Archive for the ‘1944’ Category

Last week we were excited to hear from yet another Frenchman. Nicolas used to live in Cherbourg and is quite familiar with the city. He wrote to say that he knows the location of one of our photos, taken on July 17, 1944, during the Normandy Campaign.

One of the 111th men took several pictures of Cherbourg that day, and one in particular caught Nicolas’s eye.

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“The location of this picture was easy to find, as there is only one mountain around Cherbourg: La Montagne du Roule,” he wrote. “Plus, my former high school was located a bit further from the house (which I circled in red). I used to walk this very street every morning, and every evening … the sight looked familiar.” Merci beaucoup, Nicolas!

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The day that photo was taken in 1944, some of the unit had left their camp in the Cerisy Forest, Normandy, for a trip that took them through Isigny-sur-Mer, Carentan, St. Mere Eglise, Monteburg and Cherbourg. The Allies had taken Cherbourg, an important port, in late June. Twelve days after their trip, Operation Cobra was launched—the Allied operation to break out of Normandy.

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Paris—then and now

Posted: May 18, 2019 in 1944, Liberation of Paris

Our last stop on this “tracings” trip was Paris, but the 111th men saw it early in their tour, the last week of August 1944. By chance, they arrived in Saint Remy de Chevreuse, near Versailles, just a day after the Liberation of Paris. All the men were given passes to go into the the city, and they had a ball!

My father, Bill Johnson, and Percy Ackert on the Eiffel Tower. Dad never mentioned to me that he had been to Paris. We didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower.

John Andrews, Ray Buggert, and Peter Patrick at the Arc de Triomphe, having a rest.

Ed Sutcliffe last week at the Arc de Triomphe, having a rest.

The 28th Infantry Division—which the 111th had belonged to in Wales—marched down the Champs Elysees as part of the liberation celebration, and Lt. Perry Witt was there: “I will not attempt to explain to you the feelings that the Parisians had for us or any American soldier who had arrived after the liberation. We were fortunate in seeing the American 28th Division parade down the Champs Elysees. The people cheered, cried, and swarmed around me as I stood watching our boys go by.” Cpt. Art Brooks recalled, “It was unbelievable, the Parisians were in a frenzy!”

We spent the night in Saint Remy de Chevreuse, a very pretty village, but since our men had camped in tents there, we could only look at open fields in and around the town and guess where they might have been:

The men of the 111th suffered through a bitterly cold, busy, and often frightening winter in Heerlen, near the German border. They arrived in late October and left in early February, crossing the border into Alsdorf, Germany, as the Germans were being pushed east. The town suffered periodic shelling by the Germans from across the Roer River in November and December 1944.

The unit was under the Ninth Army here, supporting the XIX Corps and the 29th Division. In late December, with the Battle of the Bulge in full swing, they were given the added duty of supporting the 102nd Infantry Division.

On New Year’s Eve, the Luftwaffe strafed and dropped bombs over Heerlen from midnight to 4 am. It was not a great way to start the new year. The company clerk, Frank Sossi, wrote in his monthly history report, “This month [January] was a difficult one in every respect.” They were worried about a possible German breakthrough from the north and developed three evacuation plans. German paratroopers were landing in the area dressed in U.S. Army uniforms, hoping to infiltrate the lines. There was a severe shortage of parts with so many damaged vehicles and equipment coming from the front lines. And snow began to fall.

Today we are in Heerlen with our blog friend Peter Pauwels, who is showing us places around the town where the 111th worked and lived.

Heerlen Holland 1944

Same place, 75 years later. This was the entrance to the 111th’s work area, where they repaired vehicles and artillery. It was a former brickyard.The street name is Grasbroekerweg.
img172 Shop area at Heerlen, Holland

Shop area, Heerlen, winter 1944-45, and today, from the other side with Peter and Andrea. It’s a parking lot!

The Baggen meat market, near the 111th work area. Soldier Roland Unangst made life-long friends of the Baggen family, even naming a daughter after one of the Baggen daughters.

This vacant lot near the 111th work area was the location of the large house that was used by the 111th’s officers as their home and offices.

Thank you, Peter, for all your help! We couldn’t have learned all of this without you.

The men of the 111th landed on Omaha Beach over two days, June 11 and June 12, 1944. Somehow they were able to meet up and begin making their way, with their 80 vehicles, inland.

On June 13, the unit found an orchard and spent the night; the next day they settled on a large wooded area in the forêt de Cerisy, the Cerisy Forest, and set up camp. Lt. Perry Witt said, “After a few nights in the area we were given our baptism of fire from the enemy… I think that I remembered everything wrong that I had ever done and started to pray.” They remained in this general area until early August.

Today the Cerisy Forest is a 5,260-acre nature reserve. Our blog friend and B&B host Michael Doherty has studied the history of the forest during WWII and has found the approximate area (see the red map point) where the 111th camped in 1944, using grid information from the unit’s morning reports. (See the previous posting on this blog for more details.) By the way, if you come to Normandy, be sure to stay at the wonderful B&B Michael and his wife own near the village of Litteau, Le Manoir de Herouville. Michael is also a D-Day guide.

Cerisy location

He took us to the area in the Cerisy Forest on Saturday. We watched while he scanned the forest floor with his metal detector. He hoped to find C ration containers, but that day only a few bullet casings and some odd pieces of what looked to me like automotive parts turned up.

Michael using his metal detector in the Cerisy Forest

Later that day, Ed and I paid a return visit to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery there, which is located just above the beach where the 111th came ashore.

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The American Cemetery above Omaha Beach

Michael and Andrea near Cerisy la Foret

On Sunday, Ed and I drove the route of the men after the St. Lo breakthrough, in early August 1944. They headed south to Campeaux, where they stayed for about ten days, and then continued to follow the advancing troops to Vire. They drove 82 miles in one day and set up camp in the town of Mortree, near Falaise, when they began supporting the 90th Infantry Division. We were surprised to realize we were seeing much of what they had seen on their route, because so many structures had survived the war and in fact were already quite old 75 years ago!

They were in Mortree for one week, while the last battle of Normandy took place near Falaise. On August 27, they began their longest journey so far, as their convoy traversed the 113 miles to Saint Remy des Chevreuse, south of Versailles. More about this stop in the next posting.

We ended the day with a return visit to the Abbaye de Cerisy-la-Foret, which we had discovered in 2013 because of a photo taken in 1944 of my father and his buddy, Donald McGowan, in front of the ruins of the abbey.

The church at the Abbaye la Cerisy-la-Foret

Again, we were struck by the simple beauty of this ancient abbey (founded in 1032) and church. Certainly my father and his fellow soldiers had never seen anything quite so old and so lovely. I imagine they might have stopped in to say a prayer.

Nearby is the last area the unit camped, not far from the Cerisy Forest, near the village of Tournieres, which in August 1944 became the temporary location of Gen. Eisenhower’s SHAEF command post. The 111th moved to three open fields here on July 4, where Frank Sossi, the company clerk, wrote that they were much happier here than they had been in the damp forest. The photo of the farm field below may have been one of the fields; Michael will be checking the coordinates given on the unit morning reports for that period and letting us know for sure. Thank you Michael, for all your help! We had a great time with you this past weekend.

Could this be the three fields area where they spent the month of July?

Ed and I will arrive in Normandy later this week to begin the “tracings” part of this blog at long last. We thought that driving the route of the 111th—from Omaha Beach to Brake, Germany—would be a good way to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day. We also hope to see some of what the men saw as they made their way through Europe during the final year of their WWII service.

Below are the first two pages of the 111th’s itinerary, as carefully noted by 111th soldier Joe Sedlacek. (Many thanks to his son Tom for sending this to us.) Ed checked it against the unit’s morning reports and found it to be quite accurate, with the exception of several completely understandable misspellings of town names.

Joe Sedlacek

We will begin by spending three nights at the Normandy manoir house B&B of blog friend Michael Doherty. He has located the exact spot where the men camped for several weeks in the summer of 1944 and has promised to take us there. (See the previous blog post on this site.) Michael is a D-Day guide, and we appreciate his interest in our quest during a very busy time for him.

So stay tuned. I hope to make several posts to this blog as we follow the 111th’s convoy through dozens of hamlets and villages and towns over the next two weeks.

 

In past posts, we have mentioned some of the items the men brought home with them as souvenirs of the war. The other day, I heard from a reader, Peter Pauwels, whose wife’s grandfather knew some of the men in the 111th’s repair shops. Here’s what he said:

“Hello from Heerlen in The Netherlands!!! I was surprised at seeing the pictures of Heerlen in the winter of 1944/45. That was in the street where late my dad lived. He always told me about his friendship and adventures with the American soldiers at the stone factory nearby. The granddad of my wife was working at the LTM-remise. He was always trading Dutch souvenirs that he made himself , for food or equipment.”

Peter sent me photos of the items our men traded. It was a good thing the war was nearing an end, or they might have needed these items! (If any 111th family member has a handmade Dutch souvenir that might have been traded for these tools, I’d love to see it.) Thanks, Peter!

So, to revisit a few of the men’s souvenirs, here are some photos:

Ottea others with Nazi flag
Nazi flags were a popular souvenir, it seems. My dad sent one home to his mother in San Antonio. When she opened the package, the musty odor prompted her to air it out on the backyard clothesline. She soon heard from the neighbors!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

heerlen tea cup

111th daughter Linda Campbell showed us this tea cup and saucer given to her in the 1980s by Vickie Baggens, ,whose parents had been kind to Linda’s father, Roland Unangst, who used to drink from this very cup in the Baggens home in Heerlen, Holland, during the winter of 1944/45.

box with part

This Chevrolet truck part, carefully packed in wax, was left behind at Albro Castle, in Wales, where the 111th men lived and worked for several months before the Normandy Invasion. Owner Peter Newland found it and some other parts and gave it to me.

 

The 111th Makes French History!

Posted: October 30, 2016 in 1944, Normandy 1944

We had a lovely surprise via email this past week from our blog friend in Paris, Tristan Rondeau. You may recall that Tristan, a history student, had found our blog not long after we started it and had asked for any and all information and photos of the 111th’s time in Normandy, France. (The unit was there from June 11 until late August 1944.) I knew he was working on some sort of paper, but I had no idea its entire focus WAS the 111th!

His article is being published in the November issue of Normandie 1944, and he sent me a preview copy. Of course, it is in French, but as Tristan said in his email to me, ” I don’t think you need to read it, for you won’t learn much from it!” It goes on for eleven pages and is full of photos taken by the men themselves. Wouldn’t our fathers be blown away to know their unit’s work there is being read about in France, 72 years later? We wish the best of luck to Tristan, who received his master’s degree in history earlier this year and is preparing to go on for his PhD.

 

Of course, I’ve sent copies to our three survivors–Art Brooks, John Raisler, and Osborne Eastwood. In a perfect bit of timing, Tristan’s article arrived just in time to send it to Art Brooks, the unit’s company commander, on the occasion of his 99th birthday yesterday. We wish you a very happy and healthy year ahead, Captain Brooks!

edited Art Brooks taken outside quarters Brake Germany summer 1945

Art Brooks during the war

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Art Brooks in 2014