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.
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.
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.
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.