Matti does a fantastic job paying tribute to Virgil Tangborn at his gravesite in the American Cemetery in Normandy, France.
Day Eleven--June 25, 2013--Very emotional day at the Normandy Cemetery, Matti did phenomenal, and now we are in Paris
Day Ten--Monday, June 24, 2013--Omaha Beach, Matti's briefing, a visit with Marie Louise Osmont and checking out the tapestry
That quote is placed on a metal plaque on a piece of concrete near the memorial statue of our soldier Virgil Tangborn in the town of Periers, France. It is featured on this website and ever since we learned about it we have longed to visit.
Today was that day.
The memorial is very beautiful and very striking to see. It is beautifully situated near the town square with memorial flags all around, plenty of greenery, a massive church nearby and in the middle of it all are four soldiers of the 90th Infantry who were selected to represent the entire group as a thank you, from the people of Periers, for liberating their town from Nazi rule.
I have had many moving moments in my teaching profession but nothing like this has ever happened, nor will it probably ever happen again. The other teachers and I keep saying, "Once in a lifetime" about so many things but today was a "once in many lifetimes" sort of experience.
Before I let Matti talk about the experience of "meeting" her soldier--shaking the hand of the statue, looking into his face crafted in his likeness, and even hugging him as we departed--I want to brag about how magnificently poised and well-spoken she was when asked to tell the group about Virgil. For now, you'll have to go by the words in this blog. Once we are back in the states I will create and publish a video of the talk as well as some of the other moments on this trip. Keep visiting the blog and you won't miss any of it.
Professor Tom Long asked Matti if she'd like to tell the group about Virgil and, without any sort of a script, she responded with a three-and-a-half minute speech that left most everybody in the crowd in tears. Most of the soldiers being eulogized by students are only a name, most students don't know even what their soldier looked like. Matti had the chance to see his likeness very true to life, she got to chat with his brother in our preparations for this trip, and she got to read his journal from his time before being in the service.
For all practical purposes, Virgil Tangborn is a family member to both Matti and myself and today we got to meet him for the first time. It was so very touching because he's been gone for the last 69 years but it felt like we were able to get him back again for a short visit. Here is Matti's take on it all: "It's just amazing.I've seen the picture of his statue a thousand times, so much that it's memorized in my head," she said.
"I'm not a crier and I'm not one to burst into tears, but I got there today and I was shaking, I mean full on quaking like I got punched in the stomach. The statue of Virgil was elevated a bit and his knees were bent but we are a similar height and size and he was standing right there," Matti said.
"I could imagine myself being inn his shoes--his face is not that of a stern, confident soldier, he looks terrified and scared. After talking with people about how scary it would be, to save people and leave people behind, I really felt connected to him. I just think about how in Minnesota, even if you dislike somebody you have an overwhelming urge to help them. I can't imagine coming from the small town of Nary and having to leave people behind. From reading his journals, he's scared to have to be a soldier and have to potentially kill somebody, only to inadvertently have to choose who to save and who to let live."
When asked about her impromptu, but professionally delivered speech, she said, "Once I started talking about who he was as a person, and what a nice guy he was, I saw the fact that I knew little things about him greatly impacted everybody watching and listening. I watched a lot of people break into tears before I did and it was so nice to be able to say a few words about him as a person. He transformed for me and everybody from a blue and yellow statue to being a real person. He was the nerdy band kid from northern Minnesota who loved to read and wanted a future but had to suddenly go off t to war and die. I'm grateful for being able to show the group that he was not just a face of metal, but a real person."
Matti placed flowers at the plaque commemorating the memorial, thought about what it must have been like for Virgil's brother Wendell to be there many years before, gave him a hug and said thank you. "I just don't even know how to feel about it all just yet," she said.
The rest of the day
This was a very cool day and our visit with Virgil was definitely a highlight of the entire trip. That said, there are things we saw and did today other than that deserving mention. Here they are in a rather rapid succession:
Abbaye dArdenne--This was a the site of a massacre of Canadian forces by the 12th SS Panzer (Hitler Youth) Division. During the effort to take the town of Caen, the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division tried to capture the airfield at Carpiquet. They were successful but then a German counteroffensive drove them all the way back to the Abbey where the Germans summarily executed all the Canadian soldiers, shooting them in the back of the head. The Abbey was beautiful and a great place for plenty of photos that will be shared later one. It's such a very sad story of a war-time atrocity but it's refreshing to see the memory of those Canadian soldiers so well preserved and maintained.
Operation Cobra and Bocage--Battles often have eventful endpoints but this place was all about the start. The start of Operation Cobra did not go as planned, but by the end was the beginning of a string of successes for the Allied march to Paris.The Bocage was all around us and we walked down several paths with these large stands of trees, shubbery and other foliage. The Bocage was very difficult to attack and advance through. German troops could station ambushes and then circle back around. All in all, the bocage was a part of the Normandy Invasion our leaders did not plan for and it bogged down the liberation of Normandy.
Cemeteries--Not to bunch them both together, but there were two very different cemeteries we went to and each one had a uniquely different look and feel. The first was La Cambe German War Cemetery, a cemetery where thousands of German soldiers are buried. This place left a lot of us really feeling conflicted---on one hand, these guys were soldiers doing the duty they were assigned to do. On the other hand, some of these might have done very awful things during the occupation. It crossed many teacher and student minds that it's possible our soldiers put these guys here, or vice-versa, our soldier was killed by one of these guys. The English Cemetery, right in the middle of Bayeux, is very beautiful and looks much more like what you expect when you see a cemetery. Tears were shed at the English cemetery and it was a touching memorial to those soldiers from across the English Channel who endured much throughout the Battle of Britain. It was also a good primer for our big day on Tuesday when all the students will be delivering eulogies of their soldiers.
Our day ended touring the phenomenal Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum and then dining in Bayeux on plenty of delicacies. Matti gives a briefing tomorrow on the role of logistics and the support roles in the Normandy campaign. I'll be sure to record it and share that as well when we return. Tuesday is eulogy day so I plan on stocking up on kleenex early. If today is any indication, Tuesday is going to require an entire box.
A solid night of sleep was refreshing and so was a most delicious hotel breakfast with plenty of delicious breads, pastries, coffee and meats.
We shoved off promptly at 8 a.m. and headed to an area of Normandy that was occupied by our soldier Virgil Tangborn. It is the town of Ste-Mere-Eglise and site of the 82nd Airborne landings and the first town to be liberated in France. Something very striking in the town was a cathedral featuring a paratrooper's parachute dangling from a church spire complete with a mannequin paratrooper beneath. This paratrooper is in the honor of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment and represents Sergeant John Steele whose parachute caught on the church steeple. He hung there for several hours and watched Company F get slaughtered by German soldiers. He was captured briefly but released when the 505th Airborne captured the town and staved off a German counterattack from all four directions. This enabled the paratroopers to hold the town for several days keeping German forces from reaching Utah Beach, allowing the United States forces to fortify their stronghold.
The success of this battle allowed our soldier Virgil Tangborn to advance from his own landing on Utah Beach and advance inland. He died very close to the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and that was where he was first buried before being moved to the American Cemetery in Normandy. Next we visited the Musee Airborne which is home to numerous artifacts of the paratroopers. It also has a Douglas C-47 transport plane and a Waco CG-4A glider.
Afterwards, we drive a few miles southwest of town to the tiny hamlet known as La Fiere, home to the La Fiere Bridge. Matti had a wave of emotion rush over here because, as she and I chatted, it's very likely that Virgil Tangborn crossed this bridge a day or two before his death, perhaps even that very day. The bridge crosses over the Merderet River and was first secured the morning of June 6 by a company of paratroopers who held it against fierce German resistance. The commanding officer was 1st Lt. John Dolan who, when asked about the possibility of a retreat, "If we've got to die, I don't know a better spot than this." The job of the U.S. forces was to secure the bridge and western end of the causeway from Utah Beach but it took until June 9 to complete that job.
Our next stop was a big one....Utah Beach. It's where our soldier first entered France and its where thousands of soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division landed on June 6th, D-Day. The Utah Beach Museum is right there on the beach and besides having a fantastic introductory movie, they also have Christian LeVaufre who is the son of Henri LeVaufre, a friend of our soldier's brother and a writer who lived through the liberation of Normandy as a child, in the town of Periers. Henri was instrumental in the construction of the memorial to the 90th Infantry which is housed in Periers and on our list of stops perhaps on Sunday. Christian gave us a special tour of the museum including a "inside the roped off area" tour of the Martin B-26G Marauder Bomber they have on display.
Utah Beach was a very poignant place to visit and it was amazing to see that expanse of beach and envision what went on there, and was still going on there, 69 years ago. Just the sheer distance from the sea to the edge of the beach is amazing, to think about running that while under fire is something else. It's hard to explain still how it felt to be there and to look at it all knowing that it looks very similar now to what it did back then. Matti and I both packaged up some beach sand to take home with us as a souvenir. I plan on giving mine to my kids as an invitation to venture to Normandy someday so they can see all this with their own eyes and learn the same lessons about sacrifice, freedom and responsibility. There's more to say about Utah Beach but we'll both let our thoughts percolate before saying more. Nothing crazy, but actually walking across that sand (or in Matti's case, running across it and climbing up the hill where the German defenses would have been) does something to you that requires time to process. Powerful experiences that's for sure.
Our touring portion of the day ended at Pointe du Hoc where the 2nd Ranger Battalion climbed the 100 foot cliffs to take out the German artillery battery. One of the most impressive parts of this, besides the spectacular sea view, was the massive bomb craters that still exist. Allied bombers passed over this point frequently and their "footprints" are still there, some of them 20 to 30 feet deep and 100 feet across.
Dinner was a cultural experience at a very French restaurant. Our friend Seamus (student from Oklahoma) speaks French and has served as our official interpreter. He helped order and chatted up our French bus driver (originally from Morocco) who we all invited to eat with us. Matti and I were in a group of nine that went to the Au Trou Normand Restaurant where you quite literally sit in a booth situated within a massive wine barrel. Matti and several other students showed off their Spanish speaking skills while Seamus showed off his French speaking skills. The food was delicious just like it has been everywhere. Matti and I are enjoying every bit of it!
Despite the best efforts to stay awake and enjoy the French countryside on the two-hour ride from Paris to Normandy, most of us slept on the gently swaying bus with the cozy chairs simply out of necessity.
Our first stop was at the town of Benouville to the Cafe Gondree (Pegasus Bridge Cafe) where we enjoyed our first meal in France--fresh French bread with french cheese and ham. To call it simply a 'ham sandwich' would not do it justice.
As the parenthetical nickname suggests, the cafe is alongside the Pegasus Bridge which spans the Caen Canal on the eastern flank of the invasion area. This was the location of a famous glider landing by British troops the night of the invasion. The British 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major John Howard, landed their gliders within yards of the bridge, disembarked and defeated a German machine gun nest within three minutes. With support from paratroopers, the British troops fought off German counterattacks for 12 hours until relief arrived. Their efforts prevented a German attack on nearby Sword Beach where thousands of British soldiers landed the morning of D-Day.
The current bridge over the Caen Canal is actually a replica of the original bridge that is on display adjacent to Le Musee du Pegasus Bridge (The Museum of Pegasus Bridge). The original bridge is on display, complete with bullet holes from the operation. It was a very interesting museum and a great place to start this fantastic tour of D-Day sites. The bravery and sacrifice that took place here, right at the earliest hours of the invasion, really set the tone.
Our next stop was the Museum of the Atlantic Wall--Grand Bunker (Le Grand Bunker Musee du Mur de l'Atlantique) in the town of Ouistreham along what was called Sword Beach on D-Day. The museum is a former bunker that served as the central command post for all the German artillery batteries along the mouth of the Orne River. There was an actual landing craft there as well as a German 88mm gun that wrecked havoc on the Allies.
The museum had numerous displays with a ton of artifacts from both the Allied and German forces. This was no small bunker--it is five stories tall with multiple rooms on each floor. One of the displays outside the bunker showed scenes from the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and talked about how Steven Spielberg modeled that first bunker the forces stormed after the Grand Bunker. For those keeping track, the movie starts on Omaha Beach and the Grand Bunker is on Sword Beach.
That was it for touring for the day but it wasn't the final lesson of the day. After checking into our hotel rooms, we went along with a group of students and teachers for a fabulous French dinner at Le Drakkar Restaurant in the town of Bayeux. There are a ton of restaurants and shops in the town but we selected this one because it looked to offer a delicious menu that included plenty of seafood choices.
Escargot, clams, oysters, duck, chicken, beef, salmon and a host of side dishes tickled our palates. Forks were traded all around the table as most of our group tried at least one food item for the first time. Our group also chowed on plenty of bread that just kept on coming. The town of Bayeux has a music festival every June 21 and our walk back to the hotel was filled with the sounds of numerous bands that lined the streets. My favorite one was the band of middle-aged women playing Red Hot Chili Peppers songs and doing a pretty good job of it!
Sleep came quickly at the end of this longest day of the year--a day that lasted around 36 hours. This is going to be one magnificent trip if today was any indication!
Our first order of business for the day was an interesting lecture from our intrepid leader Professor C. Thomas Long of George Washington University titled, "Intelligence, Operation Overlord, and the Normandy Campaign." It was surreal to be watching a lecture while at the same time being told, "as you will soon see." That made it feel more like a pre-trip briefing which, in actuality, is exactly what it was for us.
On the way to the airport we made a stop to the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum in Dulles which is basically a massive airport hangar filled with historic and significant aircraft like the Space Shuttle, Concorde, Enola Gay and Blackbird.
We were pleasantly surprised to find a group of WWII Honor Flight Veterans from Kansas. The students and teachers shook the hands of dozens of men who, 70 years earlier, were fighting in World War II.
One of the guys I shook hands with asked us about our Albert Small Normandy Institute shirts and I told him everything that we were doing and was astonished when he said, "I was over there on Omaha Beach." Seeing that as an invitation to keep talking I asked him if he could share more with us. Apparently, he was a radio operator who was hoping to be able to avoid a lot of combat. After he safely landed on Omaha Beach and made it up to a secure location he was told that they were to dig a foxhole and he'd be put there with a machine gun.
After helping secure Normandy and the Cherbourg Peninsula he moved toward Germany and was even part of the soldiers who helped liberate Buchenwald Concentration camp. Several of us took a photograph with him before having to say thank you again and good bye.
Our group headed to Dulles Airport full of anticipation and excitement. "Sleep on the plane if you want to be well rested," was the advice we were given. A few were successful in that venture but most of us grabbed little or no sleep.
The flight went very smoothly across the Atlantic and we flew right across the Cherbourg Peninsula which was the first big objective of the Allies once they gained a foothold on the beaches and adjacent towns of Normandy.
Matti is not a big fan of the landing portion of a flight and she was a little disappointed when the pilot needed two approaches before he put us on the ground. As our plane made its final approach to Charles De Gaulle Airport, about 300 feet above the runway he suddenly pulled up and banked away from the airport. He rose again to 5,000 feet before swinging around again and safely landing. "There was some ambiguity with the landing procedures," the pilot came on and told us.
"Ambiguity" is not a word you want a pilot or a surgeon to say during the most delicate part of the procedure! Matti was very relieved to be on the ground and even the most experienced fliers on that plane said they've never done anything like that before and hope to never do that again.
The good news is that we are in France, we are tired but we are safe and sound! Today's blog is over even though, for many of us, it's going to feel like one long day. That's appropriate, however. It's June 21, the longest day of the year and D-Day is often referred to as "the longest day."
Au revoir for now!
The National Archives II at College Park were very interesting and we were hoping to conduct more research while we were there but the time was very tight and the information very robust. If you are looking to learn more about a specific soldier, plan a visit to these Archives but contact them ahead of time or review the holdings at www.archives.gov
The rest of the night on Wednesday was reserved for final preparations and celebrations in our final night in D.C.. On Thursday we have a morning lecture, then a tour of the Dulles Air and Space Museum, before boarding the plane. With luck, the next blog will come from the Dulles Airport as we await boarding for Paris and a safe landing at Charles DeGaulle Airport.
Mr. H. and Matti plan on "earning this" as we continue on our journey and dedicate ourselves to honor all who make this posssible. "We honor the sacrifice of our ancestors, the generosity of Albert Small, the flexibility of our families and everybody who made this Institute possible both coordinators, teachers and students--who else would we honor?" Mr. H. said.
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