Colleville and the American Cemetery: Part Three if My Normandy Chronicles
by John Delach
We receive a warm welcome once we finally reach our Colleville B&B. The women who run it treat us to sandwiches, cheese, wine and Calvados. Although warm and friendly, our B&B is small, I mean, really small. Except for Mike and Peggy, the four of us are rookies when it comes to casual European accommodations. We finally understand what, “En Suite” means. As we relax over wine and cheese, our hosts explain that only one of the rooms has its own bathroom or, as it is said, is furnished en suite. Since Don and Helen already paid their dues, that room belongs to them.
Our room rate is FF 120, or $21. Mary Ann and I take one look at the size of the bed and agree, there is no way we can sleep together in that tiny thing. Separate rooms are in order. Since we are their only guests, our hosts jump at my request for a second bedroom.
The shower presents a different challenge. Our hosts have booked a restaurant for us directly behind Omaha Beach. Showers and quasi-dress clothes are imperatives. The communal shower is tucked into a corner of the common bathroom. I must enter through two doors sideways as they are cattycornered to each other. I successfully squeeze in, but, once inside, movement is difficult and, of course, I drop the mini bar of soap. I do succeed in showering despite my vison of knocking the stall over in my attempt to retrieve my bar of soap. When I relate this story later at dinner, Helen takes delight and relief in explaining: “The same thing happened to me.”
There is only one taxi in town, so we travel in two parties of three. We men go first so we can correct any problems. Fortunately, there aren’t any, and all is in good order. The restaurant is charming, and the food and drink are to our liking. Over dinner, we make the decision not to hike the next day. Peggy has scheduled us to walk 14 miles to Grandcamp-Maisy, our next destination. But after enduring the toll from today’s 12-mile slog, we decide we need a break. Besides, we want to visit Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. We agree, instead to take a bus to our next B&B.
After dinner ends, the taxi returns to transport the ladies first. Don, Mike and I retreat to the bar where we meet Jean-Pierre Chedal-Anglay, who speaks to us in English and invites us to visit his summer home in the adjoining town of Vierville. We explain to this charming man in his seventies that time will not permit us to visit him.
I excuse myself to step outside so I can read the inscription on a nearby monument I noticed when we first arrived. Its message, in French and English gives me pause: At this place they called Omaha Beach, the Allies began the liberation of Europe on the 6th of June 1944.
When I return to the restaurant, Mike has a glass of 25-year-old Calvados waiting for me courtesy of M. Chedal-Anglay. As we enjoy this treat, the owner, not to be outdone, pours each of us a sample of a of a 45-year-old version. God is good and what a wonderful way to end a brilliant day. I mention to Mike and Don, “Colleville may be the last town in France where the people still express a debt of gratitude for America’s sacrifices on June 6, 1944.”
Monday, October 23, 2000. We enjoy a continental breakfast and a delightful conversation with the owner of our B&B that Peggy translates. We discover that she became a grandmother last night. Her new grandchild was born in Bayeux. She will drive there today after she delivers our luggage to our next stop in in Grandcamp-Maisy.
I realize from the many photographs that line the dining room walls that her family has owned this inn for many years.
Later, when we leave to visit the American Cemetery, we pass the local Catholic church’s graveyard, I note an inscription on one of the first headstone we pass. It explains that the deceased was executed by the Nazis in 1941 for being a member of the resistance. His family name is the same as the family that owns the B&B. I wonder what the newborn will come to know about this patriot.
We reach the American cemetery just after 10 am giving us a bit more than two hours to visit before the bus to Grandcamp-Maisey arrives at 12:15 pm. It is a remarkably solemn and a historical place that evokes my emotional response for the sacrifices made by all who rest there.
As I walk around the perfectly groomed grass field, I come across Lieutenant General Lesley McNair’s resting place. He died on July 25, 1944, one of 110 GIs who lost their lives to friendly fire when our own bombers executing their mission to destroy the German’s front line, dropped their bombs short of the target and on our own lines. The same simple cross or Star od David that marks every other Gi’s resting place, marks his. Death doesn’t differentiate duty and service.
I find a semi-circular wall that closes off one border of the cemetery. It is dedicated to all the GIs declared Missing in Action or MIA during this campaign. I decide to walk it end to end and as I do, I am struck by the number of names of soldiers who belonged to the 262nd Regiment of the 66th Infantry Division that have been engraved on the wall for those missing in action. When I return to New York, I discover that the 262nd had boarded the troopship, SS Leopoldville, in England for passage to Cherbourg.
On Christmas Day, a German U-Boat torpedoed the transport within sight of its destination. A breakdown in communications between the ship and shore delayed rescue until it was almost too late. The soldiers waited for rescue in their combat gear. Landing craft arrived to rescue the lucky ones, but when a key bulkhead gave way, 14 officers and 748 enlisted men drowned. Since their bodies were claimed by the sea, they will forever be MIA.
“Sad, makes you want to laugh. Sad, makes you want to cry.”
The weather turns as we walk to the bus stop. The bus arrives on time and the half-hour ride to Grandcamp-Maisy sure beats an endless 14-mile hike. Our B&B, “La Ferme du Colombier,” is just opposite the last stop on the bus’s route.