With so many of the battles fought in the South leaving the farms and countryside devastated, General Robert E. Lee proposed that they take the War to the North with hopes in getting a negotiated peace. He tried this once before and was stopped by General McClellan at a small town called Sharpsburg on Antietam Creek. That battle resulted in the single most bloody day in American history. This time he hoped to swing further north, live off the fat of the northern farms and threaten such cities as Harrisburg and Washington City.
General J.E.B. Stuart was given charge in screening the Army of Northern Virginia from the Federal scouts to allow them time to cross the Potomac River without the Federal Army responding in time to stop them. In doing so he found himself East of the Federal Army and decided to swing around the Northern Army and show off his daring and strategic prowess.
On June 28th, 1863, his cavalry jumped a supply wagon train of over one hundred brand new wagons, just outside Rockville, Maryland, and captured the lot of them. He then proceeded to ride a round the Army of the Potomac spreading fear to the northern citizens and causing a great deal consternation in Washington.
By the time Stuart’s cavalry rejoined the Army of the Northern Virginia the battle of Gettysburg had already begun.
When my older brother, Doug, suggested that we take a trip to Europe I jumped at the chance. He spoke French, I didn’t and he had been there before and knew what we needed to do, like drive on what side of the road. My only suggestion was that we go on the date of the D-Day Invasion. Best thing I ever suggested.
I want to relate a little about some of the people we encountered. After a few days in the South of England we met the lady that makes the best preserves in the country, I learned what an English breakfast was, and still could not figure out the money, we crossed the Channel in the Chunnel.
The first person we met was the rental car exchange representative, since the French drive on the correct side of the road. I listened with fascination as my brother conversed in French with the cute female representative. I fell in love… with the French language. I always thought I had a pretty good French accent in my mind, but it always came out as Western American. It’s a beautiful language and I can see why the French try to preserve it. We must sound like a bunch of barbarians to them.
I was excited to see road signs the gave directions to Utah Beach, Sword Beach, Juneau Beach. It was difficult to believe that this American was walking on the historical sites.
We found one museum, not hard to find with a Sherman Tank out front. Unfortunately in was closed, as we were informed by the elderly caretaker. He was friendly and when he found that Doug spoke French proceeded with a rather long and one-sided conversation. Not understanding the language, I just amused myself watching the Frenchman moving closer to my brother, and he being a Western American liked more personal space and would step back. The Frenchman would step forward and Doug would step back. That went on for quite a while. I waited patiently for the translation.
He had been too young to fight in the War, only 14 when the Germans broke through, routing the British and French forces. He was living with his elderly uncle who was a veteran of World War I. He complained loudly about the soldiers not holding up against the invaders and bragged that when they came to his village he would get his rifle out and shoot them! Well, when the Germans did arrive in the area, they came in a convoy that took all day long to travel through the winding streets and pass through. The uncle decided against shooting them with his rifle, but he did stand on his front porch which was only inches from the road and curse the Germans while his wife tried to pull him inside the house.At 14 the boy didn’t have any problems with the Germans. He was allowed to pass through checkpoints with hardly a look. But when he turned 16 years old, an age when boys look for adventure, such as the French Underground, he couldn’t go any where with a thorough search and questioning by the Germans.
The next day we spent a cold time on Omaha Beach, where I gathered some sand and rocks for my “Sacred Soil” collection. I also had to run up the beach just once, to see what it was like. I felt very exposed.
The cemetery just over the hill was very impressive, and large. Very moving. We had noticed a large number of reenactors dressed as G.I.’s, walking about the sites, and driving around in trucks, jeeps, and event halftracks. I asked an elderly veteran what he thought about them. “They weren’t there,” was all he said.
We went further in to Bayeaux. A beautiful town and I met an elderly British veteran in the Hotel lobby. He was sitting in a wheelchair clutching a 8x10 framed photograph of a bridge. I had to ask him about it.
He said he was eighteen years old when he landed on Utah Beach. He charged out of the landing craft and just reached the edge of the water when an artillery shell hit and blew up his best friend. They charged through Bayeaux and a German sniper killed another friend.
Their mission was to take a bridge outside town. It was in the photograph he was holding. As his company approached the vicinity of the bridge they began to take fire which they returned, until they realized it was the other company that was supposed to help them take the bridge! Both companies charged the bridge under German machinegun fire, chasing off the defenders and held it for two and a half days.
Swinging over to Sainte-Mère-Église where some American paratroopers landed in the middle of a garrisoned city. I was touched at the appreciation for the Americans by the French there. Even more so when we went inside the church and saw the paratrooper motifs in the stained-glass windows. Hanging from the spire of the church was the mock up of the paratrooper that hung there all night.
About this time I was looking for the veterans so I could hear their story. We traveled up the coast to Pont du Hoc where the US Rangers scaled the cliffs to take out the big guns only to find them uninstalled. They were shear cliffs, quite amazing. The concrete pill boxes and strongholds were still there and the huge thirty foot diameter shell craters from the big naval guns that had failed to take out the guns. The concrete enclosures had narrow slits for the guns to shoot from facing the sea, and a single stairway in the rear that stopped at a concrete wall with a loop hole for defense against infantry attack. And then stairs on either side to enter the building. I could see the machinegun bullet holes in the concrete all around the loop holes.
But I was drawn back to the huge craters outside. Some of the shells had hit the concrete pill boxes and the roofs, a foot thick were collapsed. A man said, “Pretty amazing, huh?”
I looked up to see an older gentleman and we exchanged small talk about the site. Then I asked if he were a veteran. “Yes, but I fought further north of here.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, hoping to draw more of his story.
“Yes, we were young and didn’t know what we were doing, led by a young major that was green. We were caught off from the main force and were hiding in some caves. But they found us and convinced us to surrender by using a bull horn. So I surrendered to an American sergeant.”
“American?” I asked. “You mean you’re German?” I hadn’t noticed an accent and had just assumed that he was an American tourist.
He told me his story. He was just eighteen, in a brand new battalion with a new major in charge. They were on a train to the Russian front when the Invasion hit in France. So the train was rerouted to the West.
They had fought for two weeks, got cut off and some of them with their major had hidden in some caves. “The smartest thing this young major did was decide to surrender us,” he said.
The American sergeant took them to a holding area for prisoners, but then three days later looked him up and took him out. He made him his driver. And for t he next two years he drove American jeeps and trucks for this sergeant. They became good friends. “After the War I went to Ohio to visit him with his family and he came to Dusseldorf to visit me with my family.”
There are many more fantastic stories from World War II. Never feel shy about asking the veterans to share them and thank them for their service.
Welcome to the world of Don Jolley, historical artist.