Thursday November 9, 2017
Visit to Bitche, France / Meeting the Mayor
As I turn on Rue Teyssier, I am on the street in the famous photograph, the church on one side and Le Strasbourg Hotel and Restaurant on the other. Nicole at reception gives me a sensational room with a balcony overlooking the street and the church. I will spend the next several days meeting with various people and exploring the area. My trip so far has been solitary but things are about to change, I will see a view of WWII that few get to see today.
Prior to my visit, I contacted innkeeper Lutz Janisch, He and his wife Cynthia are from East Germany and have evolved the Le Strasbourg Hotel and Restaurant into a truly fine establishment. They bought the inn from the Oblinger family who had owned it since the 1930’s. According to Lutz, George and Maria Oblinger lived in the United States in the 1920’s for several years and returned to Bitche to own and operate what was known at the time as Auberge Le Strasbourg. Maria was the talented and courageous soul who stitched a homemade American flag in the basement of her home and hid it in a pillowcase for fear the Germans might find it. She sewed forty-eight stars on the flag but erroneously oriented them six across and eight down. It was a beautiful flag however. George Oblinger met Captain Garahan on the morning of March 16, 1945 to present him the flag on the street in front of the inn. Lutz welcomes me and tells me that he notified the newspaper of my visit. This is a first indication that my connection to the officer holding the flag on liberation day has more meaning than I realize.
I also contacted Mayor Gerard Humbert to arrange a meeting with him at 11:00 am today. The mayor was kind enough to refer me to Michel Klein, the local expert on the 100th Infantry Division in WWII. Michel is a native who grew up watching parades every March 16, celebrating the liberation of Bitche. He saw 100th Infantry Division veterans visiting and re-enactors with military vehicles and uniforms that caught his interest. He has become a learned historian on the subject.
Michel sends me an email confirming that he will pick me up to drive me to city hall (Hotel de Ville) to meet with the mayor at 11:00 am. Michel tells me that he will meet me in front of the hotel. I have been practicing my French greeting to the mayor repeatedly for the past day; “Bonjour Monsieur Le Marie – Enchante.”
I am lost in translation when suddenly Michel arrives.
He pulls up in a WWII Willys Jeep, equipped with a machine gun. Michel is a very energetic, engaging person and seems excited to be my tour guide today. I am surprised but ready to go with the flow. The Jeep is meticulously preserved and restored and, after looking it over, I notice that the vehicle is marked with the Division, Regiment and Company to which it belonged.
The 100th Infantry Division, 398th Regiment, Company E, Jeep number 3, belonged to my father’s company, and it is likely possible that Tom drove in the very Jeep as I am about to do.
Rue Colonel Teyssier is a one way street. So after I meet Michel, we drive around the base of the Citadel, returning to the main entrance of town and arriving at the Hotel de Ville, a stately building elevated slightly up the hillside. Michel drives on the walkway right up to the front door. A staff member of the mayor is stationed at the door to greet us and escort us to the office of the mayor on the third floor. As we ascend the stairs, other municipal employees greet us and acknowledge our arrival.
As we enter the office, I invoke my best Maurice Chevalier voice, “Bonjour Monsieur le Marie, echante.” (Good Day Mr. Mayor, nice to meet you.) The mayor is a retired French teacher, handsome, distinguished and gracious in his suit and tie. There are both a reporter and photographer present and Cyrille Fritz who is the curator/director of the Citadel, a huge operation and major town attraction, joins us.
Michel has a book of photos of the 100th Infantry Division in action and other photos of Tom’s likeness that were featured during the 60th anniversary of liberation in 2005. My older brother Peter attended that event and prior to then, no one knew the identity of the officer with the flag. Thanks to Peter’s involvement, the connection was made and today was another step in the process. The discussion was active: questions from the mayor, reporter and Cyrille, with Michel interpreting as well as explaining a variety of things to all. The reporter was staging photo poses while we talked. The mayor asked about Tom’s death and I explained that his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 72 was directly linked to hepatitis “A” that he contracted in the spring of 1945. After lying dormant for over 40 years, it took his life 3 weeks after diagnosis in 1988.
The mayor asked if Tom had ever returned to Bitche. I showed him the “Haircut” photo of the family from 1952.
I explained that Tom had seven children in nine years, a mortgage and two jobs. He did not have any spare time to visit Bitche. They could all relate to that and laughed.
The reporter asked why I made this extensive trip, 2000 miles in 16 days and was interested in my emotional state retracing his journey. I replied how the trip created a sense of closeness to what Tom had lived through as a young man 28-29 years old. In addition, the main reason for doing it and carefully documenting the trip was for future generations of family who may not care now but may be interested later in life about an ancestor. That became his story angle.
It became very evident to me during the interview/meeting that the image of Tom with the flag had become the iconic symbol of the liberation of “Pays du Bitche” (Bitche Country – including all the towns in the area that were occupied). The liberation on March 16, 1945 was the most important event for them, in the twentieth century and beyond. Of course Tom was self-effacing and would take issue with the characterization, even downplaying his role in the event a few weeks later in a letter to Kate.
Letter from Tom to Kate, April 4, 1945
“About all that publicity, I was absolutely flabbergasted to learn that the picture had been sent out. Evidently, it was printed all over the US because fellows from all parts of the country are receiving copies of it from hometown papers. Guess the shot of the flag made it newsworthy. That flag had been hidden in a pillowcase for two years under the noses of the Germans, awaiting the advent of the Americans. It was the first one to be flown in the town and was the signal for scores of French flags to be dug out of hiding and displayed. Being the first ones in that place was quite a thrill, especially because it had never been taken in the history of warfare.”
Regardless, that image represents a heroic effort by 13,000 US soldiers that brought freedom to people oppressed and occupied for five years. The 100th Infantry Division shares in the pride associated with their sacrifice and achievements. The Division erected a monument that succinctly says it all.