In My Grandfather's Boots: From Utah Beach to Epinal

In August 2009, I had the rare opportunity to walk where my Grandfather, and countless others walked. From the landing beaches of D-day, following the path of the 79th Infantry and 314th Infantry Regiment across France, I caught a glimpse, perhaps, of how his 5 months on the front lines made him undergo a transformation from an apprehensive novice into a battle-tested veteran. Visiting the dark forests where empty foxholes tell haunting stories. Walking where the daily life of soldiers led, where they were locked in gruesome events far beyond their experience. Walking where they fought side-by-side under fire, suffered wounds, agonized over the deaths of friends, enduring true suffering and sacrifice. From Utah Beach to his final resting place in the American Cemetary at Epinal, France, this was my journey.

Special Thanks, Merci!

I must add a note here of thanks to Sergeant-Major Philippe Sugg. He made my short trip all that more memorable with his knowledge and willingness to take the time to show me his beautiful country. He was extremely gracious and with his direction, I was able to see exactly what my grandfather and others like him endured, where he walked, and most likely, where his life came to an end. Philippe also continues to be a driving force in the region by recognizing allied contributions and sacrifices with monuments, celebrations, and special events. Thank you, Philippe, from a grateful American.

Friends in France
Philippe Sugg, Gerard Louis, Selma Gallet, Christophe Andre

I also had the rare opportunity to meet some other incredible people, through Philippe, to whom I wish to extend a special thanks. First is Gerard Louis who showed me where he discovered the dogtags of a missing American serviceman in the Foret de Parroy. Additionally, thanks to Selma Gallou for following us everywhere providing translation, and to Christophe Andre for taking me to my Grandfather's grave and around the Vincey area. Finally, thanks as well to Gilles Cuinat, Julien Hannebique, and Richard Pascal. I am glad to call all of you friends.

  • Day 1
  • Day 2
  • Day 3
  • Day 4
  • Day 5
  • Day 6

Caen and the Landing Beaches
First stop was Caen and then out to Gold Beach. The beach was assaulted by the 50th (Northumbrian) Division (which included the Devonshire, Hampshire, Dorsetshire and East Yorkshire regiments) between Le Hamel and Ver sur Mer. Attached to them would be elements of 79th (Armoured) Division. The 231st Infantry Brigade would come ashore on Jig Sector at Le Hamel/Asnelles and the 69th Brigade at King Sector in front of Ver sur Mer. Number 47 (Royal Marine) Commando, attached to the 50th Division for the landing, was assigned to Item sector. By the evening of June 6, the 50th Division had landed 25,000 men with only 400 casualties. They had penetrated six miles inland and met up with the Canadians at Juno Beach, but were unable to take Bayeux. But, overall, the landings at Gold could be considered a great success. A few Mulberry Harbors remain as a reminder to the bravery and valor that were present here so many years ago.

Mont Saint Michel, La Haye du Puits, Lessay
Next, we drove through La Haye du Puits, visiting the obelisk memorial in memory of the 79th Infantry. In early July, 1944, the 1st American Army launched an offensive toward La Haye du Puits. The Americans engaged in a "battle of the hedges" that was going to be very costly. Before entering La Haye du Puits the Allied had to push back the Germans from two hills that framed the city: Montgardon and Le Mont Castre. On 6 July, the 79th American Infantry Division seized Montgardon. On 8 July, the 90th Infantry Division took the northern slope of the Mont Castre, after the parachutists of the 82th Airborne Division captured several hills at the foot of the Mont. The battle caused heavy human losses; at the end of the day, the 79th Infantry Division cleaned La Haye du Puits of the last snipers from the 35th German Infantry Division.

The 79th had slugged its way through Fougeres, Laval, Le Mans. It had bridged the Sarthe River in its swing north to help close the famous Falaise "pocket". Motorized, moving like an armored column, it was clicking along in the vanguard of the Allied thrust toward Versailles and Paris. On August 15th, as the 79th made plans to push on to Versailles and beyond Paris, the Cross of Lorraine's Mission was changed. Its next objective: Capture the heights overlooking Manges-Gassicourt. This operation was designed to block the last important escape route to the East for the enemy caught in Normandy. The German supply situation was dire and the Allies' next move, in the Seine Loop, was designed to bottle them up for good.

Luneville, Harbouey, Blamont, Fremonville
At the German's back were the Meurthe River, the Foret de Parroy, the Vosges foothills and the Rhine. These were to be the sites of his last-ditch stand. The 3rd Bn. made contact with the enemy's Meurthe River line at Frambois where a German force larger than a battalion held the river proper and a comparable force was in "active reserve" in a wooded strip just beyond the river valley. Emplaced machine guns and dug-in tanks bracketed the river's breast-deep fords and blown bridge sites with a murderous fire. Battalion non-coms even now refer to the Frambois action as "Little D-Day." When the smoke of battle lifted two days later, the Meurthe River line was no more; in the wooded strip beyond, the 3rd Bn. was mopping up.

We started out the day visiting the Château de Lunéville. On January 2, 2003, fire broke out and destroyed much of it, including the museum, chapel, and reception hall. A renovation project is underway, and scaffolding hides much of its exterior. In the courtyard is an equestrian statue of General Lasalle. From there we went to the City Hall and met with the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, and a journalist from the local paper. After a quick interview regarding my grandfather's story and my trip, we went back out to the 314th Memorial and took a number of pictures. Click on the picture to view the article. After another lunch at the Garrison, I headed to what Philippe would only call a "surprise". We stopped at a large parking lot/parade ground just inside the gates of the Garrison where I was quickly surrounded by almost 40 American WW2 vehicles of varying types and sizes. Jeeps, ambulances, and more! Even went for a ride around Luneville with Richard Pascal at the wheel, in a classic Willis Jeep! What a way to end the day!

Vincey, Epinal
Waking up, I headed to the train station for the trip to Epinal. This was where I expected to be the first in my family to visit my Grandfather's final resting place at the American Cemetary located there. Christophe Andre, whom I had met the day before as one of the jeep drivers that showed up en masse, greeted me at the train station and took me the 2-3 miles to the cemetary. It is a beautiful place and words don't capture the solemn quiet and beauty here. I quickly went to my grandfather's grave, and after the requisite photographs, sat quietly for a time at his headstone. Sixty-five years later, I am here visiting my grandfather, just one more ghost of the past. In reflection, he never felt the joy of returning home to his wife, daughter, and friends. So many things we take for granted in life; this is what he sacrificed. Today, I am closer to him. History speaks to me in what I imagine is his voice. Perhaps he could even hear me when I whispered tearfully, "You are remembered. Thank you".

  Newspaper article regarding the memorial's dedication and my visit

Looking Back

Visiting places of incredible bravery, of sacrifice, and seeing the final resting place of so many thousands of Americans, both at Coleville sur Mer and Epinal, is a powerful experience. Walking on Omaha and Utah Beaches, strolling reverently between white marble crosses at the American Cemeteries, standing under the dark canopy of a French forest on the other side of France just outside Luneville, or simply looking across an open field at the entrance to a small, French town, brings an incredible sense of awe. I remember a quote that goes something like, "Follow your path. If that path has a heart, it is a good path". For me, this was a good path. For my grandfather, I hope it was as well.

"Our revels now ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air. And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself. Yea, all which it inherits shall dissolve. And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." ~ The Tempest, Act IV, William Shakespeare