Back to the Places Where Many Died

By John C. Ausland

OSLO - As we grow older, we are tempted to become more preoccupied with the past than the future. I have tried to resist this but without complete success. In an effort to come to terms with my experiences during World War II, which took me from Utah Beach to Munich, I am working on a book. I plan to publish it myself, using my trusty computer and laser printer.

Its point of departure will be the copious letters I sent to my parents, which they saved but I have until recently, avoided reading. These will be supplemented by my recollections, some of which are very sharp. Since, however, half a century has intervened, I am reinforcing my memory with research.

After completing the chapters which carried me from the landing to the liberation of Paris, I developed a craving to see some of the places where my most unforgettable experiences took place. Hence, my loyal Norwegian wife Else and I visited Normandy in June.

For those who did not experience World War II, all this may seem remote. Wrong. With the half-century mark of the end of the war coming over the horizon, no one will be able to escape my generation's last hurrah. Furthermore, the approach in 1994 of the 50th anniversary of our landing in Normandy raises some questions that allied officials, particularly French, should be thinking about.

After I examined a map of Normandy, it became clear that a central point for the places I wanted to visit was St. Lo, which American forces devastated in the process of liberating. Through a friend, we located the ideal place to spend our nights, the Chateau de la Rogue. This charming inn lies in the area that was heavily bombed by allied planes in Operation Cobra, on July 25, 1944, to prepare the way for the breakout from the beachhead. As a result, not all of the original structure is there today.

From the inn we sallied forth each day. A prime objective was Utah Beach. We had visited it previously in 1984, for the 40th anniversary of the landing. That time it was crowded. This time we all but had the beach to ourselves.

It is difficult to convey the feelings that a visit to the Utah Beach evokes. June 6, 1944 is a day that is etched in my memory, and it is hard for me to talk about what happened without some tears. For one thing, even before the 29th Field Artillery Battalion got ashore, a landing craft carrying one of our batteries hit a mine and most of the men aboard were lost.

Another day, Else and I set out to find an area in which the 8th Infantry Regiment made an ill-advised night attack across a swamp on a German strong point. The attack failed miserably, with heavy casualties. Thanks to the excellent maps which accompany the U.S. Army series of books on WW II, we found the general area with little difficulty.

While we were exploring the swamp, Jean Marie de Pierrepont, who lives in the area, volunteered his assistance. So I was able to survey the swamp from where the infantry battalion, to which I was attached as artillery liaison officer, had its forward headquarters that night. I could still hear our artillery shells arching overhead only to be answered by German mortar and machine gun fire. In between, there were the cries of pain from our wounded in the swamp.

We drove around the swamp to the area the Germans had occupied. I had visited it during the war, shortly after the Germans withdrew. The bodies of the American dead were piled up like cordwood, with some earth sprinkled over them. Nearby lay a German soldier whose head lay several feet from his body.

My greatest difficulty was in locating a farmhouse near the St. Lo-Perriers road, which was the bomb line for Operation Cobra on July 25. On July 24, I had barely escaped being killed by an artillery shell. Had Captain Claude Mercer, who lay wounded on the floor of a shed, not screamed at me to get out of the doorway, I would not be here today.

When my first efforts to find this farm failed, we sought the help of Henri Levaufre at Perriers. Mr. Levaufre has devoted many years to helping veterans find places of importance to them, usually where they were wounded. With his help, we found our way to the farm of Bernard Lejamiel. From Mr. and Mrs. Lejamiel we learned that the shed for which I had been looking had been remodeled after the war.

During all this searching, we found the French people to be just as kind and helpful as they were during the war, even though we had helped the Germans destroy their homes. This has led me to wonder why the French have been so reluctant to show their gratitude to some of the American units involved in Operation Overloard which opened the way to the liberation of France.

In 1950, the French authorities awarded their fourragere to a number of American units. It is, however, difficult to divine its criteria. The 82nd Airborne Division was on the list. The men of the 101st who also jumped from aircraft over Normandy in the early hours of June 6 were not. The 1st Infantry Division, which was put on the list, surely deserved any recognition it got. But what about the 29th, which also landed on Omaha Beach and the 4th, which made the assault on Utah?

With the 50th anniversary of the landing just 2 years away, the French should take the chance to expand the awards made in 1950.

While they are at it, they should consider whether they would like the allies to invite whoever is German Chancellor in 1994 to the ceremonies. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's request to attend in 1984 was rebuffed. With the changes that are taking place in the world, this will not be so easy in 1994. To help get over this hurdle and make the ceremonies more appropriate to the present, I suggest that they not be held on the beaches. Rather they should take place near some of the cemeteries. This way we would not be glorifying the fighting but honoring the dead.

International Herald Tribune


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