DAY 6: Paris

Bayeux to Paris

The train ride to Paris took about 2 1/2 hours. The seats for second-class tickets were a little cramped…next time I’ll try first class. The hotel (La Fleche d’Or) was in a good location, just a few hundred yards from the St. Lazare train station. And it was within walking distance of a McDonalds. The only complaint I had about the hotel was the sit-down shower…somebody needs to tell these people about a little invention called the shower curtain.

Paris, France

The next day we spent a full day seeing the city of Paris, but didn’t really see a whole lot because our on-off tour bus was moving like a sloth. We did get to see the Arc du Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Bob really wanted to go up in the Eiffel Tower but after he saw the line of people waiting there he changed his mind. I think by the end of that day we were all ready to get back home. Except for Billy, he caught a train to Germany late that evening to visit our cousin Chris and a friend. His vacation lasted an extra week and took him all the way to Hitler’s Eagles Nest…which fit right into the WWII vacation theme.  After grabbing a meal from McDonalds, we went back to our hotel, switched the TV to CNN and watched live coverage of the WWII Memorial dedication ceremony back in Washington, DC.

The next morning the rest of us got up at 3:00 AM and headed to the airport at about 4:15 AM. You wouldn’t believe how many people are still up at 4:00 on a Sunday morning…I guess the nightclub scene is pretty active in Paris. The Louisiana gang flew out at 7:00 AM with a couple-hour stopover at London Gatwick, then on to Houston. The Alabama gang left at 11:00 AM to Chicago, then down to Nashville.

All in all it was a most excellent trip. Other than the 1-day delay that held up the Alabama gang, the trip went exactly as planned…I would say better than planned. It will be something that I will remember for the rest of my life.

DAY 5: Omaha Beach

The Bedford Boys

We began our next day at the west end of Omaha Beach at exit D-1 draw. This was the area where the men of 116th Regiment of the 29th Division landed. Here Geert told us the story of Company A. Many of the men of Company A came from the same town of Bedford, Virginia. The families of Bedford suffered a tremendous lost on D-Day. Within 15 minutes of landing there, most of the men of Company A were cut to pieces by intense German gunfire. Of the 200-plus men in the company, only a couple dozen survived. The National D-Day Memorial is located in Bedford, Virginia.

Omaha Beach “Easy Red”

The highlight of our tour was our next stop. We went to the exact area of Omaha where Dad and Dee landed on June 6, 1944. Their sector was known as “Easy Red” and their exit from the beach was called E-1 draw. A German gun bunker still stands low on the bluff at E-1 draw. This stretch of Omaha is pretty much undisturbed; it’s actually just below the American Cemetery. In fact, you can see the cemetery flagpoles above the trees when you walk to the water’s edge and look down the beach. You can also see the First Division Monument on the bluff in the distance.

While we were there, Dad and Dee decided to take off their shoes, roll up their pants and walk out to the water. The tide was pretty low, quite a bit lower than what they had on D-Day. The area became more familiar to them when they got to the water’s edge and looked back at the beach. Dee recalled on D-Day that he saw a Navy destroyer cruising parallel to the shore firing its guns at German strongpoints just above the beach. The destroyer managed to get a few rounds in the opening of one the gun bunkers, killing those inside. Dee was pretty sure the pillbox that remains at E-1 today was the same one they saw the destroyer take out 60-years ago. Their memories of the D-Day landing are somewhat clouded by time but they do recall some of the more disturbing details like dead bodies on the beach and in the water. They also recall walking by the same wounded soldier as they left the beach. He was missing one of his legs and warned everyone to watch out for land mines in the area. During the actual landing, on the beach, and the rest of June 6th, Dad and Dee never saw each other. It wasn’t until the next day, after Dee got wounded by German machinegun fire, that they got a chance to see each other for few minutes before Dee was shipped back to a hospital in England.

It was an historic moment, Dad and Dee were back again 60 years later. But this time it was peaceful, just the sound of the waves and wind. James and I had our video cameras going from two different angles, trying to capture the moment. The others had their digital cameras snapping away. There were other American tourists walking nearby who stopped to ask questions and even took a few pictures of the Bowles Twins themselves. Our whole time there was very special. We saw a piece of history up close. It was a real place where real people fought and died. We spent a fair amount of time there but still it didn’t seem long enough. As we headed back toward the van, James paused for a moment. Looking back across the sand he said, “I could stay right here all day.” I knew exactly what he meant.

Caumont and Sallen

Back in 1944, after getting off the beach and fighting inland, Dad and the other men of the 1st Division spent several weeks digging in around the town of Caumont. It was our next stop and as we approached Geert pointed out the military importance of Caumont, it’s on high ground overlooking the whole surrounding area.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Caumont where we met the Marie brothers. These two French brothers were 11 and 13 years old when American soldiers liberated their town. Their childhood home was used by the 18th Regiment as a field hospital. They have many memories of those days. They recalled the first time they saw Americans approaching the area, even from a distance they knew something was different. Their approach was quiet because of their rubber-sole boots, unlike the Germans whose boots made a frightening sound as they marched. They remember the Americans being very kind to them.

After eating lunch we all headed to the nearby town of Sallen. With the help of the Marie brothers and the Battlebus folks, a special ceremony had been arranged at Sallen’s town hall. There the mayor presented Dad & Dee each with 60th Anniversary chest badges. These were the same badges that were to be given during official ceremonies in June but Dad & Dee got theirs a full week ahead of everyone else. The badges were individually numbered and had their names engraved on the back. After that, we had cake and apple cider (the mayor’s own brew) along with some of the locals from Sallen. It was a good time and we enjoyed meeting everyone there. And Geert did a terrific job translating for us.

After saying “au revoir” to everyone at town hall, we then toured the surrounding area with the Marie brothers where we saw their childhood home among other things. Our last stop was at a man’s home that was used as General Huebner’s headquarters during the war. Mr. Savary was 17 years old at that time. His father was part of the French Resistance and would send information about German V2 rocket sites in the area to the Allies by carrier pigeon. His father was caught by the Germans, sent to a prison camp and was never heard from again. As a teen, he was also sent to a prison camp at the same time but was later let go. He still lives there at his childhood home, a complex of several old buildings which include an old church. He showed us a framed letter from General Huebner thanking his family for their help during the war.

It was meetings like this with local people that made our trip special. Everyone we met in Normandy was warm and friendly. We really appreciated the time the Marie brothers spent with us. Hearing stories from the French point of view gave us a more complete picture the war.

We had to get back to catch our train to Paris, so we said goodbye to the Marie brothers and Mr. Savary, then headed back to Bayeux. Geert took us by our B&B’s to pick up our luggage and then he dropped us off at the train station. He came inside to help me get the tickets and then said goodbye to each of us, shaking everyone’s hand. I believe he enjoyed our two days together as much as we did. Being the war buff that he is, the chance to be with WWII veterans was a thrill for him. He did an awesome job too.

DAY 4: Normandy

Utah Beach

This day was the first day of our Battlebus tour. We were picked up at 8:30am by Geert our battlefield guide and proceeded to the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Geert is a great guy. He’s a native of Belgium who spoke perfect english and he really knew his WWII history well. In Sainte-Mere-Eglise we learned about John Steele who hung on a church steeple by his parachute for several hours before being captured by the Germans. And we saw some remaining evidence of the fight between Germans and American Airborne troops for control of the town.

After leaving Saite-Mere-Eglise we stopped by Brecourt Manor near Utah Beach to see the field where the men of Easy Company, portrayed in the HBO series Band of Brothers, took out German gun positions that were firing on troops at Utah. The owner of the farm still has the German gun supports lying nearby outside his home. The funny thing was, at one time he had given the gun supports to a museum but they just left them in a basement somewhere, so he took them back. After the Band of Brothers series came out, the museum wanted them back but he said no.

We then continued on to Utah Beach. While there we ran into a British D-Day veteran named David Carter who landed at Juno Beach. He came to Normandy with his son who was documenting his father’s 60-year return on video. We had a nice chat with them and found out that they now live in Canada.

We then had a look inside the war museum that sits right on Utah Beach. There, Dad and Dee received certificates and commemorative medallions from museum employees. It was a really cool museum that had a panoramic view of Utah through its many windows.

After having a look around we went over to the Le Rooseveltrestaurant for lunch. The restaurant was decorated with lots of 1940’s memorabilia that gave it a unique atmosphere. There we met Franck, the owner of the restaurant. After shaking hands, he handed Dad and Dee each a sharpie and had them sign their names on the front of his bar. There were many other signatures of veterans that went across the bar and on the walls.

Before sitting down to eat, Geert then gave us a private tour of the bunker behind the restaurant. It was made up to look like a radio communications base, much like it had been in the days after the invasion. The signatures of soldiers that were there in 1944 can still be seen on the walls.

After going back inside and sitting down, Franck came over and got Dad & Dee to stand with him in the center of the restaurant. He then made a speech in French to all the French patrons that were having lunch there. I don’t know exactly what he said but he told them about Dad & Dee and what they had done during the war. When he was done speaking the whole restaurant erupted with applause. That was a special moment and I have to admit I had a few tears well up in my eyes; I was very proud of my dad and uncle. Later, several French people approached them for photos and autographs. Before we left, Franck gave Dad & Dee each some souvenir WWII bullets that had been found in the area. He also had them a sign a 1944 calendar that he had hanging on the wall. It was a great time and the food was good too.

Pointe du Hoc

Our next stop on that day was Pointe du Hoc. You can’t help but say “Wow!” when you see the bomb-scarred landscape and damaged German gun bunkers that still remain here. This was my second visit to this area and the first for everyone else; I could tell that the whole scene made an impression on them. This was where Army Rangers boldly scaled the 100-foot cliffs to take out German artillery that was kept nearby. The small group of brave Rangers successfully defended this area for more than two days against multiple German counterattacks. It’s a remarkable story that Geert told well.

The American Cemetery

After leaving Pointe du Hoc we headed to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. This is the same cemetery that is shown in the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan. The sight of all those crosses is both beautiful and moving. Over 9,000 American soldiers are buried there. The normally peaceful atmosphere of the area was a bit disturbed by the construction and preparations being made for the upcoming June 6th ceremonies. Geert took a few moments to explain some of the symbolic aspects of the cemetery’s design, and then he led us to the grave of General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Dad & Dee’s commander in North Africa) where we took a few photos. When the American flag was lowered at the end of the day, Dad & Dee had the honor of participating in the flag folding ceremony.

We then made our way to the nearby First Division Monument that stands on a bluff above Omaha Beach. Inscribed on this monument are the names of 1st Division soldiers that lost their lives from D-Day to July 24, 1944. Among those listed was Dad’s friend, Giacomo V. Patti. Dad credits Patti with saving his life in North Africa. He was killed by German artillery a couple weeks after D-Day in the vicinity of Caumont. I don’t know much about Patti but I do know he helped my dad get off a hill in Tunisia…and because of him we are here today.

The Big Red One

We made our last stop of the day at the brand new Big Red One Assault Museum that is located about 1/2 mile from the U.S. cemetery. There we met Pierre Gosselin, the owner of the museum. He’s a young and enthusiastic fan of the Big Red One who actually lives in a second-floor loft above the museum. He had a real nice display of WWII gear devoted to the First Division. You could tell that he really enjoyed meeting Dad and Dee. Before we left, he broke out a bottle of apple cider and we all made a toast to the Big Red One. That was the end of a long but very memorable day.

DAY 3: Bayeux

Crossing the Channel

The next morning we woke up early to catch the P&O Caen Express ferry for a symbolic crossing of the English Channel. The ferry ride took about three hours. Mid-way through our journey I got up from my seat and went outside on the back deck. I looked out over the open water and imagined what a sight it must have been on June 6th, 1944; ships all around as far as the eye could see. Hitler was about to meet his doom, but not without a high cost.

We arrived at the Ouistream ferry port outside Caen a little past noon. Our pre-arranged taxis were there to meet us for the ride to Bayeux. The city of Bayeux is really interesting with lots of old stone buildings and narrow streets. It was pretty much untouched during the war and probably looks a lot like it did back then.

Upon arriving we split up into two groups and checked into two different B&B’s that were about a 5-minute walk from one another. The couple that owned our B&B was very nice and helpful even though they spoke very little english. Our B&B also had a nice view of the Bayeux Cathedral. Another interesting thing we found out about our hosts was that they had previously worked as interior designers for billionaire Malcolm Forbes.

After we settled into our homes away from home, we had dinner at Les Arcades on la rue Laitiere. Then we walked to the Battle of Normandy Museum and spent about an hour there. The museum was very nice and we could have spent more time viewing all the interesting displays but unfortunately closing time came too quick and we had to leave.

Later, Billy and I walked to a park that was near the other B&B and watched some British kids play a game of cricket. It stayed daylight until about 10:00pm which kind of made it hard to go to sleep at a normal time. Overall, it was a very good day.

DAY 2: England

Roaming the English countryside

We were picked up the next morning outside the Burns Hotel in Kennsington by our hired drivers, Malcolm and John, and proceeded to tour the English countryside. Malcolm and John are based in Salisbury and both did an excellent job shuttling us from place to place…I highly recommend Classic Cabs.

Our first stop was Tidworth where Dad and Dee were stationed for a few weeks way back when. There we met Frank Rixon, a WWII British war vet, who showed us around the Tidworth area. Most of the old buildings had been torn down just eight months before, but one remained which had a 1st Division plaque mounted near the door. It was the only evidence left that showed they had once been there many years before. After taking a few pictures there, Frank invited us back to his home where we saw his war medals and other memorabilia. We really enjoyed meeting Frank; he’s a great person.

Lunch at the Horseshoe

After a brief stop at Stonehenge we headed to James Holland’s home in Broad Chalke near Salisbury. Dad and Dee had met James Holland back in November of 2002 when came to Alabama to interview them for his upcoming book about the North African campaign. James and Rachel, his wife, live in a cozy home called Maud’s Cottage with an old-style thatched roof. After a quick look around their cottage we headed to the Horseshoe pub for lunch. There we ate Faggots (LOL…some sort of meatball) and other traditional English dishes. It was pretty good food and we had a nice time chatting with James and Rachel.

The New Inn

After lunch we made a stop at the Salisbury Cathedral. It’s a very impressive cathedral topped with the tallest spire in England. Dad remembered seeing this cathedral 60 years before when he was stationed nearby.

We then made our way about 50 miles southwest of Salisbury to a small town called West Knighton near Dorchester. There stood The New Inn, an old English pub that Dad and Dee frequented many times during their Army days, where they would go for a beer and a game of darts. The outside looked very much like it did 60 years ago. It was really cool to see this place that had previous only existed in Dad’s old Army photos.

After taking many photos, we said goodbye to James & Rachel and headed to the coastal city of Portsmouth. There we checked into the Holiday Inn Express at Gunwharf Quays, walked along the waterfront, and ate supper at Burger King (yes, Americans look for that which is familiar). It was the end of a long day.

DAY 1: London

We’re Missing Something…

The trip was good for Bob, Tommy, Billy and myself. We left Houston the evening of May 22nd and made it to London Heathrow on scheduled on May 23rd. But we were missing something…one brother and two veterans. Their flight was delayed out of Nashville due to poor weather in Chicago and consequently they missed their connecting flight to London. You can’t have a 60-year return to Normandy without the veterans; it’s just not the same. After much hard work and persistence, James managed to get himself and the vets on another plane the following day. They arrived in London the morning of May 24th, just in time for an all-day bus tour of the city. On that day we saw Big Ben, we rode the London Eye, Dad & Dee wandered through St. Paul’s, we took a river cruise down the Thames, and we ate Fish & Chips for supper.

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