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Reflections of the Past

Reflections of the Past
World War II vets receive hero’s welcome at Normandy

When the tour bus stopped in a French hamlet with one store and maybe 10 homes, Par Nilhammer, the tour guide, got out, walked behind the bus and started crying.

He’d recently been told his father died.

If it weren’t for this particular group, he would’ve left the tour and asked somebody else to take it. But he couldn’t desert these men. No. Not these 12 men.

“Don’t tell any of the guys,” he said after he wiped his eyes. “It’s important they don’t know so it won’t spoil their tour.”

In the bus were a dozen World War II veterans from the 398th Bombardment Group and assorted friends and families. Because of their advanced ages, they called it their “One Last Look” tour to France. Mr. Nilhammer had given them two tours in previous years, and he wasn’t about to give up on this one.

The previous day he took them to Normandy to take part in the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, June 6, 1944. Amid 9,386 American military laid to rest at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, many of the retirees were honored by being seated at the front of the crowd. President George W. Bush spoke, and some of the vets were given earpieces so they could listen to the interpretation of French President Jacques Chirac’s speech (see Notebook, Page 48).

The next day, Mr. Nilhammer took the bus across flat, curvy roads that cut through barley fields and hedge rows about five miles west of Saint Lo to visit a monument at La Chapelle Enjuger.

The battle there would have made an epic mark in history had it not been eclipsed by D-Day a month earlier. After landing on Normandy, Allied forces needed to break free from the beaches and march through France and into Germany. Operation Cobra was the answer. On July 25, Army Air Forces and ground troops savagely attacked the embedded German enemy at La Chapelle Enjuger. The successful mission was the first of many inland battles that led to the defeat and destruction of German forces.

This was the first time the Swedish tour guide had ever taken a tour group there. He hadn’t scheduled anything — just a quick peek at the monument, then he’d load them on the bus again. But something spontaneous happened on this trip.

As the 80-year-old vets shuffled across the road to look at the Operation Cobra monument, they noticed a woman placing fresh flowers next to it.

When she saw them, she jumped up and started to excitedly speak in French. When Theresa Maquerel realized she wasn’t being understood, she reached into one of her pockets and pulled out a newspaper article, faded and wrinkled from use. She pointed at a family portrait: Mother, father, sons and daughters. In the picture, the family was all smiles. It was obviously taken well before the Germans occupied the town for four years.

Underneath the picture, in English, a caption explained how Operation Cobra leveled the little hamlet in July 1944. It also told of a 2-year-old girl who ran into the woods and survived America’s saturation bombing.

The 62-year-old woman before them was that 2-year-old girl. As though reliving that moment 60 years ago, Mrs. Maquerel thanked all the veterans profusely for what they had done.

“Had it not been for the Americans’ kindness of giving me milk and food I would have starved to death,” she said to Mr. Nilhammer, who interpreted for the group.

To show her appreciation, every day she places fresh flowers at the foot of the monument.

Retired Maj. Keith Anderson, a former B-17 Flying Fortress pilot, remembered the operation, at least from his view at 30,000 feet. On July 24, 1944, he and his 10-man crew, along with 1,600 Allied aircraft, carpet-bombed an area three-and-a-half miles by one-and-a-half miles square. La Chapelle Enjuger was in their Norton bomb sights.

By the end of Operation Cobra, 2,500 aircraft had dropped 6,000 tons of bombs in a week. At that time, it was the biggest ground support mission of the war.

From his view, the major didn’t get the full effect of the bombing campaign. But those on the ground, like Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ernie Pyle, did.

“Then a new sound gradually droned into our ears, a sound deep and all-encompassing with no notes in it — just a gigantic faraway surge of doom-like sound. It was heavies. They came from directly behind us. At first they were the merest dots in the sky. I had a feeling that even had God appeared beseechingly before them in the sky, with palms outstretched to persuade them back, they would not have had it within them the power to turn from their irresistible course. Then the bombs came. They began like the crackle of popcorn and almost instantly swelled into a monstrous furry of noise that seemed surely to destroy all the world ahead of us,” Mr. Pyle wrote.

He added, “The Air Force was wonderful throughout the invasion and the men on the ground appreciated it.”

The attack is said to have killed 70 percent of the Germans in that area. To this day, villagers break their chainsaws when they ricochet off of shrapnel imbedded deep inside tree trunks.

Nelly Villegieu, the village mayor, also stopped by the monument while the vets were there. She told them how she became a refugee and how Americans looked after her.

“I survived because of Americans. Even though we lost our homes, that was no problem because we were set free. France is free, and we’re free, thanks to you,” the mayor said as she shook the hands of everyone in the group.

The members of the bombardment group didn’t know what to think when they climbed back onto the tour bus. It was just one of the many such special moments during their two-week tour. Later that same afternoon, in Bayeux, they were presented with Normandie Memoire 60th anniversary commemorative medals. Reporters were all over, snapping pictures and interviewing the veterans as if they were celebrities.

It seemed that wherever they went, French people wanted their autographs. When they stepped off the ferry that took them from England to France, they walked between two rows of British sailors and marines, all of whom were applauding and shaking hands with the veterans. At the end of the line: French Adm. Jean-Louis Battet and England’s first Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff Adm. Sir Alan West, who greeted each with a handshake. The unexpected welcome was so touching a couple of people on the tour cried.

“The people in France are really nice, nothing like I expected, and they changed my perception of them,” said Karen Clement, daughter of deceased 1st Lt. Ray Stange, a group navigator and bombardier. She was one of the many family members on the tour. Lieutenant Stange’s widow, daughter and grandson were there.
“I was surprised at how appreciative the people of France were of the men who helped liberate them,” Mrs. Clement said.

Toward the end of their tour, when they visited their old base at Nuthampstead, England, six veterans posed for pictures at the group memorial. The shiny, etched stone reflected their images as if they were ghosts.

Sixty years ago they were young, energetic 20-year-olds. The world was at war, and they were liberators. Much has changed since then. In June, they were 80-year-olds and on a One Last Look tour. But one thing remained the same. The people of France still treated them like heroes.

Reflections of the Past
A stained glass window in an English church depicts the crash of a B-17 Flying Fortress. The 398th Bombardment Group’s aircraft crashed near the church during World War II. Portions of the glass display the names of members of the group.
Reflections of the Past

 

 

 

Reflections of the Past
Staff Sgt. Allen Ostrom poses with the tail gun of his B-17 Flying Fortress during the winter of 1944 in Nuthampstead, England, after returning from a bombing mission targeting a chemical products plant near Leipzig, Germany. The target proved to be one of the toughest and costliest in terms of lives lost for members of the 398th, which assembled for a “One Last Look” tour to England and France. Mr. Ostrom, who now lives in Seattle, also served as the unofficial photographer with his 1920’s vintage Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. On this day, someone offered to photograph the photographer.

 

 

 

 

Reflections of the Past
A mannequin hangs on a church overlooking the celebration of the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Sixty years ago, paratrooper John Steel got caught on the church and hung for hours before being cut down and taken prisoner by the Germans. He was later released and an effigy hangs on the church throughout the year in his honor.

 

 

 

 

Reflections of the Past
Sally B, a B-17 Flying Fortress, flies over the 398th Bombardment Group’s memorial at Nuthampstead, England. It’s the same type of aircraft the crews flew during World War II.