"Si tu savais le prix bela liberte..."
(If you knew the price for freedom...)
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.