Posts Tagged ‘D-Day’

The strange coincidences that have marked our 111th journey from the start continue to occur.

Ed and I took a spur-of-the-moment day trip over the mountains a couple of weeks ago. While poking around an antiques/gift shop in a little town in West Virginia, two old books caught my eye. There were only four books in the entire shop. I walked over for a closer look, and this is what I saw:two wwii books

They were published in the 1960s. Of course, we bought both.

Although the 111th isn’t mentioned by name in these books, the ordnance battalions they were assigned to are noted. It was truly an orphan unit, belonging at various times in 1944 and 1945 to the 48th, the 177th, the 320th, the 185th, the 187th, and the 54th and 55th.

One chapter in the second volume is very interesting: “On the Far Shore in Normandy.” We learned that several ordnance units landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day and more continued to come ashore in the following days and weeks, including, of course, the 111th on D+5 (which left Southampton for Omaha Beach on the night of June 10) and D+6.

On page 244, we read a paragraph that sent a chill down our spine:

“Shortly after midnight on 11 June, the headquarters of the 177th Ordnance Battalion…was ashore at Dog Green Beach [eastern side of Omaha]. When the commanding officer was able to get in touch with the command posts of V Corps and First Army Ordnance, he learned that he had lost an entire medium automotive maintenance company, the 342nd, and twenty-seven men of Detachment B of the 526th Heavy Maintenance Company (Tank) when LST 1006 was sunk in the English Channel by a German torpedo in the early hours of June 9.”

As most of you have told me, our fathers did not talk much about the war. My own father, when I asked about the dangers he faced, told me he had a desk job behind the lines and was never really worried. Of course, we have since learned that they had quite a few close calls during their time in Europe. But the unit never lost a man until the week after V-E Day, in May 1945, when two young enlisted men drowned in a boat accident on the Weser River in Germany.

This holiday season, let’s think about that for a minute and thank our lucky stars that our fathers made it safely through that horrible war. In fact, most of the men were finally back home in the States by 70 years ago this month. How thankful and happy they must have been.

Note: I just did a little research and learned that from December 1941 through December 1946, the Army Ordnance Department had 214 battle casualties (including 101 deaths) among its officers, and 3,030 battle casualties (including 1,121 deaths) among its enlisted men. (http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/ref/Casualties/Casualties-1.html#month) This was out of a total of 24,000 officers and 325,000 enlisted men in the Ordnance Department in that period. (http://www.goordnance.army.mil/history/ORDhistory.html)

 

 

 

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From February 1944 until June 7, 1944, the men of the 111th lived and worked at Albro Castle, in St.Dogmaels, Wales. The name is rather ironic — it wasn’t a castle at all, but a workhouse, or poorhouse, that took in the area’s destitute from 1840 until 1935. In the months preceding the D-Day invasion, the U.S. Army had to work hard to find quarters for more than a million service members in the United Kingdom, and obviously a place like Albro Castle fit the bill.

My father, 111th sergeant Bill Johnson, occasionally talked about living at Albro and meeting my Welsh mother at a local dance in a nearby village. And although I don’t recall him mentioning it, he returned there in 1983, nearly 40 years later, to take a look. I know this because I recently came across a stash of his old photos. Had it not been for our work to learn more about the 111th, I would have not known why he took these three pictures or where this place was:

Albro Castle, 1983, front view

Albro Castle, 1983, front view

Structures in rear

Structures in rear

Albro Castle courtyard, 1983

Albro Castle courtyard, 1983

On June 6, 2013, my husband, Ed, and I decided to find Albro, a story we related in our very first posting on this blog. The discovery we made that day — all because of the preservation efforts of its owners, Peter and Tracy Newland — sparked our entire project. We owe them a lot. Last June, we did a posting on this blog about how we spent two lovely evenings with them commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day and role that Albro Castle played in WWII. (When my dad revisited Albro in 1983, he most probably met Peter Newland’s mother.)

So I am pleased to tell you that if you would like the experience of living in the same place that your father or grandfather did just before the Normandy invasion, you can do that. Check it out here: http://www.albrocastle.co.uk/

Tracy and Peter have worked hard to turn part of Albro’s main building into two charming and comfy two holiday apartments: one has room for 12 to 14 people, while the other is meant for a couple or small family. We can assure you that today Albro Castle is much more attractive and comfortable than it was when the 111th men lived there. The stunning Pembrokeshire Coast Path is close by; this part of West Wales is a gorgeous and fascinating place to visit, especially in the spring and summer.

Last month, while visiting Albro Castle in St. Dogmaels, Wales—where the 111th men were billeted during the four months preceding D-Day—the gracious current owners, Tracy and Pete Newland, showed us a dusty old box containing automotive parts, which the men apparently left behind, perhaps in their rush to leave for Normandy at midnight on June 6-7, 1944. We thought they had forgotten to pack the items. But maybe not.

Box of left behind parts at Albro Castle

Box of left behind parts at Albro Castle

One of the parts

One of the parts

A master switch, encased in wax

A master switch, encased in wax

Pete gave us one of the parts to take home as a souvenir. It says “Master Switch, T-17-E-1 Armored Car G-103, Chevrolet.” Inside the box, the part is encased in a thick coating of wax, to protect it from rust and dirt. It is no doubt still good as new.

A quick Internet search turned up this Wikipedia entry: “The T17 and the T17E1 were two American armored car designs produced during the Second World War. Neither saw service with frontline US forces but the latter was supplied, via the United Kingdom, to British and Commonwealth forces during the war and received the service name Staghound. A number of countries used the Staghound after the war, with some of the vehicles continuing to serve into the 1980s.” You can read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T17_Armored_Car.

T17E1 Staghound Armored Car

T17E1 Staghound Armored Car

So it looks like the 111th mechanics didn’t need these parts for their vehicles and so left them behind, creating a bit of a mystery for 70 years.

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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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.

 

We are beginning to get details of the planning going on right now for a week-long (May 31-June 6) celebration of WWII and the 111th Ordnance Company in St. Dogmaels, Wales (next to the town of Cardigan), the village where the men of the 111th were billeted in the months preceding D-Day, 1944. They tell us that they would love to have family members of the men attend; they understand that the five surviving members who were there in 1944 are all in their 90s now and don’t travel that far any more, unfortunately. Ed and I will be there for sure. Please contact me via the comments section of this blog if you are thinking of coming, and I can give you more information about getting there, etc.

Here is the latest word I have from the organizer of the events there:

“Heather and I aren’t in a position to completely confirm everything we have planned as we are awaiting confirmation on one or two ideas and I wouldn’t want to give you any misinformation at this stage.

“What I can confirm however is that the community of St Dogmaels are planning a series of events during the week [May 31-June 6] commemorating the anniversary of the D-day landings including a special evening (dinner/dance supper) in one of our village halls to welcome the friends and families of the GI’s and if the GI’s themselves cannot make the long journey, we intend to video conference on that evening if this is something they would like.

“During the week we will programme in tours by minibus of certain sites of interest including: Some of the beaches that were re-created to be similar to the Normandy beaches that were used for practice prior to the invasion, e.g. Freshwater Beach; Carew airfield; Henllan Prisoner of War camp.

“When possible (no immediate rush) could you give us an indication of numbers that are interested in coming over.
It would be fantastic to have you here.

“As I say there a couple of other ideas in the pipeline, but we are awaiting confirmation on these. As soon as we know more, one of us will keep you in the loop.”

Mwnt, Wales

Posted: October 15, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

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We had not visited Mwnt, a National Trust property north of Cardigan, Wales, since we learned that the 111th was taking rifle practice there on D-Day–and where the men learned about the invasion of France for the first time (see earlier blog for Dad’s photo that day).

So on this absolutely perfect weather Welsh morning (not many of those this time of year), we drove over to Mwnt to take a picture from the exact spot the men were shooting from that historic day, not far from the 1400s church there. A lovely deserted beach is off to the left.

Dad liked to take me and my sister, Marcia, there years ago, but he never mentioned THAT particular day in 1944. Now we wonder what was in his thoughts each time he came back here. When those young men got the message here to immediately pack up and head to Normandy, they must have wondered if they would ever see home–much less this lovely spot–again. After four years of preparation, the war became intensely real to them that day.

Mwnt is one of Marcia’s favorite places ever. Today we thought of her and wished she could have been with us; it was her birthday today. Happy birthday, Marcia!