Friday November 10, 2017
Bitche – Lorraine American Cemetery Saint Avold
The hotel Le Strasbourg has a timeless feel; it is intimate, charming and classic. When I arrive in the morning, the server starts a five minute boiled egg without my asking and the petite déjeuner offers tiny morsels of savories.
Spending time with Lutz, the proprietor and host, has been memorable. He and his staff have added so much to my experience and he opened a window into the past. His knowledge of the Oblinger family creates a close connection to the events of 1945. At this time, the Oblinger family is in possession of the now famous flag, and I hope to see it again someday.
Today, I have two key objectives; visit the Lorraine American Cemetery at Saint Avold, about ninety minutes away and the Simserhof Museum of the Maginot Line here in Bitche. Last evening I logged eighteen pages into my travel journal to capture my reaction and document everything I experienced yesterday. Aggregating all the factual history, Tom’s letters, historical photographs, and my real time experiences on the trip is a mighty task to process. Thankfully, all the prior planning and research has enabled me to put the puzzle pieces together. The who, what, where, when and how are evident to me. The extensive range of emotions all the participants experienced before, during and after the horrors of war are fading with the passing of a generation. Although they are elusive, the feelings are revealed in words and monuments to life events of the era. Tom’s letters offer a glimpse of what he was feeling.
The Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in France contains the largest number of graves of our military dead of World War II in Europe, a total of 10,482. Most are from the Seventh Army’s Infantry and Armored Divisions, which includes the 100th Infantry Division. My visit is out of respect for so many young men who died in battle 1944-45. It is drizzling, damp and cold and I am alone among ten thousand graves. Standing on the steps of the memorial chapel the sense of loss to all whose lives connect to the fallen soldiers is considerable.
As I depart for my return to Bitche, I am feeling thankful that Tom is not buried here.
Returning to Bitche I drive directly to the Simserhof Museum of the Maginot Line. It is not until the last minute that I realize that I drove past the welcome center yesterday with Michel in the Jeep. The tours are grouped by language and the receptionist made some last minute arrangements for a young woman named Betty to guide me and another American who is in France on business. Betty is local and was a student of Mayor Gerard Humbert who taught her French class in High School. Betty recognizes me from the morning newspaper story and she is knowledgeable, professional and entertaining. I learn first- hand all the facts and information that I included in the chapter on the Maginot Line.
Simserhof was designed to be the receiving fort to supply all the connected forts through underground rail tunnels. The tour includes a trolley ride on the original tracks showing all the extensive features incorporated into the facility design. These are seemingly impenetrable bunkers to house and sustain large numbers of French troops over long periods of time while defending their country from invaders. They are stocked with supplies and a wide range of weaponry to respond to all manner of attack.
The irony of the Maginot Line is that this one of a kind defense system, designed to repel invaders, fell into the hands of the invaders early in the war. The German invaders proved a quick study in controlling the Line and using it as a powerful offensive weapon against the Allied forces. Without an understanding of the design and functionality of the Maginot Line it is impossible to understand the challenge and subsequent success of the 100th Infantry Division’s defeat of the German forces that winter.
My visit to Bitche has been an extraordinary learning experience and the gracious welcome was heartfelt and truly appreciated. Almost immediately after Bitche was liberated, the 100th Infantry Division had the German forces on the run. The Division kept the pressure on the hasty retreat and pushed them back across the Rhine at Mannheim/Ludwigshafen.