not much of an organized military force. They were a band of very brave men, as many Frenchmen were collaborators. I also remember having to stop our advance to enter Paris, to give General De Gaulle time to get his troops together for the triumphant entry. General Patton was out of his mind waiting for the very political General De Gaulle. On PBS, I saw a film of the African Campaign, which told of the battle our navy had with the Axis French Navy when passing through Gibraltar, as we went to the aid of Montgomery in Africa. We won!
The French Normandy tour guide, and lecturer, apologized passionately for the lack of French resistance to the Germans entering France. She was very critical of the reigning French president, and the Vichy Government, at that time, saying that they thought it would be the best for France from a commercial standpoint, to become a cooperating nation of the Axis Forces. The movies shown to us at the museum, had in depth errors, as they showed an organized French resistance capturing and holding large areas to the south and west of Paris. The French military had been integrated into the German army and at this point were the enemy. The tour guide was very bitter about their turncoat government.
She was also very critical of the present day Germans, indicating a deep unresolved hatred. She is a history major, doctoral student at the Universite’ Du Paris. The European Union will be slow to integrate…
I did not get to the Bastogne area where the Battle of the Bulge took place. I would have liked to revisit Aachen, as well, as it was so totally devastated. I also did not get to Metz, which was our most devastating battle, but transportation for a single person is expensive and time consuming. I’m satisfied that I saw as much as I wanted and have little desire to go back until my 100th birthday…