Archive for October, 2013

Wait a Minute!

Posted: October 26, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

We were there, but didn’t realize we were THERE!

At the last minute, Ed got answers to two of our remaining questions this morning, just after we checked out of our hotel in Heerlen. He had a hunch to go back and ask the desk clerk the same question he had asked another clerk yesterday. The difference was, he thought to himself, that this nice woman was in her fifties.Old enough to know there was this big war in the 1940s.

At first she gave the usual response: No, I didn’t even know the U.S. Army was in Heerlen during the war. But she said she had an 87-year-old aunt who might know. A few minutes later, we had the answer as to exactly where the 111th spent that cold winter here in 1944–right in the center of Heerlen! Any buildings they used are probably gone today, the aunt said.

With one exception, however. A large multi-story glass structure called the Glaspaleis (signed “Schunck”) dominates the town’s main square. We thought it was really new. But it is the building and the main square the clerk’s aunt mentioned. It was built in 1935 as a department store and is quite famous in architecture circles. Imagine how Dad and his buddies must have marveled at it! (It was suffered bombing dmage three times earlier in the war, and each time glass panels were replaced.) I have since learned that the building was used as a headquarters in late 1944 by Generals Patton and Simpson. Heerlen was in the thick of things during the winter months the 111th was here, as the Allies pushed into Germany.

Two ironies: First, the public library where we first sought information, unsuccessfully, is located in this building. We had walked all over that square the first day we were here, looking for an information office. Second irony: We thought the building was so recent that we didn’t bother to take a picture. But we were intrigued by a nearby sculpture, unlabeled, of a man in a plaid jacket taking a picture of the building! Now we think we understand the sculpture.

Glaspaleis-1    20131026-154057.jpg

Main square, Heerlen, today

Main square, Heerlen, today (the rear of the Glaspaleis building is on the left)

Then we showed our helpful hotel clerk Dad’s photos of the unit’s time in Heerlen, and she became very interested. When she saw the photo labeled “Windmill near Sittard,” she said, “That’s still there!” The previous day we had driven all over the Sittard area looking for a windmill, any windmill, but never saw a one. She gave us directions to Oirsheek, and we found it easily, sitting above the road between Heerlen and Sittard. A sign noted that the windmill was built in 1879 and has since been restored, but due to its location on a hill next to the road, we think it could have been the very one Dad saw.

img182 Near Sittard, Holland  20131026-154543.jpg

So thanks to Ed’s persistence and an old woman’s memories, we left Holland satisfied with our quest.

Today we set out, in a warm drizzle, for Monchengladbach (spelled Munchen-Gladbach in the 1940s), where the 111th was based during the Dutch “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45. During that especially harsh winter, some 22,000 Dutch people died, thanks largely to German efforts to punish the local population for not cooperating with the Nazi effort.

All of Dad’s photos of those months showed snow on the ground. One photo shows their “home” in Monchengladbach, a three-story brick structure that looked sturdy enough to have survived the war. Our goal today was to find it.

img210 Our home at Munchen Gladbach, Germany, Spring 1945

But where to start looking? Like Heerlen, there is no tourist information office in Monchengladbach. Both are large, modern cities that Dad and his buddies would never recognize today. But a clue from my Welsh cousin, Andy Philpin, set us looking for a British Army base on the outskirts of the city, a place called JHQ Rheindahlen. (The British troops left this base this year, closing it down and turning it back to the German government.) We thought it might contain barracks dating back to the war years.

This part of Holland was the scene of much fighting in the fall of 1944, and the loss of thousands of Allied troops. The Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, six miles east of Maastricht, contains the graves of 8,300 American soldiers who died in the Netherlands during the war.

After much driving around (MG, as it is called here, covers a lot of territory) and questioning the nice guard at a largely deserted place called Ayrshire Barracks, we found JHQ Rheindahlen. Ed went to talk to the guard, an American ex-pat who was intrigued with our search and went in to get his German cohort to answer Ed’s questions. Ed showed them the picture Dad took of the building he lived in during the spring of 1945. The German man told him that it was probably part of the old base, where many Americans were housed during the war. It had been torn down years ago to make way for a huge soccer stadium and parking lots, now the home of the local team in the German Bundesliga, their top soccer league.

20131025-151929.jpg

So, the last spot where we could say, “Dad was here” is now a popular sports complex. We did continue to nearby Sittard, where Dad had photographed a windmill, but there was not a single one left, just another very modern city. However, modern-day turbine windmills are seen everywhere here; western Europeans seem committed to wind power.

We decided not to continue our journey to points north, to see the area of the Rhine River in Krefeld and Dinslaken (north of Dusseldorf) where Dad had taken pictures of blown bridges, because we knew what we would find: traffic-clogged cities with modern bridges. We are heading home, with hopes of learning more later.

 Blown bridge in Maastricht, Holland    20131024-163145.jpg

img151 Blown bridge across Albert Canal near Maastricht, Holland    20131024-161903.jpg

We left France after spending a night in St. Quentin, and drove into Brussels, Belgium. I don’t think the 111th took this route, but we had never seen Brussels so we decided to arrive early, spend the night, and take a look at the city. Dad’s photos (and later confirmation from Arthur Brooks) indicate they took a more southern route through Belgium, through Charleroi and Liege, then crossing the border into Holland near Maastricht. This was probably in September  of 1944.

We stopped for a look at Fort Eben-Emael, on the Belgian border near Maastricht, Netherlands, just as the 111th did. This fort took seven years to build, yet the Germans took it in one day, in May 1940. By the time the 111th men saw it in 1944, this part of Belgium had been liberated and the Germans had left. When the fort, which lies along the Albert Canal, was completed after 5 years, in 1935, it was considered to be one of the strongest in the world, complete with 2-1/2 miles of underground galleries.

img153 Main entrance to Fort Eban Emmanuel, Belgium       20131024-161218.jpg

But it was a prime target for the Germans at the beginning of the war. Hitler himself approved the plan to take it using gliders. The Germans built a full-scale mock-up in occupied Czechoslovakia so they could practice the attack. In May 1940, the fort was taken by surprise when paratroopers in gliders landed silently on the roof of the fort, taking the troops within by surprise–the first time gliders were used in this way. The gliders were also fitted with hollow charge devices, used here–also for the first time–to destroy the gun cupolas. The Belgians surrendered within a day, a huge loss for them.

The fort is open to the public during the summer months most days, but only one weekend a month in the off season, so we were not able to go inside.

We arrived in Heerlen, Holland, this afternoon but had no luck finding any information about US military activities here in WW II. In fact, the city has no information office, and the library has nothing about the war. It is a large, traffic-filled, modern city these days.

This morning we drove to Caen to visit the best museum in the region, the Caen-Normandie Memorial. It is huge and very well done, but too general to learn much detail about individual units. After, we drove south to Falaise, to see where Dad’s unit had passed through after the decisive Battle of the Falaise Pocket in August 1944. The town was largely destroyed and is now a modern town, home to the imposing castle on the hill where William the Conqueror was born a thousand years ago. With nothing to see there connected with Dad, we moved on north to St. Lo.

Falaise Gap five days later

St. Lo’s destruction in July 1944 was almost total; today it is an attractive, if more modern, small city. We stopped at the tourist office to find out the location of the famed Hill 192, the location of the US victory against the Germans that was crucial to the Allied efforts to free France, but the young women at the desk had no clue. One handed us a brochure of WWII sights in the area, and after we left we noticed an entry for Hill 192 and directions to it, as well as a memorial for the Second Division. (See Dad’s photo below of a tank destroyed in the Hill 192 battle.)

img090 evidence of the price the 2nd div paid for Hill 192 in Normandy       France etc. 2013 177

Within a short time, we found both places on back roads, not too far from Dad’s base at Cerisy la Foret. As we took pictures of the historic marker on Hill 192, a rainbow appeared on the horizon toward the sea.

France etc. 2013 175

We began the first day (yesterday) with a visit to the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach. We had visited it about ten years ago, where we realized for time first time why Dad was in Wales: preparing for Normandy, based on seeing the large map in one of the pavilions next to the graves. He died in 2001, and although we knew he was here D+5, we didn’t realize the full extent of his time in Normandy until recently.

France etc. 2013 111

We looked again at the large map and guessed that he probably had left from Milford Haven, Wales, rather than from Swansea or Cardiff, which were much farther away from St. Dogmaels, Wales. [But we were wrong: two months later, when we  learned that the company had left from Plymouth, England.] At any rate, it was a lovely quiet morning, with mostly French families visiting this very moving place.

France etc. 2013 013

Here are a couple of pictures Dad took on D+5, when the 111th Ordnance company landed at Omaha Beach:

img192 Our trucks unload on Omaha Beach D+5 img194 Boats off of Omaha Beach, D+5

The goal of the day was to find the Abbey of Cerisy-la-Foret, between St. Lo and Bayeux. This was because, long ago, my sister asked our dad about a small watercolor painting of an old church that had hung in our childhood home, and that had always been rehung in our parents’ two later homes. Dad told Marcia that he had been based there soon after landing at Omaha Beach on June 11, 1944.

France etc. 2013 150 abbey cerisy painting France etc. 2013 178

We located the village of Cerisy-la-Foret on the map, not ten miles from our B&B, and arrived early afternoon in a cloudy drizzle. Our first clue that this was the right place was a monument to the Second Infantry Division at the top of the lane leading to the abbey. By now, we had figured out that Dad’s unit, tank and small arms repair, was continually being detached and reattached as needed throughout the war. We think that for a short while, he was part of the 29th, then part of the 2nd, here, in the early summer of 1944. That belief was confirmed by the small monument at the head of the lane leading to the abbey:

France etc. 2013 147

Dad and Donald McGowan, place unkown

Dad and Donald McGowan at the abbey, summer 1944

France etc. 2013 128

Andrea at the same spot, 2013

We were happy to see, on this Sunday in October, that the Cerisy abbey was open for visitors. While Ed parked the car, I walked around the side and made a wonderful discovery. There in front of me, to the left of the entrance, was the very wall of the church that formed the background of a couple of photos of Dad and his buddy McGowan. I couldn’t believe it was so easy. Because the wall looked so destroyed, I thought it might be a church anywhere from France to Germany, the result of war devastation. But this wall had just fallen to pieces over a thousand years, quite naturally. They took the picture because this was their home at that time.

We went in to pay to see inside the abbey. When we showed the girl at the ticket desk our picture of Dad and his pal outside, she became as excited as we were and refused to let us pay, even giving us a postcard, a booklet, and a poster from the little gift shop. Her English was limited, and she didn’t know anything about the troops there, but her mother, now 80, had told her stories about the air raids and bombs hitting the nearby villages during the war. It was another remarkable day.

We learned a few months later, after talking with Arthur Brooks, who was one of the company officers, that there were no fresh food to be had in Normandy, and that the men subsisted on C rations for a month or so. That explains these photos of my dad’s:

“C rations again,” Dad wrote.

mom's list

“You still have to stand in line for everything.”