Just before a bugler played Taps on Memorial Day, my wife and I approached Gen. George Patton’s grave in the American Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg. Earlier that day, long-stemmed red roses had been placed in front of every one of the 5,073 graves, along with a pair of red, white and blue flags of the United States and Luxembourg. The unexpected music, flags and flowers brought tears to our eyes, not so much because we were in the presence of “Old Blood and Guts” Patton, but because so many young American soldiers had died to liberate people they had never met.
Our journey of respect had begun two months earlier when my nephew Paul was selected to parachute onto a Normandy beach with an elite group of Army Rangers. His unit was chosen to commemorate the American troops who parachuted behind German lines on D-Day 75 years ago. Thanks to an invitation from his wife Crissy, my wife, my sister Betsy and I were able to witness as groups of soldiers with parachutes leapt from Hercules aircraft into the skies over Mont St. Michel on the Normandy coast. Beneath them, herds of startled white sheep ran from the area while family members and professional photographers recorded the event.
No one in northern Europe has forgotten the battle that began at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, nor can they. The burned-out concrete bunkers and “strong points” that German general Irwin Rommel constructed to create the “Atlantic Wall” still exist. Those at Pointe du Hoc that Army Rangers stormed on D-Day are surrounded by 20-foot-deep bomb craters. And every hamlet has a museum to commemorate the battle itself, or the men and women of the French Resistance who risked their lives to aid downed airmen.
My own journey to Normandy really began many years earlier when I learned that my father, 2nd Lt. Walter Hargrove, had parachuted into France from a burning B-17 bomber under enemy gunfire almost one year before the Allied invasion began. It was a sweet irony that he survived and that his grandson Paul could emulate the jump nearly 76 years later, an act witnessed by three great-grandchildren.
Our trip had several objectives. It was important to me to pay respects to the tail gunner in my father’s air crew. Staff Sgt. David Miller, a 19-year-old soldier from Quicksand, Kentucky, perished during the crash when he was shot by pursuing German fighter aircraft. He reached the ground near Amiens, but no medical care could help him. David was eventually reburied in the American Cemetery behind Omaha Beach. We located the white cross that marks his grave and placed an American flag by it along with a photo of the personable young airman.
Just as we knelt beside Sgt. Miller’s grave, the clock struck 5 p.m. and a bugler began playing Taps. There was not one dry eye among our family. One of five brothers who all served, David was the only member of his family to perish during the war, but his grave is nestled among more than 10,000 other US soldiers who died serving their country. However, under Gen. Patton and other commanders, the Allied armies went on to liberate France, Luxembourg and Belgium, fighting the Battle of the Bulge and finally defeating Germany to end the war.
Our third stop before we reached Gen. Patton’s memorial was a town on the Normandy coast called Le Treport. A man who lives nearby had written a few years ago to say that he had found the crash site of my father’s B-17 bomber. Philippe Ducastelle’s own father had left France to fly raids over German-occupied territory in a group of British Halifax bombers.
After Philippe retired, he began investigating World War II aircraft crashes in northern France, and learned about a scar in a farmer’s field where a man named Omer Dumond said he had seen a B-17 crash in 1943. Philippe got permission to search the area with a metal detector, and he found a number of exploded brass casings from 50-caliber ammunition as well as American-made pulleys used for aircraft control surfaces. German troops had removed the bomber just days after it was shot down, but photographs recorded the downed bomber at the scene.
Philippe arranged for our family to meet dignitaries from the mayor’s office for a photo session and then we drove to the actual crash site on a working farm. Mr. Dumond told us that he had lived nearby when he was 7 years old, and had run outside when he heard anti-aircraft gunfire and droning engines. He witnessed the crash as the B-17 pancaked into the field, and remembered that no one was on the plane when it crashed.
Luckily, that was true. Even while taking evasive actions to avoid pursuing ME-109 fighters, pilot Lt. William Monahan kept the burning bomber in level flight and ordered the crew to bail out. Ten of the 11 crewmen survived, with six being captured by Germans and four being saved by the French Resistance, the “maquis.” All six prisoners of war survived in German camps and were liberated at war’s end. My father and three other men were saved by a network of French helpers and returned to England months before D-Day.
As we walked through tall meadow grass up a hill to the crash site, a sergeant who is fluent in French translated questions and answers for us. Very few people we met in Normandy spoke much English. When an Army reporter asked us what was most significant about the meeting, my wife hugged Monsieur Omer Dumond and kissed his cheek.
“Because of people like you who saved my father-in-law, we have a family,” she replied. We all nodded in agreement.
My nephew Paul, now a major in a Special Forces unit, added that he joined the service partly due to examples set by his uncles, aunts and grandparents. His great-uncle John Hanson had been a Japanese prisoner of war in the Philippines, and three of my brothers and sisters served in the US Air Force.
Philippe also took us to an underground fortification called Karl Burg that had been built by slave labor. Nazi soldiers had destroyed a hospital overlooking the English Channel at Le Treport and brought in a work crew of captured Ukrainians. They forced the men to dig hundreds of yards of tunnels and rooms through limestone rock while the women built brick walls and ceilings to create underground living quarters, cannon emplacements and observation points on cliffs along the French coast.
Like other Americans, I tend to think of the D-Day invasion in heroic terms, and that feeling is totally justified. But I now know that many thousands of civilians also died during the invasion. True, the survivors were ecstatic to be freed from the cruelty of Nazi occupiers, such as the Gestapo, who would kill entire families or even destroy villages where they suspected Resistance members were helping the Allies, but many perished. One researcher told me that the Germans may have killed ten French Resistance members for every downed airman who was saved.
Given their memories of the cruelty and destruction that World War II brought to their countries, the people of northern Europe do not glorify war. Their many memorials and war museums are kept as warnings of what can happen to people’s liberty when armed groups of men invade the land of their neighbors. As a friend whose father had been forced by German troops to fight on the Russian front recently said, there is good and evil in all of us, and we do not always get to choose what actions will be needed to survive a conflict. Those of us who do have a choice must stay vigilant lest circumstances terminate our freedom.
St. George Island resident James Hargrove, a retired university professor, is a regular contributor to Chasing Shadows. He can be reached at email@example.com