Thursday November 9, 2017
The Jeep Tour
As we leave city hall it is time for a photo of us in front of the Jeep; another photographer shows up and we say au revoir to the mayor and Cyrille. Michel starts the Jeep and is about to take me on the tour of a lifetime. Michel knows all the roads and terrain, he knows where all the battle events took place and has large black and white photographs that enrich the stories. We stop along a main road and he points left, where Germans were camped on New Year’s Eve, and right where the Century men (110th Division) were positioned. The Germans over indulged and paid dearly for their merrymaking.
Minutes later, he explains that it is illegal to go off road into the forest because there are unexploded munitions everywhere. Into the woods we go, to the ruins of what was part of the Maginot line and a temporary command center for the 100th Infantry that winter. I recognize the location from a wartime PR film clip of soldiers opening packages from home filled with candy, cigarettes, etc. We then drive out of the woods and across the road to a ridge where you can view the citadel, the town and the entire valley near Bitche. For three months the US and German forces exchanged control of strategic battle positions.
Tom shares his thoughts about the experience during the final German offensive in France, “Operation Nordwind”, and the last gasp of the Nazi hope to stop the unstoppable US forces in a letter to Kate.
January 5, 1945
“By the way, it is now 5:35 A.M. I’ve been writing this letter on and off for the past hour and a half, while checking my outposts and reporting information to the Battalion HQ. It’s rather eerie at this hour in the morning. Noises carry far over the snow-covered ground, and Jerry is not very far away. Rather wearing on the nerves. But there is always the consoling thought that we worry the Krauts fully as much.”
Michel drove through the woods and forest from the Maginot Line near Bitche, South to Lemberg and returning to Bitche, over the next 4-5 hours.
Gracious host that he is, Michel senses that I may be a bit cold, and he stops at his home to put the top on the Jeep to warm things up. He brings out a very thick warm blanket and all is well. I learn that one of Michel’s jobs is driving a snowplow truck, so he is used to cold weather. It is now time for lunch and we drive around the Citadel to the Chateau du Forts. The restaurant is jammed and we are digging into hearty Alsatian fare, meaty stew with gravy, the plat du jour, perfect for a November Jeep tour in the forest. After lunch, the Jeep will not start, it sounds like a dead battery. Without missing a beat, Michel opens a box, pulls out a can of starter fluid, zaps some into the carburetor and we are on our way to meet yet another mayor. We have an appointment to meet the mayor of Lemberg at 2:00pm at an undisclosed location. It seems a bit mysterious but I am not concerned because I am in the passenger seat of an Army Jeep with my right hand on the trigger of a machine gun. What could possibly go wrong?
Michel is a talented guide and storyteller, I am a very interested listener, and this is working well for the two of us. On the road to Lemberg Michel stops in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. He explains that a Sherman Tank from the 781st tank battalion was temporarily disabled by a mine and was lodged between a small house and the religious statue. The most practical solution was to back the tank over the statue onto the road. Due to the religious significance of the statue, the decision was made to turn the gun around, blow up the house and drive the tank over the rubble and onto the road.
We turn off the main road, headed for the woods, and Michel tells me about a veteran from the 399th regiment who was with him when they came to this railroad bridge. The veteran asked him to stop the Jeep and told him that he was there when a long column of German troops came marching along the railroad tracks towards Lemberg. The soldier took cover, still and silent for an hour, under that bridge until the Germans had long passed.
Now we are off-road again on a logging trail lined with endless straight felled trees. It is nearing 2:00pm and we cross a one-lane bridge over the same railway. To maintain an even grade for the railway the rail bed is excavated, creating ridges that overlook the tracks, a 20-foot straight drop on either side. The bridge is strategic because if troops cannot cross there they would have to detour through very rough terrain to get through the area.
Michel stops the Jeep and a few minutes later a car appears in the woods. It is the mayor of Lemberg, Patrick and his friends, Jean Paul and Louis. We exchange introductions and Patrick escorts us to a monument at the edge of the ridge. In 1976, a local stumbled upon a dead US soldier with his gun. His dog tags identified him as Maurice Lloyd who was assigned to protect the bridge. Maurice was killed by the Germans. Thirty years had passed before Maurice was discovered, but remember that people are forbidden to go into the woods due to all the unexploded munitions.
The man who found him was so moved by the sacrifice that Maurice had made that he felt compelled to honor him with a carved stone monument at the site.
Prior to my time in the Jeep, I really did not grasp what the battle conditions were like during the months between mid-December 1944 and mid- March1945. Lemberg is a good example of a very small town that went from French control, to German, to US, back to German and so on. This part of France was a cultural hybrid between the two countries for centuries, which made for very complicated allegiances during occupation.
Patrick invites us to join him for a meeting at Lemberg City Hall, a nice well-maintained facility in town. When we arrive, there is a beautiful presentation of home baked coffee cake, apple tart, coffee and tea. Michel again assumes the role of interpreter but the tone and expression of the men’s stories in French is telling. Jean Paul explains that his father was conscripted into the German army and was a captured POW for over a year. The US forces separated the German troops from the Alsatians but he was a POW nonetheless. Louis was a man of few words but nodded in agreement and support of the others. Patrick was an imposing figure and had big workman’s hands; he was a retired worker from the local crystal factory.
The German occupation of five years reverberated for decades later and could still be felt by the look in Jean Paul’s eyes as he told us the story of his father. It was a traumatizing event and the liberation that ended it was liberating, yes, but did little to erase the emotional scars of relentless fear and oppression.
They were curious about Tom, and I shared a story that we heard from some of Tom’s Company E members at a 100th Infantry Division reunion some years earlier. During that winter Tom borrowed a motorcycle (Tom + Motorcycle = Not Good). Tom crashes the motorcycle, injures himself and is laid up for a couple of days. When he returns to the Company, the guys presented him with a children’s tricycle with a big bow on it as a joke.
This is Tom’s version of the story in his own words:
“Monday March 6, 1945
Just a short note to let you know that I am still alive and healthy.
Yesterday I went back to an evacuation hospital to have my shoulder x-rayed. The findings were completely negative, so my record is still clear. I’ve never had a broken bone despite lots of hard knocks. The diagnosis is now “possible rupture of the supra-supinates tendon.”
The boys have been giving me a razzing because I fell off a motorbike. Tonight they very solemnly presented me with a tricycle built for a kid about five years old. Where they got it – God alone knows!…”
It is time to continue the Jeep tour and, for the record, Michel had a hot fudge sundae at the restaurant, two desserts in Lemberg and is a lean man, a French paradox. We say farewell to Lemberg and hop back in the Jeep towards Reyersviller. We are on a main highway and pass a police patrol car, Michel waves. They know him; he knows them, welcome to Pays du Bitche.
Throughout the day, I am alternating between 1945 and 2017, this time thinking about Tom’s reaction when he learned about the birth of his daughter Ann, ten days after the fact. He is enthusiastic and expressive in his letter to Kate.
January 17th 1945
The news came just about 12 hours ago. Jim Keddie answered our field telephone and yelled, “Captain Garahan-front and center!” I came over to the phone and the call turned out to be from our mess sergeant, back at the kitchen. He told me that he had just received a telegram for me. I told him to open it and read it over the phone ——— Lord, what a relief to hear that it was all over and both of you were fine!
Of course, one of the first things I wondered about was the date of Ann’s arrival. By a little detective work I’ve decided that she arrived early on the morning of January 8th. When the Red Cross gets around to notifying me, I’ll get all the particulars such as time of arrival, weight etc.———-Say, by the way, that cable address took a long while to get there but it was certainly worth the trouble, ——wasn’t it? I’d still be wondering otherwise. I think I’ll give the Red Cross a little ribbing when they show up with their “big news”.
And how do I feel about another girl? All my life I have been renowned for loving the girls,———- and now I have three (count’em) to love for the rest of my life.———–Oh, Darling, I’m so happy I can hardly tell you how I feel. So far as I’m concerned I’d like about six more——– and they can all be girls.
You know—-it has been said a million times before and it has been said much better than I can ever say it, ——-but my love for you and all the fine and wonderful things that you are to me will always be reflected in our children. The fact that they are part of you is enough to make me love them with all my heart, regardless of all the reasons I will have for loving them for themselves.
Another advantage of having a girl is the fact that we still have our first son to look forward to, —-and, er uh, —–shall I say “work towards”. What a marvelous prospect! —–Can I be assured of your cooperation?
My sweetheart, the other things in life are completely trivial when stacked up against events like these. For instance, today I’m finally going back for the formal award of the Bronze Star, ——but what an anti-climax that will be after news like this. I’m afraid I will be very unimpressed.
I haven’t mentioned it, —but those two words “both fine” are the most important words I’ve heard in months. You are my most precious possession, and knowing that you came through the delivery in good shape is what I most wanted to hear.
And what are Kathy’s reactions to her new sister? It must have been a repetition of Christmas morn’ when she saw Ann for the first time. I wish I could have been there. Write and tell me all about it.
Grandpa Slavin and both grandmas are probably as pleased as punch too. I guess we’ll both feel the same way when our grandchildren start arriving.
Dearest Kate, I have worlds more to say to you that can’t be put on paper. But the day will come when I’ll be able to hold you in my arms again and whisper all those things to you as I look into those smiling eyes of yours. Until then,————-all I can say is
I love you with all my heart
We are going on a tour of the Maginot Line battle stations, which are at the higher elevations. Some turrets are for observation/lookout, others are armed and retractable.
One of Tom’s soldiers, Walter Kirk, was with Michel at this bunker in 2005 and told the story of Company E trapping German soldiers and isolating them in the bunker for four days until they finally surrendered. We met Walter on several occasions. He died in 2016.
We are getting close to Bitche now and Michel makes a left turn off the main road and almost as quickly makes a right turn into the woods of Reyersviller. This was probably the most active battleground area. German and US forces wrestled control from one another over the winter. It is off limits and dangerous because there are ammunition and foxholes everywhere.
This setting captures the primary type of warfare action that winter, digging and living in a foxhole hoping your head does not get blown off by exploding artillery.
The Germans took this specific area from the French in 1940. The US forces took it from the Germans on December 3, 1944. The Germans re-took it on January 5, 1945 as part of the German offensive “Operation Nordwind”. US troops took it back on January 15, 1945 on behalf of the French.
Michel tells me that just a month earlier a hiker found a dead German soldier with his dog tags (like Maurice Lloyd) very near to where we are. The entire scene is unsettling and extremely interesting at the same time. This is not an exhibit, it is undisturbed reality and somewhat horrific to ponder.
Tom writes his thoughts to Kate as he was living through this.
January 21, 1945
“….The elements are our greatest enemy, and the struggle for warmth and rest is our hardest one. The end seems somewhere in sight at last, with the news of the Russian drive and the stopping of the Germans counter-attack in Belgium by our forces. That German stubbornness and tenacity seems to be the chief prop beneath her war machine. But that will be battered down someday soon and peace will return to this war torn continent. Pray God it will be soon.”
It is dusk and Michel is driving me back to the hotel. I have had an unforgettable, engaging life experience today. I am at a loss to find a way to thank him for all he has done. We have become fast friends and share a deep interest in all of the people and events that have passed.
The Battle in Pays du Bitche continues as the 100th Infantry Division is commanded to hold their position until the battles of Generals Patton and Bradley to the north are stabilized. February is a very long month, Tom is signaling his fatigue in the excerpt from this letter to Kate.
“February 24, 1945
Mid-night on a beautiful moonlit night
My Darling, ….
…Things are rather quiet here. Perhaps that’s the reason I have been so blue. Too much time to think up here is not the best thing in the world. But it is still better than ducking “88’s”. When I get back, don’t be surprised to see me hit the ground if a car backfires. I’m conditioned to that now and it’ll be a hell of a long time before I quit ducking when I hear a high pitched whistle or the ringing of a telephone or trolley wires in the wind. You’ll have to warn the kids, so they won’t think their Pop is slightly cracked.”