3. Provence to the Vosges – Two Rail Journeys

En français

October 1944

In a third consecutive letter to Kate, Tom continues the story of the 100th Division’s movements in the last week of October 1944.

100th Transported to the Battle Front

…”Wanna hear about the 40+8’s? Better say “yes” because I’m gonna tell you anyhow.

We boarded the train at a little town called Septemes a short distance just north of Marseille. It consisted of about 50 freight cars of all descriptions, French, German, Italian, but none had over four wheels and most resembled Toonerville trolleys. There was one 2nd class French day coach, which had seen many hard days, for all the officers.

About 1200 men were jammed into the cars (I guess there were less than 50 cars used by the men because 5 cars were used for baggage).

One wheezy locomotive pulled the train. I don’t know exactly how long the trip was, but it couldn’t have been more than 250 miles and yet it took us six days and five nights. We stopped every few minutes or so it seemed. The men were so crowded in the cars that all couldn’t lie down at once to sleep so some sat up and tried to sleep. Others slept in shifts. We had boxes of canned C rations to eat but no way to heat them. Men had to relieve themselves beside the train when it stopped. It was just tough luck if someone got the urge to do anything but urinate if the train was moving. Five-gallon cans of water in each car provided drink.

The GI’s griped but met the situation. It was bitter cold especially at night, so improvised stoves began to appear in car after car. They were made of all sorts of discarded cans.

The officers coach car was not conducive to sleeping because of the seats so we opened a baggage car filled with foot lockers on which we rolled out our bed-rolls full length. Next, we brought in a store of C rations and water, stole a 5 gallon can of gasoline and lo and behold, we had some good cook stoves. We didn’t care how cold it got because our bed rolls were plenty warm. So for the rest of the trip we slept well and ate hot food and enjoyed ourselves immensely playing gin rummy and telling each other fabulous lies about what great guys we were and how the women couldn’t resist us.

Finally, one afternoon, we pulled into Epinal and our trip was over. Next was to be the final stage of our journey into combat. (Exciting isn’t it?)

We had one sad incident on the trip. A boy from Battalion H.Q Co. waited too long to get back on the train and it started to move. He ran for it and while trying to climb into one of the cars he slipped and fell under it. Both his legs were cut off but he lived and is back home now.”

Sunday November 5, 2017
Strasbourg and the Vosges Mountains

In 1944, the 100th Infantry Division camped in an open field in Septemes, just south of Aix-en-Provence, for just more than a week. When the orders came to move out, they loaded up the boxcars on a trip to meet their destiny.

My hotel benefactor, Alain Piallat, confided in me that he was an infant when the war broke out and was kept in a safe location in the Low Vosges Mountains during the German occupation. I feel an extra level of motivation in my travels to represent his story as well. His generous gift of my accommodation in Aix has given me a springboard to my adventure. My stay in Aix-en Provence has set the tone for a remarkable sojourn into the past.

After a final “very French” (and delicious) breakfast, I walk into town to catch an express bus to the TGV rail station, which is actually well outside of town. As I am pondering which baguette sandwich to get for my six-hour journey, a pianist playing a Mozart piano sonata on a grand piano on the upper level overlooking the train platform enhances the travel experience. My destination is Strasbourg, France and I will travel farther in six-hours than the 100th did in five nights and six days in 1944.

The first half of the trip today is north along the Rhone River valley. The train moves quickly and relatively quietly and the scenery is green rolling hills. We are in Avignon before you can say Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The train is not that crowded until we get to Lyon. I notice that a wave of young people is boarding in Lyon and most are college students returning to schools in Strasbourg after a weekend excursion. They are fully loaded with books, papers and electronic devices and add interest to the day. The train has Wi-Fi and when the speed exceeds 300kph, (186mph) an alert pops up on my device. The contrast between the stories Tom tells about their trip and today is astonishing.

Just south of Dijon the TGV turns to the northeast skirting the lower reaches of the Vosges Mountains towards the Rhine River valley. In October, 1944 the troops continued north through Dijon to their final destination of Epinal, located on the Moselle river. A major portion of the entire 100th Infantry Division motored to this area with all the supplies, transports, artillery and munitions. The remaining combat infantry were on the slow train to the battlefront. I had never been to Strasbourg before and will pass through twice more on this trip. After disembarking, it is off to the hotel, have dinner and prepare for the next mode of travel, a rental car for one week to focus on visiting exact locations of troop movements and events throughout the Vosges Mountains and Germany.

Gare Strasbourg

Monday November 6, 2017

The rental car agent is in the train station across from the hotel, so I am off to a quick start this Monday morning. I learn that, because I will be travelling in Germany in November, snow tires are required; therefore, I have to upgrade my vehicle to a Czech auto called Skoda. This is a very sporty black sedan and perfect for the twists and turns of all the mountain roads to be navigated this week. In an effort to look like a local whenever travelling, this car helps the image.

With the assistance of GPS navigation and a female British accent I am on my way across the High Vosges and Low Vosges Mountains east for about 75-80 scenic miles to the Epinal American Cemetery, resting place for over 5,100 US Military. This segment of the trip is a memorable drive with mountain views and gives me a feel for the terrain without the terror of being in battle.

American Military Cemetery at Epinal

Words fall short of describing the feelings and thoughts you have looking at the graves of all these young soldiers. The majority of the deceased were from the 45th Division that fought the enemy before the 100th Infantry Division was sent to relieve them. The 100th Infantry Division was specially trained to battle German forces in this type of terrain. They had to step up and sacrifice.

Epinal Monument