Archive for June, 2014

imageIt’s been an exciting two days here in Wales. On Thursday, the daughter of one of the 111th men, Sue Goerges Higginbotham, arrived from the States with her husband, Don. Sue’s father was Harold Goerges, a sergeant and a member of the group that repaired artillery guns. Harold passed away in San Antonio in 1999.

Sue Goerges in front of Albro Castle, June 5, 2014

Sue Goerges in front of Albro Castle, June 5, 2014

If you recall, this whole project got started last June when Ed and I decided to find Albro Castle–where the 111th men lived for four months in 1944 before leaving for Omaha Beach–last year, coincidentally on June 6. There, the co-owner, Tracy Newland, took us upstairs to one of the rooms to show us graffiti she had uncovered. There we saw the names of two of my Dad’s best friends for life: John Andrews and Harold Goerges. They wrote this on the night of June 6, 1944, as they prepared to leave Wales for the war in Europe.

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In a story too long to tell here, Harold’s daughter Sue came with us Thursday evening, June 5, to Albro so she could see her dad’s writing on the wall. In a fun twist, Tracy had never scraped the paint off the final “s”, thinking his last name was George. So that night, Tracy handed Sue an exacto knife, and Sue, in quite an emotional few minutes, carefully scraped away the rest of the paint to reveal the “s” and finish the job Tracy began 10 years ago. Afterwards, Tracy and Pete and their lovely daughters, Brook and Willow, treated us all to a wonderful dinner.

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Dancing and having 1940s fun in St. Dogmaels last night

Then last night, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the heritage group in the village of St. Dogmaels, where Albro Castle is located, threw a great dinner dance in the village hall, with a live band playing 1940s music and with many of the 125 or so guests dressed up in period attire, including WWII military uniforms

The best part was two of our five survivors, who stole the show and made the evening meaningful.

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From left, Peter Newland, Sue Goerges, Tracy Newland, and Glenn Booker, our friend from Barry, Wales

To kick the off the dinner, the guests watched a video interview that Terry Cross made of his father, 111th survivor Ray Cross. Ray, who is 95, talked about his memories of Albro and St Dogmaels, and the local people loved it. After the video, I gave a short talk about the 111th and how they left the village that night exactly 70 years ago in their convoys to Southampton. I also thanked the villagers on behalf of the men for the kind treatment they received here. A few remembered our men, all fondly.

Then near the end of the evening, we Skyped with 111th survivor John Raisler, who is 94 and lives in Florida. It was great and the crowd gave him a big cheer and applause, yelling out thanks to him and his fellow soldiers. (We will have to post a photo later because Ed took only video and we have to figure how to make a still.)

Marjorie Forster, looking at our book for pictures of old friends

Marjorie Forster, looking at our book for pictures of old friends

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Marjorie’s granddaughter, wearing Marjorie’s original wedding dress–dyed red–and her uncle, Hugh Forster in an RAF Uniform his father wore at his wedding to Marjorie.

As we were all leaving around 11pm, one Welsh man stopped me to express his thanks for the American troops coming to Europe. He said Britain would not have survived with them. This same message had been conveyed many times during the evening by other attendees. It was an unforgettable evening.

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Me, center, next to Angharad Stobbs, project manager for the St Dogmaels world wars project, and her daughter in red, her son , and her daughter’s friend. The girls helped us get Skype going that evening.

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Angharad Stobbs, left, manager for the Hanes Llandoch world wars project, welcomes guests to tea at the Coach House, St Dogmaels, yesterday

Hanes Llandoch, the heritage group in St Dogmaels, hosted a special tea yesterday so Ed and I could meet the village residents who have memories of our GIs at Albro Castle. All but one, who is 94, were children or teenagers in the spring of 1944. Everyone had a great time, talking with us and with each other, remembering that important era in history. The event caught the attention of BBC Wales television, which sent a reporter and cameraman to interview me and the guests. The story was aired throughout Wales at the end of its news show last night. Here are snippets of what we were told yesterday, along with the usual memories of cadging chocolates and gum from the soldiers: “I always remember seeing the men come down from Albro to go into the village. They saluted us kids, and we always returned the salute!”

A few of the ladies who remember our "lads."

A few of the ladies who remember our “lads.”

“My friend and I–we were only five years old–once went to the old quarry near Albro where some of the Army trucks were parked. We started one up and it began moving, but it soon got stuck in the mud. The American lads heard the noise and came running down from Albro, and we two boys made a quick disappearance into the woods!” “I remember going up to Albro to try to get more chewing gum. We never had gum before the GIs came. One of soldiers, his name was Joe, always made sure I got my gum. I will never forget him.” (The 111th had several Joes; wish we knew which one this was.)

More of the ladies

More of the ladies

“The older girls who lived along the Poppit road [toward Albro Castle] had a better chance of meeting the soldiers. They would sit on the bridge and wait for them to pass by.”

The BBC interviewing one of the guests yesterday

The BBC interviewing one of the guests yesterday

“Me and my friends were only about 10 years old, and we would see the soldiers go by every day. They were so handsome and friendly. We wished we weren’t so young, we really envied the older girls.” “I attended the Baptist chapel in the village, and I can remember seeing some of the soldiers there in their uniforms on Sundays. My father asked one of the officers to come to our house for tea or supper once, maybe more than once. He had been in the military himself and knew what it felt like to be so far away from home.” (We have heard other stories of the men being invited into homes for tea and supper.) “My father was a baker in town. Since his drivers had to leave for the war, I had to take over driving the delivery truck. I made deliveries to shops all over the area. The soldiers called me the girl driving the cracker box! I was about 22 at the time. Sometimes I would give the GIs [from other Army units in the vicinity as well as Albro, presumably] rides in the back of the van. Since gas was rationed, the police would often stop vehicles to make sure their trips were essential. I always carried five loaves of bread on the front seat so it looked like I was making deliveries. The police never checked for the men in the back of the van. The Albro GIs loved my father’s cakes.” The same woman also told us, “My friends and I went to all the dances for the soldiers in the area–here, in Cilgerran, in Cardigan. But we were told to be careful. We would meet up and ride our bikes to the dance together. It was always a fun time. The bands were from the military units, Army and RAF. When the dance was over, we all rode home together in a group. The soldiers were driven to the dances in their trucks.”

Andrea talks to Trevor Griffiths, who remembers the GIs

Andrea talks to Trevor Griffiths, who remembers the GIs

“We were always so happy to be given chocolates by the GIs. We had been under severe rationing for several years by then, and sweets were really rare. But the American chocolate bars were dark and very hard. You couldn’t bite into it easily. I had to go home and grate it in order to eat it.”

Today we were treated to a tour of the area around Albro Castle, where the men of the 111th lived during the first half of 1944, before they set off for Normandy on June 6. Our guide was Mr. Ian Gollop, a community council member and retired school headmaster.

Ian Gollop of St. Dogmaels, Wales

Ian Gollop of St. Dogmaels, Wales

We started by walking up a wooded path to an abandoned quarry, now completely overgrown, where the men parked their larger vehicles. From there we continued over to the driveway leading up to Albro but did wish to drop in on the Newlands unannounced.

We walked back to Ian’s house, which is on the road that runs next to the Teifi River estuary, before it enters the Irish Sea. The water was a shimmering emerald green today, under partly cloudy skies. Ian drove us up a roughly paved lane through the woods to a spot where we could enter a farm field and take pictures of Albro from the hill above, something the men did 70 years ago.

Ed in the field above Albro Castle today

Ed in the field above Albro Castle today

Albro Castle, St. Dogmael's, Wales, spring  1944

Albro Castle, St. Dogmael’s, Wales, spring 1944

 

Our last stop was to locate the tiny path past a whitewashed cottage that was the scene of another photo one of the men took. It appears on page 22 of my book. It is not a path to Albro, but possibly a back way into the village from Albro. Ian told us the cottage, now ramshackle, was once the place where the local baker garaged his delivery truck.

Ed on the same lane, bakery now falling apart, today

Ed on the same lane, bakery garage now falling apart, today

Men of the 111th walking up a lane in St Dogmaels, 1944

Men of the 111th walking up a lane in St Dogmaels, 1944

Then we three had a wonderful lunch in the Ferry Inn, overlooking the estuary. This is the closest pub to Albro and was visited by many of the 111th men. In 1944, Ian was a boy of 9 and lived in the house next door to the pub, and he remembers our GIs. Today the pub is greatly enlarged and has a very good restaurant, but in 1944 today’s bar area made up the entire pub, carved into four little rooms, as Ian explained to us.

 

Ian Gollop explains how the Ferry Inn pub looked in 1944

Ian Gollop explains how the Ferry Inn pub looked in 1944

The Ferry Inn today

The Ferry Inn today

The St. Dogmaels (Wales) Community Council put on a terrific reception for me and Ed Saturday night, welcoming us as the representatives of the 111th Ordnance Company to the village and kicking off a week of activities to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

If you recall, this was the village where the 180 men of the 111th were based for four months before D-Day in 1944. They left from here in two convoys for Southampton, England, at midnight of the night of June 6. They crossed the channel in LCTs and landed on Omaha Beach on D+5. Everyone here has been amazed to learn that some 200,000 American troops were based in Wales in the year or so prior to D-Day, preparing for that historic event.

The evening began with a real treat: the local Welsh men’s choir sang several beautiful old songs for us. The Welsh are fantastic singers, and their performance was amazing.

Then our hosts showed a video that Terry Cross, son of surviving 111th member Ray Cross, made of his dad a couple of months ago. In it, Ray describes the unit’s time in St. Dogmaels. As you can imagine, the local people were very interested in hearing what Ray had to say about their village 70 years ago. (When we get back to the U.S., Ed will figure out how to make Ray’s video available for you all to watch; Terry has been editing several more video interviews with his dad, and we hope to have those available as well.)

Ray Cross remembers St. Dogmaels in a video last night in Wales

111th survivor Ray Cross remembers St. Dogmaels in a video last night in Wales

Last night in St. Dogmaels, community council members and guests watching Ray Cross on video

Last night in St. Dogmaels, community council members and guests watching Ray Cross on video

Then I gave a short talk about the men and conveyed our thanks to the village for the many kindnesses shown to our fathers while they were here. I also thanked Tracy and Peter Newland, the current owners of Albro Castle, for uncovering and preserving graffiti left by two of the 111th men on a wall there, which we first saw a year ago on June 6 and which sparked this incredible year of discovery. See our very first blog post for more about that day. (Go to the Archives for September 2013 and scroll all the way down to the bottom.)

A delicious dinner followed, and we got to talk to many people who were quite interested in learning more about the Americans here. Several told us how their parents had often talked about how polite, kind, and generous the men were. Our fathers were invited into local homes for tea and for Saturday suppers; these kind people tried to make the “boys” feel at home. We also heard some good stories, which we are trying to recall this morning. We wish all of you could have been there.

More events are coming up this week. On Monday, June 2, one of the town councillors will show us places around the village where the men worked. Then he will take us to lunch at the Ferry Inn, a pub that was quite popular with some of the men.

On Tuesday, June 3, we will again be in St. Dogmaels for a tea, where we will get to meet village residents who were youngsters during the war years and who have memories of our men. We are really looking forward to hearing their stories and hope to record them on video.

On Thursday, June 5, Sue Goerges Higginbotham and her husband, Don, will arrive from Texas. We will pick them up at their B&B in Cardigan and take them directly to Albro Castle, so that Sue can see the writings her father left on a wall there almost exactly 70 years earlier. The owners of Albro, Tracy and Peter Newland, have invited the four of us to stay for dinner.

Sign in St Dogmaels for the June 6 Dinner dance

Sign in St Dogmaels for the June 6 Dinner dance

Finally, the big 1940s dinner/dance is Friday night, June 6, in the St. Dogmaels  Village Hall, a big affair with the public invited. I will give a short talk, and they organizers will again show the Ray Cross video. Prints of some of the photos of the 111th in Wales that some of you have sent to us will be on display. We will report on these events and more in future postings.