By Larry Wells
Hottytoddy.com readers may remember my salute to the 70th anniversary of D-Day, in which I interviewed Henri-Jean Renaud, son of St. Mere Eglise, Mayor Alexandre Renaud, who reminisced about when the 82nd Airborne liberated the first town in Normandy.
While teaching in France this spring, I traveled to St. Mere Eglise and Mortain Bocage in Normandy to interview mayors and local citizens about the upcoming 75th anniversary of D-Day.
I am focusing on two battles, both in Normandy: the “miracle at Mortain,”where 700 soldiers of the North Carolina National Guard held off a German counterattack by 26,000 troops and 300 panzers by calling in artillery and air support; and the 82nd Airborne’s liberation of St. Mere Eglise which marked Kilometer Zero of the “Liberty Road” tracing the Allies’ route to victory from Utah Beach to Bastogne, Belgium.
On Hill 314 overlooking Mortain, a quiet town in southern Normandy, the only sound is the wind in the trees. A sandy lane leads through the pines to a chapel built in 1333. Yet the stillness is filled with the presence of history. This hilltop is where American soldiers turned back a major German counterattack.
Mortain’s battle against the odds began on August 7, 1944, when the German army launched a desperate counterattack in the aftermath of the Allied invasion. Square in the path of the onrushing 2nd SS Panzer Division was the 30th Infantry “Old Hickory” Division of the North Carolina National Guard.
Second SS Panzer stormed into Mortain capturing the command post of 30th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment, and surrounding a hill designated # 314 by the U.S. Army where 700 soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, soon to be known as the “Lost Battalion,” lay dug in. As panzer fire pounded the position, two forward artillery observers, 2nd Lieutenant Robert Weiss and 1st Lt. Charles Barts, began calling in artillery and air support. Lt. Weiss’ first radio transmission read: “Enemy north south east west.”
Today, nature has preserved the grass-covered foxholes where the young lieutenants called in support. The resulting pinpoint artillery strikes and aerial bombing and strafing runs doomed Hitler’s counterattack. Visitors keep coming to the historical site and plans are being made to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle. Yet Mortain’s Deputy Mayor Jean-Paul Briend worries about an indisputable trend: the passage of time. Few veterans of the Lost Battalion are alive to recount what it was like to stare down the enemy and emerge victorious. Only five American veterans—Peter Munger, King Kenny, Bill Hornsby, John Roman and Tony Jaber, all between the ages of 92 and 100 years of age—are planning to attend the 75th anniversary celebration. “These will be perhaps the last veterans who are able to come,” Briend solemnly observes.
Noël Sarazzin, president of the Amicale Mortain-30th Division “Old Hickory” Association, is living proof of the armistice at the end of the war. His father, a French soldier captured by the Wehrmacht in 1940, managed while a POW to court a German girl whom he married upon his release. Sarazzin, who was born on his grandparents’ farm not far from Mortain, regularly addresses school children about the Battle of Mortain in the hope that their generation will continue to acknowledge the liberation of France.
“On May 24, 2019, the children of Mortain will place flowers on fifty graves at the American Cemetery Montjoie Saint-Martin,” notes Sarrazin. “For the young students of our town who grew up hearing about Hill 314, history will always be north, south, east, and west.”
Elsewhere in Normandy, the town of St Mere Eglise, 16 miles from Utah Beach where Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., led the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division ashore, will also be celebrating its liberation. A white, bullet-shaped borne in front of City Hall marks “Kilometer Zero” of Liberty Road, which officially begins at Utah Beach and winds 1145 kilometers to Bastogne, Belgium, charting the Allied forces line of march as they drove Hitler’s army out of France.
Suspended from the roof of the St Mere Eglise church hangs a parachute and a replica of a paratrooper in memory of Private John Steele, whose chute caught on the church as thousands of paratroopers of the 82nd airborne jumped from C-47s. As portrayed by Red Buttons in the movie “The Longest Day,” Pvt. Steele looked down in horror as Germans soldiers killed his fellow paratroopers. Steele had no way of knowing that this town square would someday become Ground Zero of the Liberty Road.
In 1947 General Patton’s French liaison officer, Colonel Guy de la Vasselais, assembled mayors of French towns, including St. Mere Eglise mayor, Alexandre Renaud, to establish “La Voie de la Liberté, the Way of Liberty,” a loosely connected route of highways from St. Mere Eglise to Bastogne, Belgium. Marking each kilometer along the route taken by General Omar Bradley’s First Army and General George A. Patton’s Third Army are 1,145 white, bullet-shaped “Bornes.” Millions of international visitors including American veterans of World War II, their children and grandchildren visit the Way of Liberty every year.
Henri-Jean Renaud, 84, is the son of St. Mere Eglise mayor Alexandre Renaud, who in 1944 led villagers to shelter as the battle raged all night. D-Day was the pivotal event of Henri-Jean Renaud’s life. His memories are as clear today as on June 5, 1944, when units of the 82nd airborne parachuted into the town.
“On June 5, 1944, I was 10 years old and my brother Paul was 14. That night we heard shooting. People stood in front of their homes asking, ‘Has the invasion begun?’ It was all we could talk about—when were the Americans and British coming? And then we heard planes and U.S. Army paratroopers began landing near the houses. The civilians tried to welcome them, but the American soldiers did not know if they were friendly or not. ‘Is this a good one, is this bad one?’ My father needed to see about a house that was on fire. We begged him, ‘We want to go, let us go with you!’ He said, ‘Ok, but stay close.’ We crossed the square and came to a German soldier lying on the ground. He looked as if he was sleeping. It was the first time we had seen a dead German soldier.”
After St. Mere Eglise was liberated Henri-Jean’s mother, Simone Renaud, tended the graves of American soldiers, 3000 of whom were temporarily buried near St Mere Eglise. She became known as the “Mother of Normandy,” and under her guidance, the children of the town helped tend the graves. “Never forget” became their mantra, and so the lessons of war and gratitude for France’s liberation continue to be passed on from one generation to the next.
“Liberty Road underscores, with one milestone after the other, the struggle to preserve freedom,” notes Mayor Jean Quetier of St. Mere Eglise. “I think this is very important for us, of course, but mostly for our children and grand-children. When I meet young students I ask them, Do you think that we will be able to live in a world at peace? My generation thought that peace was settled forever, but the next generation doesn’t think like that anymore. Because of the tense international situation, they are concerned that there could be another war. To conceive the future they must look to the past, and Liberty Road is showing them their past.”
Larry Wells is a frequent contributor to Hottytoddy.com.