A Gracious and Memorable Tribute, Part II

by Michael Ketchum

In September of 2019, I returned to France for a celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Lunéville, the dedication of a monument in the heart of the Foret de Parroy, and a ceremony in the town center of Fremonville for my Grandfather and the fighting men of the 79th Infantry Division. On this trip, I had the pleasure of taking my youngest daughter, Lily, and it was an experience that she will never forget. Neither will I forget the memory of her at her great-grandfather's grave as she spoke to him in hushed whispers, with tears in her eyes. This is that story.

The 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Lunéville

Luneville 75th Liberation Anniversary Lily and I flew into Paris on Thursday, September 13, arriving early in the morning. We spent the day doing a lightning tour of Paris starting with breakfast at a boulangerie across the street from the Eifel Tower. After the obligatory photos at the Tower, we stopped for a moment at the Arc de Triomphe and then started our drive east to Lunéville. Even though France is well connected by high-speed trains and domestic flights, it's a country that begs to be explored on the open road. There's something magical in driving through its ever-changing landscape and climates and it gives you the opportunity to stop and walk through the country's many picturesque towns and villages. It was a beautiful drive and we arrived in Lunéville early in the evening.

We woke Friday morning to walk through the streets of Lunéville, around the Château de Lunéville, the Église Saint-Jacques de Lunéville, and then early that afternoon, we participated in Lunéville's Liberation Festival Program which ceremonially commemorated the fierce battles in the region when Hitler ordered Manteuffel's Fifth Panzer Army to pierce the southern flank of Patton's Third Army heading eastwards towards the Rhine in September 1944. But the 79th Division and 2nd Cavalry successfully repelled this dangerous German flank attack at Lunéville. Scores of attendees including French children waving French and American flags, filled Place Leopold and Rue de Lorraine. It was a moving ceremony. That evening we enjoyed dinner at the Salon de Halles, Place Leopold. Earlier in the day, we had the great honor to meet Pascale Gotterand who, a few years earlier, had adopted my grandfather's grave at Epinal, and yearly places flowers on his grave. We also met Harriet Sykes and her family with whom we would spend the next couple of days. Her uncle, Judge Clayton Hellums, was killed in the Parroy Forest and she would be making a moving speech at the monument dedication. Larry Hellums returned as well and it was good to see him again. Unfortunately, Dan Rabe was unable to return but he was in our thoughts.

Monument Dedication & Ceremony in the Foret de Parroy

The Parroy Forest, just east of Lunéville was a key defensive position of the Fifth Panzer Army threatening Third Army's flank. This morning the heroic American crossing of the River Meurthe on the southern side of Lunéville against heavy German resistance was festively celebrated in Moncel lès Lunéville. Following that, we drove to the official dedication ceremony of the new monument to the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion (TDB) and 106th Cavalry and their 79th Division battle action in the middle of Parroy Forest (where Hitler served as a soldier in World War I). The 1944 Battle of Parroy Forest was an extremely tough and critical battle. The forest had to be captured by the Americans because it formed an important part of the formidable German "Vorvogesenstellung" (Vosges Mountains Forward Defensive Line) blocking American access to the Saverne Gap and through to the Rhine and Germany.

Gerard Louis and Philippe Sugg
Gerard Louis and Philippe Sugg

On 9 October 1944 in the heart of the Parroy forest, a crossroads was the subject of fierce fighting. A battalion of American tank destroyers supports the 79th Infantry Division. Sergeant Rabe's tank is severely damaged by the Germans. He and his corporal get away with injuries but 3 comrades are not so lucky and die with the destruction of the American tank. The fighting continues until 13 October with a heavy toll and the withdrawal of the Germans.

View Full Story of Missing Tank Crew

In 2003, Gérard Louis, passionate and knowledgeable about this episode in the history of the Battle of Lorraine, discovered an identification medal near the crossroads. With Philippe Sugg, another dynamic figure in the military memory of Lunéville, they reconstruct the precise thread of events until they are able to contact the descendants of these soldiers, whom the two men welcome during moving visits to France. Anxious to pay tribute and perpetuate the memory of this incredible story, Gérard Louis and Philippe Sugg carried out a large campaign in the United States and in France to erect a monument in the heart of the forest, near the crossroads. It is at this monument and its dedication that brings us all to this spot in the forest on Saturday afternoon.

Gerard Louis and Philippe Sugg
Philippe Sugg & Gerard Louis at Foret de Parroy Monument

This monument, an imposing block of cut rock, pays double homage. First, it pays special tribute to 5 American soldiers, the tank crew KIA at the crossroads on 9 October 1944: Judge Hellums, Donald Owens, and Lawrence Harris, as well as Ernest Rabe and Everet Peabody, wounded. Additionally, in verbiage I contributed to, it recognizes he spirit of sacrifice and commitment of the American soldiers,

"who fought fiercely in the pouring rain, in the cold and the mud, day and night, including the 386 soldiers of the 79th Division Infantry, 106th Cavalry Group, 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, and 749th Tank Battalion, at the cost of the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom."

During the inauguration ceremony of the monument, the mayor of Laneuveville-aux-Bois, Virginie Burtin, and the President of the Community of Municipalities of the Territory of Lunéville in Baccarat, Laurent de Gouvion Saint Cyr, delivered speeches.

Dear American friends, all of us are assembled here, with you, around this stone monument built in memory of the American soldiers who died in this forest. Whe are here to testify that we won’t never forget their sacrifice. We know what we owe them. Like in 1917, 37 years after, in 1944, the Americans landed in France to allow to our country, to our parents, to recover the freedom, to allow us today to live in peace. We have never to forget the price of that : thousands of young men killed or seriously injured, the terrible sufferings endorced by these soldiers of peace. For that and for ever France and United States are irrevocably linked. In this moment the last sentence of the American anthem summarize at best what we feel: It is the star-spangled banner. O, long may it wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Today, it's a great honor for me, on behalf of the elected representatives and residents of Laneuveville­aux-Bois, and more broadly the people living around the Parroy Forest, to welcome you to this commemorative stele. To honor to receive you, Mr. Deputy Prefect, Madam Consul General of the United States. Vaur presence shows the importance of the event and the strong relationships between our countries. Thanks to Mr Philippe SUGG and Mr Gérard Louis who, through their passion for our forest and its history, allow us to be here this afternoon. The location was not chosen by chance.This is where we found Americans who died in this forest for us. Yes for us, because these Americans have left their families, their country, crossed the ocean, walked many hours to get here in the Parroy Forest and help us in this war. To lead the fight that has cost many lives and left lasting after-effects for many French and foreign families. 75 years later, some American families are present today and have came to pray and follow in their ancestors' footsteps.

Today, we pay tribute to them, but this tribute must be passed on and not lost. Remember, the duty of remembrance is important in our current society and especially for our young people who are our future and who will have the heavy responsibility of transmitting our history.

Additionally, for their tireless efforts, the US Army awarded the Superior Public Service Award to Philippe Sugg and Gerard Louis, a very rare civil honor for their research work. No two people deserve this more than these two friends of decades having crisscrossed the forest since they were 10, unearthing some 25,000 artifacts and 43 bodies from the two most devastating wars of the 20th century.

Frémonville Ceremony

Sunday morning, we headed back to Frémonville, where 10 years before a special monument had been erected for the 79th Infantry as well as a special plaque in memory of my grandfather's sacrifice in the fighting around the town. I specifically recall walking in the countryside with Philippe and specifically pointing out the general area where my grandfather was likely wounded. Today's ceremony was no less moving as Lily and I placed flowers at the foot of both monuments.

Frémonville Ceremony
Frémonville Ceremony

I gave a short speech and was pleasantly surprised to be presented with a duplicate plaque to that at my grandfather's memorial! I was not expecting this at all. At the end of the ceremony, we were approached by a elderly woman who presented us with a French flag that was handmade and carried by the locals during the war. It was an incredible moment. After saying goodbye to our good friends, Lily and I left Frémonville behind and headed toward Epinal to visit Melvin's grave.

My Words in Memory

As dawn broke on 6 June 1944, in Northern France, the Allies began an invasion in the works for years: D-Day, the start of Operation Overlord that turned the tide against Nazi Germany. Just over 3 months later, after fighting across most of France, the 313th, 314th, and 315th regiments of the 79th Infantry, the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, 749thTank Battalion, and the 106th Calvary Unit faced the Germans in the Foret de Parroy. Theirs is a story of constant artillery and mortar fire from entrenched positions, daily forays to capture, and recapture, small areas of the hilly, heavily-forested, marshy countryside, and many fierce battles when units met each other on narrow roads deep within the forest.

An all-out divisional assault forced a German withdrawal from the forest with the final capture of the main road junction 9 Oct 44. The division next took Emberménil 3 Oct 44 and battled for the high ground east of the town 15-22 Oct 44. It was relieved in this area 24 Oct 44. It rested at Lunéville and returned to the attack 13 Nov 44 with the 314th and 315th Infantry out of the Montigny area which carried it across the Vezouse with the capture of Fremonville 19 Nov 44. My grandfather was wounded on 16 November succumbing to his wounds on 18 November 1944.

We gather here today to salute the courage, generosity and strength of spirit that made these soldiers press on “to help men and women they didn’t know, to liberate a land most hadn’t seen before, for no other cause but freedom and democracy. As the sun rose that morning, none knew whether they would still be alive when the sun set once again. Many lost their lives in the Battle of France, including my Grandfather, but thankfully, due to our good friends in France, they have not lost the battle of our memories. While the scars of battle still mark the countryside, we gather here to remember. To celebrate. To honor those that fought, that resisted, that gave the ultimate sacrifice in the name of Freedom.

As a veteran myself, I believe in the importance and the value of history, especially the history of World War Two. Thank you, Philippe. Thank you, Gerard. Thank you, Pascale. Thank you for not forgetting. Vive la France. God Bless America.

Memory and Gratitude

The last stop on our whirlwind adventure to France was at the foot of my grandfather's and Lily's great-grandfather's headstone. We were joined by Pascale Gotterand. The most moving moment of the trip was when I stepped away and left Lily alone at his gravesite. She talked to him and was in tears as I returned. This experience is something I doubt she will ever forget and I'm happy she was able to make this journey. Now, I just have to get the rest of the Ketch Republik over here.

Lily Ketchum @ grandfather's grave
Lily Ketchum visits her grandfather's grave

It is now months later, March 2020, and as I finish this article, the one thing that stands out for me every time I visit is the significance of memory and gratitude the people of Eastern France hold for their liberation, even 75 years later. As the "living" memory of survivors fades, one would expect a disinterested historical memory to creep in at the edges to slowly replace the collective memory of that experience. That is simply not the case on this side of the country. That is evident time and again with the annual ceremonies and celebrations, the genuine enthusiasm of its people, the tireless efforts of Philippe Sugg and Gerard Louis, and the many people I am proud to call friends including Philippe Sugg. Gerard Louis. Pascale Gotterand. Harriet Sykes. Daniel Rabe. Larry Hellums. And so many more. While so many lost their lives in the Battle of France, they have surely not lost the battle of memory here.

Private Melvin W. Johnson War Memorial

314th Infantry Regiment War Memorial