Day 4 con’t,
This part of the tour was very unexpected. Based on records of other soldiers, we were fairly confident that we had found the area where Frank was killed. By mid June, the Americans were fighting for the port of Cherbourg, at the top of the Contentin Peninsula.The 82nd Airborne was part of the defensive line cutting the peninsula in half, preventing German reinforcements from getting to Cherbourg. On June 26, Cherbourg was in the Allies’ hands.
Of course, fighting continued throughout the area. Frank was killed two days later, probably by artillery fire, outside the village of Vindefontaine. Geert took us first to the church in the village center, where we could see damage from bullets and shells still evident on the church and in the cemetery.
Walking up to the church.
Geert points out the bullet damage on the rail around a monument.
Next stop was the town hall, with the hope that someone there could direct us to anyone who lived in the village during the summer of 1944. Town hall was closed, but Geert spotted a municipal worker who was fixing a sewer pipe and told him who we were and why we were there. The man stopped what he was doing to walk us up to a house a couple of hundred yards away. He thought the people who lived there might know something.
We then met a man who was only 5 at the time, and with Geert translating, told us his story. He remembered the Americans coming to the door, warning the family that there was going to be a lot of fighting and that they should leave if they could. They did. When they returned a few weeks later, they found their home had indeed been damaged. A shell had shot through the house and exploded in the room where the boy usually slept. The now 75-year-old brought us into an unused portion of the house, to show us where the shell came through and to point out the still visible bullet holes in the tin roof.
The bullet-ridden roof.
The municipal worker, listening to the story, then decided to call the mayor to come meet us. In a few minutes. Monsieur la Mayor Jean-Pierre Travert was with us, explaining, through Geert, that we were the first Americans to visit and that he was very glad to meet us.
I think he feels that his village, because it was the scene of a defensive action rather than a critical offensive battle, is unfairly left out of the telling of the story of the Normandy invasion. Not many people are left in the village from that time, and he is in his 60s, too young to know first-hand what happened. But he grew up in the aftermath and with people who did experience it for themselves, and he had some places to show us.
Posing with the mayor at the village’s signpost.
We followed him in his car, driving through the still tall hedgerows, stopping to look at houses and farms where bodies where found, buildings damaged, shrapnel and other debris of war found. He took us to the farm that had been his parents, pointing out a ditch where 9 bodies were found, American and German I think, and where he was warned throughout childhood to stay away from because it was filled with things that could hurt him severely.
He took us to an area that had been the site of an Army hospital. From photographs of war-time medical units, I could easily image the stone buildings surrounded by Army tents, and the wounded being treated there. He pointed out a long stone building up against the road, it was probably a barn, and told us that was where the bodies were brought. Of all the places we had visited, this one hit me the hardest.
Building that served as a morgue during the time the Army used the area as a field hospital.
The former hospital site.
Our next stop was to visit with a 92-year-old woman whose family had owned the hospital site, but no longer lived there. My father thinks he heard the mayor say that she had nursed soldiers there, but I did not hear that myself. When we visited, the talk was about possible romance and weddings, starting with my uncle’s jokingly asking “Is she single?” and getting a positive answer, swooping in to give her the traditional French double cheek kiss. The lady good-naturedly played along, and by the end of the visit the mayor was talking about going home for his official mayor ribbon so he could officiate.
Uncle John and the lady of the house.
We said goodbye and thank you to the mayor. Our next stop was the site of the former Blosville Cemetery, where Frank was buried before his remains were returned to the United States. Blosville was the first temporary cemetery in France; there were two more in Ste. Mere Eglise. Frenchwomen cared for these graves, taking the place of the mothers of those who lay buried there.
After the war, familes were given the choice of having the body of their loved one transferred to the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, or to a cemetery in the states. My grandmother decided to have Frank buried in the Long Island National Cemetery.
The former Blosville cemetery is marked by a monument and has been returned to its original purpose, a grazing field.
The marker at Blosville, a memorial to 6,000 Americans who died for the liberation of France and were buried here from 1944 to 1948.
The former cemetery is now a grazing field.
Our last stop of the day was to the village of Graignes, the site of a German atrocity. Paratroopers of the 507th (we know Frank was not part of this group) held the town for two days, assisted by the people of the village, before being outnumbered and overrun by the 17th Panzergrenadier Division. Taking revenge, the Germans executed the American wounded and their doctors, and the local priests and other civilians before burning the village to the ground. What remains of the church is now a monument to those who died. The plaque listing the names of the dead was missing when we visited; Geert later found out that it was being corrected and refurbished in time for D-Day. I hope we can get a picture of it later.
The remains of the church, now a memorial, at the village of Graignes.
Throughout Normandy, we are constantly reminded how the D-Day soldiers are honored and remembered. There are streets named after individual American and British servicemen who fought in Normandy. In Graignes, there is a street named for the whole 507th. This is a photo of the street sign on a house, the RIP is régiment d’infanterie parachutiste, French for Paratrooper Infantry Regiment.
Street sign “507th PIR Street”
Our day with Geert ended back at the house around the kitchen table. Geert pulled a book from his backpack, a photo-filled slim volume written in French and English about the 507th, (507th Parachute Regiment, by Dominique Francois) and asked Dad and Uncle John to sign it. Surprise! It was the same book that we had purchased a few months earlier and brought with us. So we have a lovely message written and signed by Geert in our book, too.
It was a fine end to a meaningful and memorable day. Geert has agreed to be our guide for our next trip; my dad has decided we need to return in five years for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. And he wants the rest of the family to come too.
Dad, Chris, Geert and Uncle John – our last photo with Geert.