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French Villages Salute Their Liberators
by Ted Heck

We waved back as President Chirac of France led the parade from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs Elysees to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe. Thousands of French men and women jockeyed for position along the temporary fences that lined both sides of the wide boulevard. Waiting imperiously at the bottom was the statue of General de Gaulle.

Connie and I stood with other spectators for three hours to see horse cavalry, military bands, and delegations from other countries pay tribute to the end of World War II and to the men and women who made victory possible.

I was in France on the first VE Day in May, 1945, and had looked forward to being here for number 60. The French celebrate the day every year, but this one was special. A CNN reporter later that night said it was doubtful that many veterans of that war would be around for the 70th anniversary. At age 83 I wince every time someone points out that we’re dying at the rate of 1,100 a day.

The Paris commemoration was repeated throughout the day across France. In Reims, site of Germany’s unconditional surrender, dignitaries had spent three days in celebration. VE Day was the raison d’etre for the start of our two-week journey into the past that got more personal in Alsace-Lorraine on the German border. We connected with my “band of brothers,” who saw combat there.

A tour group of 63 visited a half dozen villages that were liberated in January through March, 1945, by members of the 70th Infantry Division. Twenty-one of them were fellow veterans; the others were their children and grandchildren who had come to see where their elders’ defining moments had occurred. The trip, part war recollections, part sightseeing, had been arranged by California tour operator Floyd Freeman, himself a member of the 70th Division.

(“Band of brothers” is a motto of our Trailblazer division. We borrowed it from Shakespeare long before historian Stephen Ambrose did. Henry V motivated his troops at Agincourt: “ We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he that sheds his blood with me today shall be my brother.”)

Before we caught up with the group, my fiancée Connie and I spent several days recapturing the magic of Paris. We sauntered along the Seine, gaped at masterpieces in the Louvre and D’Orsay museums, read the International Herald Tribune on a bench in Tuileries garden, dined in charming restaurants with an old friend of Connie’s, who lives in Paris.

We rented a car from Avis, paying for additional insurance not covered by credit card. I had had sad experiences before with tailgating French drivers. It was a 300-mile trip to Alsace-Lorraine on the high-speed, toll-heavy autoroute. We went by Reims and famed battlefields of World War One---Chateau Thierry, Verdun and Metz. The country side was lovely, with its rolling hills, dense forests, and high meadows that were often patched with fields of yellow rape flowers.

The battle sites we headed for had names anonymous to most Americans; names such as Forbach, Behren, Grossbliederstroff, and Spicheren. They‘re in the northeast corner of Lorraine, near the German industrial city of Saarbrücken, which the division captured in late March. We also visited Wingen sur Moder and Philippsbourg, in the mountains some 30 or 40 miles south. If the villages sound Germanic, it must be remembered that Alsace-Lorraine bounced back and forth between France and Germany over the years. Most of the older population speaks two languages.

Michael Obiegala, mayor of Behren Les Forbach, set the theme and tone of the days that followed. After a parade to a monument to our division---each village has a stone or tablet that honors us---he read in French, followed by an English translation. He stressed the debt his village owed us.

“It was simply the biggest humanitarian operation of all times…it will remain forever, a large feeling of gratitude.”

After the ceremony we reminisced over lunch with a large crowd of locals, some old enough to remember the frightful time. Others had heard of us from their parents. Schoolchildren participated in the salutes, more aware of history than American teenagers who are more likely to relate to "Star Wars."

In every village the busload of veterans and families was followed by vintage jeeps and trucks and soldiers in uniform. But these were Alsatians and Lothringers wearing army uniforms with our Trailblazer insignia. They are the Amis, a group of men and women who keep memories of us alive---and reenact war games on old battlefields.

Connie got caught up in the festivities and was overwhelmed to hear various
versions of our combat experiences. She wept in the U.S. military cemetery in St. Avold, largest in Europe with more than 10,000 graves. According to American director Marcel Millet, there had originally been 90,000 buried abroad, but most had been repatriated at the request of their families. Connie took a photo of me beside the grave of fellow lieutenant Bernie Brons, killed on a patrol that could have been assigned to me. It was a moment to reflect on what Bernie had missed in six decades--and to feel a twinge of guilt about being a survivor.

Later in the small public cemetery in Philippsbourg Connie clicked other photos, while I talked with a man roughly my age. He was replanting flowers on a family grave of his wife and her parents. I told him that I had slept there, too, when my mortar section fired projectiles from the cemetery---hidden from retaliation by a steep mountain. Our foxholes were dug between graves.

Philippsbourg was the most vivid visit for me. It was where my regiment first met the German army. We were ambushed on New Year’s Day, a greeting from elements of the 6th SS Mountain Division. The village didn’t have a hundred homes, but it was an important road junction for the Germans. They had failed in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes to the north, but they had one last gasp, Operation Northwind, designed to go through the snow-covered Vosges Mountains toward Strasbourg. We were in their way.

We gave the village back and forth in 10 days of fierce fighting, in bitter cold conditions with daily temperatures in single digits. We held them off at great cost in killed, wounded, or evacuated with trench foot.

…………
There was a sad moment later when two women on the trip asked me to pinpoint where their father/grandfather had been killed.

In the village of Grossbliederstroff, following a salute to us in the main square, we visited a small museum residents had created. It contains uniformed manikins, equipment, weapons and ammunition.

We adjourned to the village of Lixing for still another salute and a joyous dinner. Yes, joyous. There were many solemn moments, but tributes were often complemented by merriment. None of us will forget a youth choir’s asking us to join them in singing “My Bonnie lies over the ocean.”

 


Food is always a dominant part of a journey in France and an inducement to turn conversations to happier times. In Alsace we drew smiles when we ordered jellied pork and the natives’ favorite sauerkraut dish. When Connie and I were on our own and not being entertained by the villagers, we ate simply, sometimes even sandwiches in a McDonalds.

But we also dined well; the chef owner and his charming wife in the Hotel de la Marne in the spa town of Morsbronn les Bains served us an exotic dinner by candlelight. They were so proud of their kitchen that a monitor in the main dining room allowed guests to kibitz the food preparation.

At a subsequent meal in a delightful restaurant in Strasbourg, Connie just had to have foie gras, assuming perhaps that she would get a dollop of it on a wafer. She gasped at the slab put before her---the size of a thick slice of Wonder Bread. She barely touched her second course.

Food costs in France are high. Even in rural taverns l’addition commands a second look. Service is included, but the French tax on food of 19.6 percent negates any desire to tip. The foie gras lunch, with dessert, had a tab of $95.

Lodging in neat, comfortable, three-star hotels was generally under $100 a day. For the room--but breakfast was often outrageous. Our Paris hotel room cost $75. Petit dejeneur was $42 extra. We ate several breakfasts in our room with items purchased in a local supermarket.

However, we could not save on gasoline. We paid more than five dollars a gallon in traveling 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). The only solace was learning that, if we were smokers, that’s what we would cough up for a pack of cigarettes.

Connie was enthralled by the delayed replay of the war, but also enchanted by the countryside, particularly small villages with colorful, half-timbered houses. I had to remind her that much of what she saw was robed in white during the 1944-45 winter---and looked far less inviting.

We picked Strasbourg, capital of Alsace and headquarters of the European Union, as an ideal place to wind down. The cosmopolitan city near the Rhine River blends the Middle Ages with modern commerce and geopolitics. We visited the magnificent cathedral that dates back to the 12th century and spent an afternoon in the three museums of the adjoining Palais Rohan---beaux arts, decorative arts and archeology. But mostly we wandered, even in the rain, among gingerbread houses in the oldest part of the city. We saw them again as we circled the city on a sightseeing boat on the Ill River.

“Aren’t you glad we came?” Connie asked. “It’s too bad your family wasn’t here, too, to share these moments with you.”

Strasbourg was a fitting place for me to end the memory junket. Sixty years earlier Generals de Gaulle and Eisenhower were at odds on whether to defend the city, if the Germans tried to reoccupy it. De Gaulle prevailed and Ike agreed to hold back the enemy by beefing up forces in the region.

That was big picture stuff. The 70th Infantry Division played a small but important part in it.

Ted Heck enlisted in the army as a private, returned to college as a captain. He values most his combat infantryman badge, but he also won a Silver Star in Philippsbourg and two Bronze Stars and an Air Medal in later action.

 

 

 
 

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