Today is the last day of our 17-day journey together as Charley flies back to Hamburg, and I fly back to New Orleans, where my truck is waiting for me.
Yesterday we had a long day on a sightseeing tour – something in my many visits to this beautiful city I had never done. At the end of our tour our guide drove us up to the top of the headland guarding the entrance to the bay on the Sausolito side. From this point we were looking back on the Golden Gate bridge from the outside, with the city behind it. It was an incredible view in its own right, but when I thought of how Bill Hardy would fly under the bridge during the war on weather missions, I was even more impressed.
Sunday started for us with a breakfast that represents America in several ways: chocolate chip pancakes. Charley couldn’t imagine such a concoction before ordering it, but soon had the proof of its delectable appeal in the pudding..er..the pancake. Once we had fueled up, we drove south into the bucolic hills in rural Silicon Valley.
There we had a private appointment at the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation.
(Pause for a moment of Reverential Silence)
The young historian in New Orleans had suggested we try for an appointment here, even last minute, and we took his advice. We were so glad we did.
Formerly a private collection of tanks and other sundry military conveyences (I.e. Scud missile launchers), this collection of over 200 vehicles is now open for tours on Saturdays. Since we were arriving too late to partake on Saturday, the kind people here set up a private Sunday afternoon tour for us – with only 2 days’ notice.
When we arrived, we were treated as royalty.
Our guide ushered us into one of their four sunlight-filled, immaculate, new barns, filled to bursting with tanks – the vast majority of which are in running condition. Joining us were several young people who reenact as WW2 Germans – the men as tankers, and a lady as a 88 mm flak helper.
After passing the WWI tank, we came upon a Panzer IV (what Charley had in Africa). Almost without waiting for a ladder, up he went for a peek inside.
Soon, he had the real MG34 in his grip and was showing us how he shot at the Hurricanes who attacked his tank in Africa – first using the turret as support and then firing from the hip. In 1943, the recoil had sent him backwards, and having a platform for the best kind of research now, we were able to finally determine what he had tripped over to land on his back in the desert. He had continued shooting up at the Hurricanes from the side without much effect, and was lucky no English pilot had pulled the trigger on his machine gun, but instead had all focused on using their cannons at the tank. We wonder why no English pilot did it – after all, Charley was in the open firing a machine gun at them. Maybe they didn’t worry too much about him, or were more focused on the tank, or were fighting the gentleman’s war in Africa. Whatever the reason, I’m just grateful he’s still HERE.
From the Mark IV we had a splendid view of the Panther across from it. This tank had been abandoned by its German crew when it came to rest at the bottom of a Polish river. There it rotted for the next 60 years until it was rescued and purchased for the collection. It took years to restore it to detailed perfection, inside and out.
As one of our guides quipped, it was so painstakingly restored, it even still had that new tank smell.
A larger ladder was procured and up Charley went. I was almost afraid to touch it myself – it was so perfect. But it didn’t take much to convince me. Plus, as a bonus, I was wearing pants today (you’ll remember that in the Sherman a few days ago in the WW2 museum in New Orleans I was in a skirt).
As he dove in, and we watched, Charley started working the levers and turning wheels. We soon found out that all of them worked as smooth as silk, and those of us on top of the tank had to do some fancy footwork to stay on top of it as the gun and turret rotated laterally. But a fun time was had by all.
Charley was gently warned to be careful which knobs and levers he tried, as EVERYTHING, including the fire suppression system, was in full working order. Accidental depression would result in a soggy crew (us) and fair amount of clean up.
But nothing untoward happened as we all joined him inside the tank for a full crew. Later, when I showed Charley the photo of the Flakhilferin reenactor, a beautiful blond descended from a Viennese family, in the driver’s seat with her headset on, and asked him if he would have liked to have had her on his crew, he smiled his most devilish smile. Charley was having the time of his life.
Onwards we went, up and into other tanks – English, German, American. Now that Charley was in full stride, he eschewed ladders, and clambered up on tanks himself, with no help. It was a point of honor and pride for him. And he made it look easy. On the small Panzer I he knew just where to place his feet going up and down, like it had been only days since he had done it last.
On the larger tanks, including the British and Americans, he’d size the tank up quickly and find his route to the turret. The Grant was a tough one, but since this was the tank his friend Ken served on in Africa, he found a way to make it work. On a few occasions, this nimble, but somewhat hair raising monkey climbing around without a ladder engendered some worried moments for me. After all, he is not 19 anymore, and just got a new hip some months ago.
But Charley would just look at my concerned expression and laugh, saying “I live for adventure!” In any case, the few times I tried to catch on his belt loop or jacket to have some hold on him while he was on some precariously narrow edge 6 or 8 feet up, he just evaded me. And I had myself to worry about, as my footing was anything but sure on these beasts.
In the second barn I had a chance to lay my hands on a BR21/Nebelwerfer rocket – maybe similar to the one that might have shot Bob Sweatt’s B-24 down in 1944. They are massive, hefty things.
In the end, after touring the huge barns, and enjoying an exciting, loud, and surprisingly smooth ride in a prototype of a new type of Humvee, we could not possibly have been more impressed with the museum, our guides, and the day.
We left in the late afternoon, making a beeline to a flower shop and then to the national cemetery in San Bruno, where I laid flowers on the graves of two crew members of another B-24 downed on Jan 7 44.
Charley is sad to go home this morning, but in all honesty, I need some sleep! In the face of his unending supply of wild energy and ideas of what sort of trouble to get us into next, I yearn simply for a place to lay down where no alarm, phone calls, emails, or other invitations to adventure can reach me for several days. Or several weeks.
From San Francisco,
This week the next leg of our trip encompassed the beautiful state of Louisiana. First, we stopped at Ft. Polk, where we were greeted in fluent German by the museum curator, and then his staff and base personnel. They laid out a wonderful repast on their tables in the back, and tendered gentle southern hospitality, allowing Charley to rest, eat, and take a pit stop before starting the interview. For this kind consideration, I am grateful.
Once they had had a chance to ask some questions, they took us out to the field where the POW camp had been, showing us quite a few pictures of the way it used to be. Like in Alva and Ft. Smith, there wasn’t, unfortunately, much to see now.
We moved to double-time tempo when one of our guides had worked out a surprise, last-minute reception with the Base Commander. Whisked off to his office, the Commander presented Charley with a Commander’s Coin, honoring Charley for his high level of integrity, honor, service, and duty to country. He also wrote a kind message in and signed a book about the history of the base for Charley to take with him, and stood shaking hands with Charley while flashes went off from multiple directions.
After another thoroughly pleasant visit with the curator, historians, and base personnel, we were sad to leave.
The next morning we went on through the Armadillo Death Zone highway stretch (they must throw themselves at the cars here with reckless abandon) to the small town of Jeanerette, where the museum was able to provide a few newspaper articles, but unfortunately no clues about the location where Charley could have been while he took part in the sugar cane harvest in the fall and winter of 45-46.
Then it was onwards to New Orleans. We had been outrunning a storm the whole way, but had a chance to drive down Bourbon Street, check in to our Garden District hotel, and unload before the pelting rain, thunder, and lightning hit. The next morning we went to the National WW2 museum.
We went stealth, because I wasn’t sure what kind of reception we would get.
I had started a phone and email conversation with one of the curators in February, but when I suggested someone might please take us on a personal tour and in the back to show Charley some of the German uniforms and weapons they keep locked up there, my emails and phone calls were no longer returned. I was pretty disappointed, and sad, because I had assured Charley everywhere we went in the US museum personnel would be thrilled to meet him.
Now I had to tell him with embarrassment and a little heartbreak, that we wouldn’t be receiving a reception here.
I paid for my ticket, and then saw that WW2 veterans get in for free. Did this go for German WW2 veterans as well? We didn’t directly ask (due to our previous dropped correspondence – would we really be welcome here?). Charley and I debated – should he say he was an (honorary) member of the Sherwood Rangers Tank Regiment – which is true – and try to pass himself off as British?
We settled on a course of quiet integrity – a sort of “if they don’t ask, we won’t tell” policy. Having settled that, I brought him to the welcome desk and said I had a WW2 veteran. When I filled out the form with his name written in the German manner, gave his rank as corporal, and stated that he fought in Africa, and “now” lived in Germany, there were a few quizzical looks.
Nonetheless Charley was given a lanyard and pass, and we moved on to the exhibitions. We hadn’t gotten far when we were pulled to the side by a bright-eyed, young historian-curator who had come looking for us. He wanted to know where and with whom Charley had fought.
With relief we found the historian was actually excited to meet Charley, and wanted to interview him. He was working on a future exhibition about Africa, and was very keen to talk to Charley about his experiences.
We were a little skeptical at this sudden change of heart by the museum staff, and needed some time to talk privately to let Charley decide. Charley was not really sure at first, but finally agreed, hoping perhaps the historian, since he was interviewing Americans who fought in Africa, would help him find the 1st Armored Division Americans who knocked out his tank in Africa.
Clearing his schedule, the historian took us to his recording studio. On the way there we bumped into an 82nd Airborne paratrooper who was greeting visitors, and who snagged Charley. Soon they were sitting down close to each other, enjoying close fellowship, mutual respect, and belly laughs. Only reluctantly parting, we moved on to the studio, but before we could get started, our All American paratrooper had brought a friend who had fought alongside, and wanted to meet Charley.
Thus we watched these three WW2 combat veterans exchange their respects, while our historian friend kept repeating that the privilege of being present with all these men is what he lived for. And with that, we warmed up to our new historian friend.
They had a nice chat on record, and then we were met by a senior curator who did take us on a private tour of the vaults where their German weapons are kept. Charley was delighted to be able to handle the old MG34 machine gun type they had had on their tank, as well as a machine pistol similar to the one which he had carried in Africa.
When the staff offered to take Charley to view the Sherman, we waffled.
Charley has seen plenty of Shermans over the years. Seeing our ambivalence, the staff tendered the offer to take a peek inside the tank. With that, Charley’s eyes lit up and we consented.
A ladder was provided and Charley scrambled nimbly up and in with the help of the curator while I took pictures. Then it was my turn.
I got up and made it in, but only with a little awkwardness. You see, not expecting to have this sort of experience drop in our laps, I again found myself with an inappropriate wardrobe choice. To put it plainly, I was wearing a skirt.
Surprisingly, the Shermans clearly were not designed with ingress/egress in a skirt in mind. But modesty be damned! I certainly wasn’t going to let an opportunity like this one pass me by, and I didn’t. Charley and I thought that might be the last tank we had a chance to climb in and around until we go drive a Russian tank in Germany this summer.
Leaving you in anticipation for the moment, since our visit today is worthy of a whole new post!
On Friday, we had another training day in Oklahoma City. During the training, I introduced Charley, creating a ripple of murmurs throughout the audience, as it had in Little Rock. Charley is definitely enjoying Rock Star status this entire trip, as everyone knows and is in awe of Africa Corps and Rommel.
As in Little Rock, where our police guys were eager to meet Charley and have their pictures taken with him, one of our law enforcement participants came to Charley, who was sitting with me in the back, and shook his hand. He added, “Thank you for serving your country.”
He had no idea how that one sentence could affect Charley, who could not contain his deep emotion.
It’s important to explain that as impossible as it is for us to imagine, Charley had never heard anyone in Germany in the last 70 years say that to him. And now, the people of his former enemy were showing him the honor and respect he does not receive at home.
As Americans, it is very difficult for us to understand the type of pain German WW2 veterans endure every day. Germans can’t really understand our devotion to our veterans (and those former enemies who honorably served their own countries). Not until they experience it first hand.
Charley, and all WW2 veterans in Germany, suffer greatly from a population that does not want to hear their stories, does not honor their service, and who sometimes call them murderers and physically attack them. Perhaps our Vietnam veterans understand best.
But while every year Vietman veterans have experienced improvement in their status in the US, and Americans realize that no matter how one feels about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we all support our troops, things in Germany continue to deteriorate for WW2 veterans year after year. Even the Knight’s Cross (US equiv. - Medal of Honor) association is not allowed to mix with active duty servicemen in the Bundeswehr and struggles to find a hotel to host them every year. The hotels fear protestors may come and throw rocks through their windows and otherwise damage their premises or reputation, and sometimes under pressure or threat cancel days before a reunion takes place.
The national tank reunion I attend in Germany every year takes place on an army base, I’m sure at least partly, if not wholly, to keep these 90+-year-old men safe while they honor their fallen comrades.
Here, Charley is overwhelmed by media eager to hear his story. He has people who want to shake his hand, have his autograph or their picture with him or hug him. People have offered to adopt him. And he’s experienced Americans – men and women – who cry with him when they hear how German veterans are treated in their own country. This usually causes a chain reaction, and I find myself amidst a whole crowd of weeping people.
On Saturday, we drove with George Cone (our Dallas historian friend) to Alva, Oklahoma, the most famous (or infamous) POW camp in the US, where Charley resided in 1943-44. There I had to keep feeding Charley snacks for lunch because none of the museum staff, reporters, or locals wanted to let him out of their sight for a minute (I’m starting realize I need to always have food and water on hand for him for this reason).
After answering questions at the museum, and finding a picture of an old friend in Africa uniform hanging amidst dozens of prisoner photos on the wall, we drove to the site of the camp, where the last remaining building now fittingly serves as a Veterans of Foreign Wars clubhouse.
We were met there by the head of the VFW, a Sherman tank veteran of Korea. As we looked around the site and over the land where the camp once stood, these combat veterans quickly bonded. At the end of our visit, both men saluted each other with deep honor and respect as shutters clicked from every direction. There was not a dry eye to be found.
I was hoping Charley would take a break to rest that evening. But after hearing there was a college bull-riding competition at the fairgrounds on the site of his former camp, we found ourselves back in the thick of the action in a packed viewing stand that night.
At our Bed and Breakfast in the morning, our hostess was amazed by Charley. Her 14-year-old son and his friend begged Charley to stay and go to school with them, where they wanted him to set up a chair and have him speak to the school the entire day.
After an emotional goodbye, we ventured back to Oklahoma City, where we stopped at the airport where the Collings Foundation WW2 bombers and fighters were flying for the weekend. As a WW2 veteran, Charley was waved through without paying, and George and I, his entourage, were allowed to accompany him.
Everywhere we turned we were deluged by people eager to meet him, shake his hand, and hug him. They wanted his autograph. They wanted him in a picture with their young children. Some burst into tears when he was overwhelmed by their respect, admiration, and affection.
I thought this trip was about research for a book on Charley. But that’s only half true.
More importantly, this has turned out to be Charley’s Honor Flight.
The one that helps heal his soul and soften the bitter pill of daily degradation that he must bear at home.
From a hotel in Dallas, where I sit in amazement of it all,
From the road on a 36-day trip to work and research upcoming books..
After arriving in the state of Texas, I visited with family members of the “Trouble” crew (shot down over France on Jan 7 44) – the pilot’s grand-niece and her husband in Austin, and the pilot’s beautiful widow in San Antonio. We had a wonderful, long visit one afternoon when she told me about her husband, and their tragically short war-time marriage.
On Saturday I visited Bob Sweatt (the only survivor of Trouble’s crew on that day) and his lovely wife Mary on their ranch outside Austin before I drove on to Houston to pick up my Africa Corps friend and steadfast traveling companion, Charley, who had flown in from Germany.
Knowing we planned to ride horses on the prairie in warm Oklahoma, and worried about overheating, we went to buy cowboy boots and hats (I bought an expensive matching ensemble with some beautiful, brown-red $200 boots and similar-colored hat, and then picked out a pair of jeans to match) and then settled into our airport hotel. On Sunday, we flew to Little Rock, where I worked (work-work – we had a training) on Easter Sunday and Monday. Monday afternoon we hit the road for Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
Expecting something like the initial drive through Texas, we were pleasantly surprised by the lush Arkansas countryside. Judging by the coverage of hits on the windshield, which made visibility dangerous, I calculate there are more bugs per square inch in that part of Arkansas than anywhere I have driven a car in the world.
We were greeted at our hotel by the local historian, who escorted us to the museum the next morning, a place frequented by those interested in seeing where Elvis received his first GI hair cut. Several TV and print reporters questioned Charley in front of the POW exhibit and then, with rain gently misting around us, we drove out to the area where Charley was housed as a POW. The forest has reclaimed the land that was once cleared and covered with temporary barracks, so only foundations were visible, but it did his soul good to see the place he was first taken in July, 1943 and spent nearly a year at.
After our thanks and goodbyes, we drove several hours to the Watson Ranch, just outside of Okmulgee, Oklahoma. It was raining cats and dogs the whole way. Charley hoped maybe when we got to the ranch for our ride it would only be raining cats.
Which it was, but after 2 years of drought, you couldn’t have found people happier about such miserable conditions. I had hoped for a chance to change into my jeans, put contacts in, and to fix my hair, which had reverted from long, straight and shiny in the rain to its natural state, a mass of disheveled curls.
But at the turn from the muddy dirt road into the long drive of the ranch we were ambushed by a television producer who had been waiting for us in his car. Charley was miked up, and as we pulled up near the ranch hands’ house, the fanfare began.
A television crew filmed Charley’s every move as he exited our vehicle and was greeted warmly by the Millers, who run the ranch, and Martha Watson Griffin, who inherited it from her father. After entering the heated little shack where some of the POW ranch hand laborers stayed during the war, Charley and the print and TV reporters began the question and answer dance, as he told stories of his time there in 1944.
You see, Charley had acted as interpreter between the ranchers and their German POW laborers for about 2 1/2 weeks in 1944. And after he had finished his duties for the day then, the very kind Doc Watson would let Charley (a lifelong passionate horseman) catch a horse from the paddock, saddle it up, and ride out on the prairie. Once out far enough, Charley would dismount and lay between the horse’s front legs, looking up at the sky and wondering how his life would go, as one might expect a 20-year-old young man, captive, and far from home and the front, to do.
And although he was only at the ranch for a short time, the kindness Doc Watson had extended to him as a young man, and the experience he had had there had made a strong enough impression on Charley that now, at 89, he dreamed of going back and riding again across the pastures and out under the open skies.
As the crowd of reporters surrounded Charley eagerly I returned to the car to find a wool beanie to cover the wet, disheveled mop now surrounding my head and layer on every t-shirt I had in my suitcase, and to bring Charley more of his sweaters as well. Once we had maximized our warmth potential, we all headed to the barn, where Charley, despite a fairly new hip, was able to use an improvised mounting block devised by our hosts to land in the saddle atop a white colt named Taxi.
As he headed out to the corral in the 40 degree rain, Dwayne Miller and I hurriedly jumped up on our horses to provide him escort, with no time for sundry, unimportant adjustments. And so as a television cameraman rode alongside, Charley and Dwayne enjoyed the 20-minute ride around, in the glorious fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Meanwhile I: wet, muddy, bedraggled, freezing, in badly mismatched, soaking attire, rain-coated glasses, and bent knees and legs ending in mud-splattered, filthy $200 boots shoved into short stirrups on my trusty, gentle, old steed did my level best to stay as much as possible out of the picture.
Which really, when I think about it, is how it should be.
From Oklahoma City, and until the next adventure strikes!
I was deeply saddened by the news that our B-17 pilot/ex-POW/Old Bold Ron Nash has passed, and wished I could have been there with you for his service. I will miss him, as I know everyone else will as well.
Here in Germany the trip goes on and on and on. We left Schweinfurt after the Thanksgiving feast, and went to Stuttgart to finish scanning in some documents from a Battle of the Bulge veteran we had met over the summer. With the efficiency this country is famous for, the German archives kept every requisition for each piece of uniform issued, plus oh so much more. And our veteran friend had not only a whole binder full of those documents, he also had in his possession an amazing collection of documentation of his youth. That got my scanner warmed up.
But over the weekend it really earned its keep. Previous visits to Charley’s tank commander from Africa had yielded a great interview but also just scratched the surface of his massive documentation – a photo album and three massive binders of letters sent home. Because the letters – written from the beginning of the Russian invasion and on into Africa and finally from a POW camp in Egypt – were written in an old German script that only people over the age of 80 can read, I asked Ego to read his letters aloud on video while I scanned them. Over the course of two full days I sat enthralled while he read these beautifully written and very detailed accounts of life on the front and the battles fought.
Even more impressive was the fact that on Day 1, while saying goodbye to his son and grandson who had been visiting, our normally very stable 90-year-old tank commander fell off the porch stairs and cut open his head. After a trip to the emergency room and four stitches, Ego refused to rest long and insisted on reading letters deep into the night and through the next day.
I never stop being in awe of this generation!
For the two days following our visit to Ego, we went to Munich and the border of Austria in pursuit of a story about the rescue of the Lipizzaners at the end of the war. We had met a German veteran in October who had tantalized us with promises of stories and documents that had turned out to be non-existent. It was my first wild goose chase in my two years of doing this, and cost me not only several hundred dollars but also two extremely precious days that I could have spent speaking to veterans who may not be around on my next trip back. It’s so unusual as to be shocking to have a veteran straight out misrepresent.
I can’t deny that in my current state of near exhaustion, I was and am bitterly disappointed. Ok, maybe not just disappointed – p’d off. What can you do? Lost time can never be retrieved.
Driving north, we were just able to pull into Heidelberg as dark settled in. The worst part is, a storm front is rolling in, and if we can’t get north of it soon, we’re going to be caught driving cross-country in heavy snow.
But we are meeting today with the last calvary captain – Rittmeister – alive who rode horses in battle on the German side in WW2. He’s well into his late 90′s, and this may be my only chance to ever talk to him in this lifetime. It’s definitely worth the chance of getting snowed in.
I am visiting an American friend here in Schweinfurt, where apparently our boys were incredibly efficient bombing because there are very few old buildings to find around the town.
Tuesday we drove to Saarbruecken to interview a 92-year-old Afrika Korps radioman who was a POW in the US. But he couldn’t remember too well, and started mixing things up pretty badly. It’s too bad. His wife did however tell us a lot of his stories.
One time he, an artist, and his friends took tin cans from the mess and built a large facsimile of a German tank, complete with fake rounds that exited a faux cannon with fire trails. The locomotion was provided by men inside.
I can just imagine them moving this beast outside, firing their rounds to the delight of the entire contingent of German prisoners. The Americans running the camp, on the other hand, took a rather dim view of this, as one might imagine.
A story like that, in detail, told from an artist’s perspective, would be more valuable than gold to me on tape. But unfortunately, outside of a few foggy second-hand sketches without key details (how did they hide it? What type of Panzer was it? Who powered it? How far did they get?), that hilarious story is now lost forever.
Sometimes it’s discouraging! Why didn’t I start earlier??
All I can do is press forward. And press on we did, driving on to a suburb of Kaiserslautern, where we had cake and coffee with and then interviewed another Afrika Korps veteran of the same venerable age. He remembered a lot, especially Rommel addressing his troops pressing in on the British defenders in Egypt. “Tomorrow I’ll see you all for coffee in Cairo!” he said.
But it didn’t work out that way for them, and our new friend eventually ended up as a POW in Canada. One of his younger friends, an amateur historian, helped us not only set up the interview, but also provided maps and a backdrop of Afrika Korps, Canadian and American flags for the interview.
After our resting day today we push on to Stuttgart to scan in some documents of the Battle of the Bulge veteran we interviewed last summer – the one who kept a journal every day in battle, and who read to us what it was like to be a lieutenant on his first day in combat, to lose all his superior officers, and to have to lead the whole company until replacement officers arrived.
Today I hope you enjoy all the Thanksgiving festivities!
First, to my beloved Old Bold Pilot friends, I am so sorry my work and personal travel schedule stopped me from being with you around Veterans Day. To you I owe my deepest gratitude for your sacrifice and service. Thank you for all you did to ensure that I, my generation, and those who follow would have a beautiful and easy life.
Secondly, today I grieve with my German friends on their day of remembrance for those who have fallen while fighting for their country and, more recently, our alliance as well.
It’s dark and quiet here and we don’t have anything on our agenda until 11 am, so I can steal a few minutes to write.
After a weeklong business trip the first week of November, I had two days to straighten things out at work, pack and jump on a flight from LAX to Frankfurt. From Frankfurt it was a short hop to Hamburg, but my bags must have been having a party without me in Frankfurt because they arrived in Hamburg 8 hours after I did and one of their locks was broken (shut, of course). After we had houdinied our way in to it, I was at least able to retrieve my toothbrush, which above all other items was the one I longed for most of all.
After a great night’s sleep and repacking in some bags provided by Charley, we went to a florist and picked up 13 roses and then hit the road in Charley’s classic Mercedes. The sun was shining until we neared the cemetery at Becklingen when a layer of icy mist rolled in, providing a more appropriate setting for our visit.
This time we came prepared. After our visit to Charley’s former British opponents in Africa – the Sherwood Rangers – in May, I spent some time researching in their reference books to see who exactly of the Sherwoods was buried in Becklingen, and how they had died. It was a very sad list, including teenagers, of course, mixed in with experienced veterans who were caught by snipers, rounds that exploded in overheated tank guns, and in tanks that ‘brewed up’ when hit by German Panzerfausts, all just days before the war ended. In one case, two men had died in a tank that was ‘brewing’while two others who tried desperately to get the hatches open from outside to let them escape were mowed down by machine gun fire. Awful.
We were accompanied on our trip by a German Bundeswehr soldier who has taken responsibility – in a way adopted - Becklingen’s Commonwealth soldiers and their families. For families who live in New Zealand and other far off places, he provides a vital link to their loved ones buried in Germany forever who will not be forgotten by their families. Somehow it is even more touching when one thinks of all the German soldiers who never received a proper burial and whose families never knew what happened to them. Even now, as American delegations still search for those missing from WW2 and thought to lie in German soil, no government-funded search parties (that I’ve heard of) do the same for any of the hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions of German soldiers – whose final resting places remain unmarked and forgotten, even though their families still suffer terribly from the uncertainty surrounding their deaths.
After coffee with our friend we drove on to the tank reunion location in a town that has housed troops for centuries. There we met up with our friends from the Feldhernhalle and Hermann Goering Division, the HG division being an airforce paratroop tank division. Um hmm, imagine that.
It was wonderful to be in the company of these kind, funny and hospitable men. Unfortunately, each year there are fewer and fewer of them able to travel, and every moment with them is precious, just as it is with all of my British, French, Canadian and American veteran friends.
On Friday we had lunch at officer’s mess on base where a hearty and traditional ham and pea soup was served (unfortunately, I, the California vegetarian, had to forgo such a delicacy). Then it was time to get ready for the Serenade and Gentleman’s evening. During the Serenade, the military band played some traditional marches for 45 minutes by torch light as we sat outside in freezing (literally!) temperatures in formal evening attire. A great number of the attendees were between 86 and 100 years old. Considering we use heat lamps in our outdoor cafes in SoCal when the temperature dips below 65 degrees, you can imagine why the Germans made such tough and respected adversaries!
At the Gentleman’s evening I was graciously admitted this year without a murmur, and honored to be seated with my ‘African’ friends at the Gross Deutschland table. This didn’t make too much sense, because there was an Afrika Korps table, and without Charley and Guenter, it lacked substantial (two-thirds!) representation. But never mind, I got to meet some veterans that had fought with this elite GD unit, and the last remaining 8th Panzer Division representative to boot.
All too soon it was over, but the party continued on in our hotel restaurant. Once we had a few drinks, I started the boys off singing the Panzer Song, which Charley has taught me by heart and which we sing, arm-in-arm on our walks. I think it’s such a vital part of the history to be able to sing the songs the soldier sung – on both sides (although there are few I don’t think I’ll ever care to sing, being a lady and all).
Nobody else in the restaurant seemed concerned about our Panzerlied, as the song is not political, and this is, after all, a long-time and current tank troop town. But one of our party who is my age, was, how shall I put it?, ummm, gravely concerned, that we might be offending tender sensibilities. I got a bit of a dressing down as an instigator and troublemaker.
The next morning the veterans laid wreaths on the stones representing their divisions, while we suffered through the bitter cold amidst the unhurried, hour-long military pomp and circumstance. And with that, another tank reunion had passed.
Today, on this ‘People’s Grieving Day’, we remember all who served and fell on all sides, in the many conflicts.
Children who were born before the war and spent time in Holland – specifically near Amersfoort – are sought for a new educational oral history program entitled “Children from Then.” In this project people who were born before WW2, were children or teenagers during the war and lived in Amersfoort are interviewed. In this way the project directors hope to pass on history and the lessons learned to today’s children.
The project has already interviewed 40 Dutch childen of the time, but is seeking German children who relocated with their parents during the war. They are also looking for young German soldiers who served in Amersfoort or the vicinity.
Please contact Yolande Gastelaars for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kinder, die vor dem Krieg geboren waren und mit ihren Eltern in Holland waehrend des Krieges wohnten, besonders in der Naehe vom ‘Polizeiliches Durchgangslager Amersfoort’ (PDA) werden gesucht. Ein neues Projekt “Kinder von Damals” sucht Zeitzeugen, die waehrend des Krieges als Soldat oder Kind eines Soldates in Amersfoort teilweise aufgewachsen sind.
Fuer weitere Informationen bitte melden Sie sich bei Yolande Gastelaars : email@example.com.
Do you believe some people are heaven-sent? After meeting many French angels in the last week, I’m a believer.
First, Dominique. I told you about a little about him in my last email. We went to several “helpers”, young women (at the time) in Brittany who sheltered airmen in their houses at the great risk of torture and execution. Dominique interviewed them in French. I filmed. These ladies already knew and trusted him as well, and so shared secrets and details that they would not have with anyone else.
Giving up his chance to vote in the French parliamentary elections, Dominique took me to Paris where we interviewed a man who had taken airmen on the train from Paris out to Brittany, including Robert Sweatt and five others on the train in March, 1944.
After our interview I followed Dominique to his home near Creil where I met his family. Creil just happens to be where JG2 (the Richthofen squadron) was stationed when they went up in the air to shoot Robert and the others down. JG2 was a very, very busy unit. Of course the area is littered with planes they shot down which were never recovered.
At noon the next day, I had to go. Three hours later I arrived south of Paris, to the place where Robert and Trouble, his plane, crashed. After retracing his route while trying to escape the German cordon set up to ensnare him I gained a far better insight into the real miracle that allowed him to endure until he was spirited to a local farm.
Leaving one small village for another in the Orleans forest in the fading light, I arrived at the home of a local historian had been on the phone for days (really, FIVE whole days), arranging everything for my visit. We had dinner at 10 pm, and he could barely sit down he was so excited to see me, showing me his research, giving me books he had written on the other planes that had crashed in his area on January 7, 1944. His wife had made almost all the food we ate by hand, including a certain type of lemonade drink with grapes and other fruit, and had gone to a neighbor’s garden to pick fresh strawberries for dessert.
In the morning, we quickly got ready. My historian friend had arranged a “little” ceremony at the memorial for one of the planes. When we pulled about, about 20 cars were parked on the side of the road, with more pouring in all the time. Two journalists started interviewing me. Humbly, I told them I was just a researcher. To them it didn’t matter. I was American, and they would do anything to make sure I understood how grateful they are to the airmen who helped liberate them and their village.
The rain held off as some of the eyewitnesses to the crash explained what happened and how gruesomely some of the aviators had died. Then I and the head of the local French-American association placed a beautiful bouquet of flowers on the memorial as ten flag holders stood at attention behind the memorial in a semi-circle. I met the mayors of some of the nearby villages, and after they spoke, I was asked to say a few words.
In my schoolgirl French I thanked the people present from the bottom of my heart for remembering our boys, and for honoring them in this way. But how can words really convey how touching, how utterly moving such an effort by the local people was?
Afterwards, we tromped deep into the soaking woods to see where the B-24 had crashed here. Then we went on to where some of those with parachutes had landed. More memorials, more eyewitness accounts, a speech from the mayor, pictures for the journalists, and then onto the next little town, where yet another B-24 had crashed January 7 (JG2 shot down 5 in this area). There we ventured even deeper into the woods, down country lanes and over rough ground to find the crash site. Finally, at noon, about twenty of us ended up miles deep in the Orleans forest, over hunting trails on private land, at a memorial to a band of Maquis who had been encircled and wiped out by the Germans. At the bottom of the plaque was the name of one aviator; an aviator lucky enough to bail out with a parachute, but unlucky enough to be caught in some trees and not found until 18 days later, dead.
Agonizingly, I could not get the thought of him hanging there out of my mind.
Again, I had to cut our visit painfully short in order to go on to Germany to interview a JG2 pilot. I promised, however, over and over, that I would come back. And I mean it.
I don’t at all deserve all the hospitality of these wonderful French people, to be the recipient of their gratitude towards the Americans.
To all my American WW2 veterans and friends who truly earned this honor and respect, my eternal gratitude.
Yesterday was the celebration of the liberation of the first big town in Normandy – Bayeux. And the liberators? The Sherwood Rangers, of course – those same fine British gentlemen I interviewed last month in England. You remember!
The ones who fought in Africa against my friend Charley but who are now the best of friends with him.
Boy, those Sherwoods sure got around. After Africa they came home and learned how to swim Sherman tanks (you didn’t know Shermans could swim?) into Gold Beach for D-day. After liberating Bayeux they fought through the hedgerows in
Normandy, helped close the Falaise gap, then supported the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions in Holland. They were the first British armored unit through the Sigfried line into Germany. They were certainly the popular ones (with Allied infantry – if not the opposition).
Yesterday, three of these great Sherwood fighters came to partake of the celebration held in their honor in Bayeux, and I had the great pleasure of continuing my conversation with Graham Stevenson.
Graham lasted only a day in Normandy when while stepping out of his tank with his Commander to do a reconnaissance under heavy mortar fire (that had sent their infantry escort running in the wrong direction) he was hit by machine gun
fire. The bullets ripped through his brachial artery, missing his chest narrowly.
Soft-spoken, modest and sweet, Graham was a tall lad who had convinced the army he was old enough to join, when he wasn’t even close. Only 17 when he fought in Africa, Graham was a seasoned 19-year-old combat veteran when his wound in Normandy took him out of the war for good.
It was hard to have only a couple of hours with Graham and the others and then to have to leave them in a rush. I delayed my departure and then finally had to go. As I drove towards Brittany I travelled through the cities they had fought bitterly to liberate after Bayeux – Tilly Sur Seulles and Villers-Bocage – and in each of the places I was very sad that I could not have them with me there.
After three hours of driving I reached Plage Bonaparte in Normandy, Robert Sweatt’s midnight departure point for his return back to England in Motor Gun Boat 503 in March, 1944. The ceremony honoring the French Resistance and Allied
forces was just ending when I arrived, but it was not too late to meet Dominique – a French researcher who knows some of the remaining Resistants.
Dominique helped me immediately meet a Resistante and ask her for an interview, which she agreed to on the spot. We went to the town hall straight away, and I set up my equipment. Since my French is a bit rusty at the moment, Dominique
generously conducted the interview in French, grace a Dieu!
Truly, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Dominique, possessed of a good nature, and an immense desire to help others. Here is the true nobility of the French.
There are always breaks for enormous meals with new a whole mishmash of French, American and British friends, and spectacular views of gorgeous, uncrowded (and somewhat freezing) Breton beaches. Despite the cold, wind, and a serious lack of what Graham calls “bijou” lodging, because of the wonderful hospitality of our French hosts, things couldn’t be going better.