America’s 79th Infantry Division…

Utah, Omaha, Fort du Roule, La Haye du Puits, the Seine River, Parroy Forest, Haguenau, Hatten, Rittershoffen… names forever etched in the minds of the veterans, widows & families of America’s 79th Infantry Division, known by their High Command as ‘the fastest in the U.S. Army’..!

Names that would also become familiar to me as, in the company of the real heroes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’, I was invited by military tour director Patrick Hinchy of libertyroad.com to cover the ‘Friendly Convoy’, the return to Normandy & Alsace-Lorraine by the Division’s veterans in the Summer of 2000.

Across France, from the haunting loneliness of the invasion beaches of Normandy to the nightlife of Paris, from the architectural grandeur of Nancy to the cosmopolitan Le Mans, from the parliamentary splendour of the City of Strasbourg to the champagne city of Reims, and through all of the tiny hamlets in between, seemingly all of France had prepared a welcome for the American liberators of the 79th Infantry Division of General Patton’s famous Third Army.

Our party comprised a wonderful cross-section of  all that is good about America; from veterans aged 84 to grandchildren aged 14, sons accompanying fathers, daughters whose fathers were sadly no longer with us and veterans’ widows who had made the huge emotional decision to come to France and each with a special reason for making this pilgrimage; and of course the combat veterans themselves who have longed to revisit places of their youth, where great friendships were forged in the heat of battle and where boys were turned into men so far away from home. The film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ with its opening sequence of combat on the invasion beaches of Normandy on June 6th 1944 comes the ever closest to illustrating just how horrific real war is and perhaps not surprisingly, the forthcoming 12 days would prove a defining moment for many of my fellow passengers…..

The D-Day museum at Caen, would give the younger members of our tour party a graphic illustration of what this important trip would be about and from the museum we drove to the coast heading for one of the most infamous names of June 6th 1944…Pointe du Hoc, the heavy German gun position high on the cliffs overlooking the invasion beach of Utah in the distance. The awesome destruction on this beautiful cliff- top gave way to the quiet solitude of Omaha Beach below and with a high tide it was hard to imagine this entire beachfront had been the focus of one of the biggest land assaults in the history of human warfare.

Then, met by an American official at the US cemetery above, a heavy silence settled over us and, in what I can only describe as one of the most emotional moments of my entire life, our party stood to attention as the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ was played. As the strains of this evocative anthem carried over the heads of our group and died slowly on the gentle breeze, the sad notes of ‘Taps’ were sounded…

All along the invasion coast, other cemeteries containing British & Commonwealth soldiers told the same story but here, overlooking Omaha Beach, the look in the eyes of those left behind was a defining moment. Never in my history of writing on World War Two had I ever felt such an overpowering sense of loss and sadness, standing on my own in that seemingly endless cemetery, my own tears rolling silently down my cheeks…!

Next in the path of the American advance in that late summer of ’44 was La Haye du Puits, and our tour bus drove into the centre of town on the morning of July 9th, exactly 56 years to the day that the 79th Division had liberated it..!

A Vin d’Honneur, a  very simple, but deeply meaningful act of welcome, had been organized and as we slowly walked the town hall in the pouring rain I came up alongside former 315th Inf. Regt PFC, Earl Hammontree  a wonderful, mischievous ‘ole devil’ with a twinkle in his eye and a lovely, slow Southern accent, who saw out his war as a radio operator at the Nuremberg Nazi War Trials in 1946.

Obviously overcome by the preceding events, but the only evidence of the viciousness of his war was his admission that as the combat continued, his “bitterness towards an enemy who wouldn’t give up, increased”!

All around us the stunningly beautiful French countryside was giving up its history: almost every lane down which we travelled offered a tiny D-Day museum, over every hedge was the scene of a once important fire-fight all those years ago; and our day was not yet over, for we still had the other American famous invasion beach of ‘Utah’ but a few miles drive away from us.

With the tide well out by the time we arrived, one could imagine with closed eyes the scene of organized chaos, deadly enemy fire and a horizon full of ships, assault landing craft & olive-drab uniforms in every direction. Now an  almost deserted sandy beach, the shoreline still seems to radiate a powerful echo of what went before.

Some of our party were determined to quietly breathe in the atmosphere, whilst others wandered through the sand dunes, looking at the massive iron anti-tank tetrahedra that still litter the brow of the beach, marvelling at the array of US military monuments & armour that stand guard over this evocative place that will forever be American soil.

As I stood looking at a heavily up-gunned Sherman Tank, ‘Doc’, a former Corporal in the 315th Inf. Regt, (and better known as William H. Long), quietly moved beside me and from his pocket brought out a damaged  copy of a little New Testament. I asked its significance and he gently fingered a large piece of shrapnel lodged through the outer cover into the pages, “this, boy” he drawled in his wonderful deep accent, “is what saved my life!”

The little book, he explained, had been in his breast pocket when enemy fire sought him out and was the only thing that protected his heart at that very moment. I had heard of such stories of wallets and cigarette cases taking a bullet and saving the life of its owner, but this was the first time that I had ever seen it at close hand; it was truly a moment to stop and think!

So ended another emotional day but the morrow would see us back on the road travelling through the rebuilt St Lo and southwards towards Avranches with its imposing site of the Patton Memorial, marking the beginning of his Third Army’s ‘Big Push’.

Across northern France, seemingly every town wanted to pay homage to its former American liberators and just down the road it was the turns of Loue and Neufchateau then it was back onto the road and to another of the 29 United States military cemeteries on French soil. The Epinal Cemetery honours amongst its 5,255 graves, 377 members of the 79th Division including that of Captain Alexander Patch III, ‘C’ Company Commander of the 315th Infantry Regiment, who was killed by German heavy artillery at Embermenil October 22nd 1944.

The following day saw us in a wooded countryside that was the fox-holed home to many in the 315th Infantry Regiment during its drive to Strasbourg. then it was ever onwards still following the fighting path of the 79th Division on the eve of the great French holiday ‘Bastille Day’. Our party was further feted in the beautiful town of Hatten before returning to Strasbourg in readiness for the spectacle that was to be our party’s involvement in a full military parade in the garrison town of Haguenau, another of the names inextricably linked with the 79th’s advance across the continent of Europe.

Now into our last week-end of this roller-coaster of emotions, our little ‘Band of Brothers’ was on the road from Ritterhofen  heading to the citadel town of Metz, scene of more fierce fighting in the final months of the war, via the American Military Cemetery at St Avold for a final act of remembrance, before heading through the Argonne to beautiful Reims, capital of France’s ‘champagne country’.

Our last day and the earlier waves of emotion were to be revisited as we reached the small town of Epone near Paris, which was liberated by the 79th Infantry Division on Saturday August 19th 1944. Welcomed by the American Legion in Paris, citations were exchanged and  Les Brantingham presented the town with its very own ‘Stars & Stripes’ flag that had flown over the Capitol in Washington DC on May 8th 2000, on the 56th anniversary that the German surrender was signed in Reims in 1945.

Then there was just one final important act of pilgrimage as a marvellous line up of US Army jeeps & trucks carried the veterans in convoy to the site of one of the 79th Division’s greatest triumphs, the crossing of the River Seine.

In August 1944, 14,000 men and vehicles made the water-borne crossing from Rosny-sur- Seine to Guernes to establish thebridgehead and begin the final push into the Reich and it seemed fitting that our final day of the tour should be spent on the banks of this impressive river and it set the scene for our last evening together. At a most emotional final farewell, tears and laughter once again flowed in equal quantity, with friendships pledged & plans for our next meeting made.

As a military journalist I had been very privileged to follow this tour, (as the only writer so invited), and I was deeply moved that so many of the veterans and their families often sought me out to quietly share their most private of thoughts and the often deeply personal feelings that were triggered as our tour unfolded… of which many more are written in my complete and unexpurgated e-Book, ‘The Friendly Convoy 2000′ which is available as a free down-load on-line via the Tomahawk Films archival website…

I am also very touched at the trust shown to me that, as an Englishman, I would honour their American story; in fact for as long as I live I will never forget the experiences I underwent on that incredible pilgrimage and the life-long friends that I made on the ‘Friendly Convoy’… a truly wonderful cross-section of American veterans who had seen real combat…

Warm, witty, utterly modest men all and I salute the veterans, the widows and indeed all of the families of America’s 79th Infantry Division of World War Two…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013