D DAY -1. H HOUR -14
Along the Loire River southwest of Paris was the frontier of Nazi Occupied France. To the south beyond it laid Vichy France, the people there still under the thumb of the Germans, but living to a certain degree more autonomously than the rest of their countrymen subject to the German occupation following the fall of Paris in 1940. Chateaux Perreaux, built in the mid-18th century as the estate of a landowner likely soon to be stripped of his possessions during the French Revolution, was tonight where we stayed. Just north across the river from the small town of Amboise, in 1944 it served as a headquarters of sorts for German officers. They picked it likely for similar reasons as we did when looking through Trip Advisor… it was gorgeous… quaint and far from any big towns or people, but also big and opulent enough to afford all the comforts of home to men who were likely being given leave from a tour on the eastern front. It had a greenhouse, a well manicured ground, a pool (ok not sure if that was there in the 40’s). I wonder how the nightmares of Stalingrad, Kursk or Smolensk must have caused those Germans so long ago trouble in finding this beautiful place so peaceful as we did. But they did not have the cheerful Francisco, the comfort of their wife, or NyQuil.
By 1944 the border of Free France and Nazi occupied France had disappeared. After the Allied landings in North Africa, the Germans had poured into the south of France and divided the country into the Zone Sud and Zone Nord. On D-Day -1, H-Hour -14 as we had dinner across from the Chateaux d’amboise, this was no longer a frontier, it was in the heart of an occupied territory. 26,999 days later, both quiet Monday nights, the German officers going to bed in Chateau Perreaux as we were about to were oblivious that in only a few more hours, men of the 82nd and 101st airborne would be parachuting down on towns only 150 miles to their north, unleashing a confusion from which the Wehrmacht would never recover.
D DAY. H HOUR – 5
That room in the top of Chateaux Perreaux was still silent. Jenn wanted to shutter the windows before bed so that we could keep out some of the light when morning came, but on account of the wine and my tiredness I couldn’t figure out how to do it before bed. So at 0030 the wind blew in, the crickets chirped and the sound of the nearby stream was faintly heard from the wide open windows. Jenn was sound asleep and I woke to use the bathroom. On the way back to bed I went to the window. The moon was in its last quarter, casting a light glow on the lawn down below from the top floor of the chateaux. And I went back to bed.
172 miles to the northwest D-Day had begun. Men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Infantry Divisions were dropping into Normandy. Had history not turned out the way it did, the landings would likely be described as a disaster. Most men missed their drop zone by dozens of miles. Meticulous plans and designated landing zones and rally points were not even closely attained in the early morning hours of June 6th. The town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise was no different. Meant to be a objective and rally point for men of the 82nd airborne dropped on its outskirts, it became a landing zone itself. Its namesake church, flaming buildings and German garrison made it decidedly not an ideal spot for a defenseless paratrooper to float down on at 0140 on June 6th. More than 20 men landed in the square of the city, some like helpless pieces of kindling right down into the inferno raging in the Hairon house off the main square. But it was all underway. Soon, 13,000 paratroopers would be in Normandy
D DAY. H HOUR +2
As we slept, so many years ago on that Tuesday morning a battle was beginning to rage in Normandy. While we packed, woke and had a leisurely European breakfast (croissants, coffee and a soft boiled egg) 5,000 ships were unloading over 100,000 American, British and Canadian troops onto the beaches of Normandy one hour after daybreak. We drove north, and in full nerd out mode I imagined myself driving towards the front of battle on that morning, maybe a German officer who had woken up in Chateaux Perreaux as we did having been alerted of trouble on the northern coast and had been rushing to see it. The Norman countryside passed as a green blur as we drove north past Le Mans, Alencon, and then Caen. We passed where the German Panzer divisions would have been sitting idle in reserve at H-Hour +4, totally capable of pushing the allies back into the sea, but awaiting orders from Hitler who had personally stipulated that their movements were his call alone… unfortunately for the Germans, Hitler was sound asleep at his mountain home in Berchtesgaden, his staff officers not having the heart to wake him and alert him of what they believed to be a diversionary and unimportant allied maneuver.
We approached the beach through what would be codenamed Entrance D-1, a narrow gap and in the bluffs which would be a key objective for the men landing there. Protected with barbed wire fields and mines, the Americans would be sitting ducks until they could push through to here – we passed through unopposed the opposite way and made our way down to the beach. It’s was an eerie thing, stepping foot down on the sand of the beach which would become known as Omaha. Maybe not unlike walking into a reception hall the day after a wedding, or seeing Mile-High Stadium totally empty after it had been packed the night before. The quiet is all that more pronounced, when you considered what happened in this place. What an incredible history changing event that had happened on these otherwise unremarkable beaches. I was surprised by how unimposing they were in fact – and when we stood on the beach wall, I began to appreciate in a whole new way what havoc the Germans firing their MG-42’s at 1,200 rounds/minute with a firing range up to 2,000 m could have had on men unloading from landing craft just 100 m away. As we walked I could imagine the drone of the landing craft, the boom of artillery landing on the beach, the endless pop-pop-pop of the MG-42’s… all being braved by boys who were not even of drinking age yet. These were the boys that would establish the beach-head, push into Nazi occupied France and bring down Hitler’s Germany – and thousands of them never made it off of that beach.
Their gravestones we passed in the nearby cemetery… Joseph Rafferty, Captain, 2 Ranger Battalion of Pennsylvania: June 6, 1944; David Goudey, Private First Class, 2 Ranger Battalion of New Jersey: June 6th, 1944; George Eberle, 1st Lieutenant, 502 Parachute Infantry, 101 Airborne Division of New York: June 6th 1944; Charles Mobley, Sergeant, 41st Infantry 2 Armored, of Alabama: July 10th 1944. My camera clicked and clicked as if capturing these names and re-telling their story in some obscure corner of the internet would do some small honor to their memory 74 years later. The day was May 7th, and this place was a reminder of what France would celebrate tomorrow: VE day. The day of the Nazi surrender to the Allies and the end of the war in Europe. Even though so many Americans died for this outcome, for the French it was not just the day that your son, brother or father got to come back from overseas, it was the liberation of your homeland. As we headed back to the car, I was proud of the contribution our country had made to this end, and I hoped that we would never forget it.
D DAY. H HOUR +12
The sun had begun to set as we ended our day in Normandy in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the small town where 18 hours before on D-Day men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne had (in many cases inadvertently) landed. The town was peaceful tonight. No fires raging, no paratroopers hanging from the steeple of the church (except the dummy which still hangs there today), no panicked Germans roused from their sleep and spraying anything that moved with their Mausers. We’d picked Sainte-Mere-Eglise for its peacefulness, the big Norman church in the square built in the style that would be the inspiration for Kumler Chapel, where my wife and I had gotten married 6 years before. 12 hours after H-Hour, the town was still being contested by the scattered paratroopers and 100 man strong German garrison. Not until the next day would reinforcements from Utah beach arrive. Tonight was going to be a long night for those Americans. But as for us, we enjoyed a beer on the patio, had some nice Thai food, and Jenn caught up on her journal at the small desk. We were in bed by 2200 in our room just off the square of the big church. At 0700 as the bells marked the hour, we were up and ready to head to Paris, leaving behind Normandy and ready for our next adventure.
D DAY -1. H HOUR -14