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We received an email from our blog friend Peter Pauwels in Heerlen, Netherlands, in late April asking us to find another American from 75 years ago. (You may recall how last year Ed and our blog friend in Spain, Fano, located the son of the woman who was director of the American Red Cross Rest Center in Heerlen during the war.)

Gerrit van Dort

A friend of Peter’s had come across a pocket Bible that had been given to his father, Gerrit van Dort, in WWII by an American Army chaplain. Gerrit had been a Dutch telephone lineman who had helped a U.S. Army signal company set up phone lines in Heerlen during the war. (Heerlen was where the 111th spent the winter of 1944-45.) The friend wanted to send the Bible to the family of the soldier whose name was written inside.

Peter emailed us photos of the Bible and its inscriptions. So of course Ed went right to work. Using an online phone directory, he started by looking for Nagelis in Pennsylvania. On his second call, he talked to a woman in her 90s who said her husband’s father was Alfred Nageli, also the name of her husband’s uncle.

She and Ed figured out that the name and address inscribed in the Bible was that of the uncle, who had served with the U.S. Army in Europe. Apparently Gerrit had wanted to stay in touch with Alfred after the war. Because Alfred had no children, Mrs. Nageli told Ed that her son, Gary, who was close to the uncle, would love to have this special family memento. The next day, Gary, somewhat astonished, called Ed. Gary later told us that all six of his grandfather’s children served in WWII.

It took about seven weeks for the Bible to arrive, due to delays in international mail because of the pandemic. Here is Gary holding the Bible last week. Known as the FDR Bible, this printing of the New Testament was given to soldiers and sailors in 1943.

Surprisingly, this blog has attracted readers from nearly every country in the world over the past six years. And a few times, we’ve connected people who share a common interest. Probably the most rewarding of these connections began last year, with a simple request from our Heerlen friend, Peter Pauwels. He wanted to know if we could locate an American woman who had been director of the American Red Cross (ARC) Rest Center in Heerlen, Netherlands, during the last year of WWII.

Back in May, Peter had us around to the places in Heerlen where the 111th soldiers lived and worked during the fall and winter of 1944-45. But his real interest in WWII involved another aspect of the war in his city during that time: the ARC Rest Center in downtown Heerlen. Peter had listened to the stories of a few elderly local residents who had volunteered there as teenagers during the war. And they all fondly remembered the center’s American director, a young woman named Patricia Park. Could we find her or any surviving family members, Peter asked? His goal was to mount a memorial plaque on the building in Heerlen, still there, that the Rest Center occupied.

Ed called the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, DC, but they no longer kept personnel records from that era. An Internet search turned up many women with that name but not the one we were looking for. Without any other pertinent information, like date and place of birth, married name, places lived, and so on, we were stumped.

Then I recalled that a few months earlier, a blog reader in Spain named Fano had sent us the names of some Red Cross volunteers shown in a blog photograph of the 111th in Normandy. It turned out that Fano is a big fan of the Red Cross and its Clubmobiles during the war and knows a lot about them. So on a whim, I wrote to him to see if he could help us find Patricia Park.

Well, he did. Fano is an Internet wizard, and to describe how he found her with nothing to go on but her name and her Red Cross service would take a small book. From the records and newspaper articles he uncovered and sent to us, we found her obituary–she died in 1995–and from that we were able to locate her son, Al Spoler.

So to cut to the chase, we are pleased to tell you that yesterday Al joined Peter in Heerlen to dedicate the plaque to the memory of his mother and all the Red Cross workers in Heerlen — both American and Dutch — who worked to provide war-weary U.S. soldiers a respite from the fighting during those final months of the war. Peter wrote to us earlier to say that yesterday was an incredibly wonderful occasion. The event was covered by a regional television station, and Al even gave an interview. Peter sent these photos:

In the left photo, Al and 93-year-old Heerlen resident Alice Michielsen, who served under Al’s mother at the ARC Rest Center during the war, unveil the plaque. In the right photo, Al is interviewed by the regional Dutch television station.

It is heart-warming to know that so many Europeans still remember and honor the Americans who gave so much during WWII. Thank you, Peter.

A final sad loss

Posted: September 17, 2019 in Uncategorized

We are sad to have to tell you that the last living member of the 111th, Arthur T. Brooks, passed away last week in Hudson, NY, at the age of 101, a month short of his 102nd birthday.

We got to know Art and his wife and their two daughters and son-in-law (all of whom survive him) quite well over the past six years, visiting them in Florida and New York State several times. Art was a remarkable man, a true representative of the Greatest Generation. His intelligence, strong character, and kindness endeared us to him from the start.

Art was an Army captain who had been with the 111th since its time at Camp Bowie, Texas, in 1942. By the time the company crossed over into Germany in early spring of 1945, he had been made company commander. Our fathers could not have asked for a better leader.

Ed and I will miss him very much.

On March 4, 1945, the 111th left Alsdorf, Germany, and headed 36 miles northeast to the town known then as Munchen-Gladbach. The Roer River had been crossed at last and things were moving fast. The Allies had taken Munchen-Gladbach only three days before the 111th arrived. the 111th stayed here until the last day of March.

The company clerk, Frank Sossi, wrote about their arrival: “Unless my eyes deceived me, the so-called super-race must have established a new national emblem, for all the homes along the route were fluttering snow-white flags in the wind.” He continued, We shared a pretty good area with the 29th Division QM Company. It had formerly been the city police headquarters.” There they waited for the big push and the crossing of the Rhine River on March 25. They followed the infantry further into Germany and moved steadily east and north for the next month.

We already knew that the apartment building where they lived was still standing, and we had the street name, Webschulstrasse, in the Reydt district of this large city, thanks to two blog friends. Here are the then-and-now photos:

img210 Our home at Munchen Gladbach, Germany, Spring 1945 

Their shop yard was in a police academy quadrangle “that took up an entire city block” and looked like this in March 1945:

img226 Small arms set up in Munchen Gladbach, Germany

It turns out that the quadrangle is directly across the street from the apartment building and is still being used by the police! It was locked up, so we couldn’t get in. For that reason, we couldn’t see the exact same spots as ones in the men’s 1945 photos. But the windows and other building details match so closely that we are sure this is the same place our men worked in for a month in March 1945.

Matt Ottea, John Andrews (drilling), and Bob Hammer working on a 105 Howitzer in Munchen-Gladbach

Lt. Kent recalled that in his role as special services officer, he was responsible for the men’s morale. “Before leaving Holland, I made a deal with a brewery in Maastricht–whereby because of the shortage of wooden kegs—for every four empty kegs I brought them, they would give me one filled with beer….I had my men search through the bombed-out cafes in the area to search for empty kegs. We finally accumulated eight of them, and the second day we were in Munchen-Gladbach, I send a truck back with the empties to return that afternoon with two kegs filled with beer.” The men must have truly appreciated Lt. Kent.

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.

Omaha Beach

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?