Allan Johnson's Trip Report
60th Anniversary of D-Day
Southern France, August, 2004
Hey, there -
Wanted to get out the majority of the trip report to you -
Ben, could you forward to Bill Hudson for the 596 publication? Most of this has already appeared in Mail Call, but Bob and Bill wanted it for the Thunderbolt and the 596 publication.
I appreciate your being our own little post office here, Ben. If you think there's anything that you'd like to run or re-run, go ahead. But it's really just a rehash of what's already appeared in Mail Call.
My best to all -
Allan Johnson, 596:
I literally had the summer of a lifetime. After a trip to Norway and Sweden to see cousins, I was home long enough to mow the lawn and do my laundry Then off to France by Air France, drinking wine out of real glasses, some of which we managed to preserve/liberate/adopt for our own glassware collections. We landed in Nice –
The group consisted of my daughter Claire, her husband Jim, their children (Chris, 15 at the time) and Tim (14), along with Leo Dean of Reg. HQ, and myself.
I had hoped for several years, after the last trip 5 years ago, to make it back for the 60th anniversary. Two particular aims were to find what I thought was Chablis and to find the place where I landed, near Callian. We were still not able to find what we thought was Chablis so many years ago, but were successful in Callian.
I’ll let Claire tell some of it:
The trip was fantastic in nearly every way with only minor glitches here and there. I mean, you kind of have to expect a missed flight connection (in Paris on the way in), a fair amount of turning around to get the direction right, and some time searching for hotel rooms (only two of the nights when we were on the road). On a scale of 1-10, darn near an 11. Our time in the south, where my dad's unit was involved in their liberation, greatly exceeded my wildest dreams, and our time in the rest of the country was pretty much as good as it could possibly have been. We started in the south of France (after that missed connection) and wound up staying there for 6 nights. Suffice to say that my dad and his fellow vets were hailed as returning heroes, no exaggeration. It was days and days of memorials, unveiling of plaques, ceremonies, parties with the community, an excellent fireworks display set to music, bands, dinners, and free-flowing wine at all of these events. I think that the highlight was the parade that we were all in, riding in a lovingly maintained 65-year-old weapons carrier (or a US military vehicle of some sort). It seems that hundreds or even thousands were left when we left in 1945, and they are still on the roads, owned by re-enactors who dress in US or British military-style clothing of the period and see it as their job to teach the history of the war and all that the US and Britain did for France).
On the anniversary of the invasion, the six Americans from the 517 were asked to unveil a plaque to honor their unit, and would you believe that their names were on it? "Dedicated by G. Frice, J. Davide, J. Bain, A. Jonhson, L. Dean, M. McMorrow, L. Gibbons, parachutistes of the 517 PRCT.”
Yes, Johnson was misspelled, but what the hell.
We especially enjoyed meeting the main British contingent there, traveling together on a tour bus shepherded by Ralph Bennett, their tour guide. They invited us onto their bus to attend some of the first functions with dignitaries from around the world and incredibly tight security, where we would not have been able to simply drive ourselves. You haven’t lived until you’ve shared a bus with a bunch of Brits and a bagpiper. We also joined them back at their hotel for the Mayor’s cocktail hour.
There were many more British vets there - maybe 30? - due to the proximity; they hardly paid anything to get there. From the combat team, there were about 6 from the 517, which included one from the 460th, and one that we know of from the 550. We were floored at the love, respect, and downright adulation shown them. The people we met, to a person, told us that they would never forget what these men did for them, and it's not just the old people who can remember. It's the young ones, too. We met so many people, including French vets and two women had been ambulance drivers in Algeria.
The British do it right: Their army sends a serving officer along with groups of this sort. In this case, it was a parachuting colonel and his wife, both of whom were charming and movie-star handsome. He explained that it was policy to keep up this relationship with veterans. It was a pleasure to get to know them over these few days.
On the morning of August 16, we began at the Rhone cemetery. The British contingent was there, honoring our fallen. An example of the classic British stiff upper lip comes to mind. One vet had taken painkillers for his back, and was accompanied by his grown grandson. During the ceremony, his grandson leaned forward and asked, “How is the pain? Can you take it?” Standing as straight as he could, he answered in a low, firm voice, “ I have no other choice.” That’s the stiff upper lip that helps win a war. Many of them had served in Greece and the Middle East. In fact, we overheard one of them comment, “Bloody hot today! Though not as hot as Bahrain.”
A surprise was hearing the American director of the cemetery sing all three national anthems in an unusually good voice.
After the service at Rhone, we proceeded back to Le Muy for the parade. Dear, sweet Emma, who works with Jean-Michel and Eric at the Musee de la Liberation, was able to direct us to the place where the parade was mustering, so to speak. We didn’t realize that we’d all be in it!
On parade day, the narrow streets of Le Muy were lined with citizens, waving flags, cheering, holding up youngsters to see us old vets.
My dad said he felt like an Irish politician in Boston, he shook so many hands that day. American and British flags were everywhere.
We – including Leo and my family - rode in a weapons carrier with one British veteran. The vehicle was piloted by French re-enactors. From it, we got that wonderful picture of Gene Frice, waving with a smile almost as wide as the street. I saw, in third-floor windows, ladies who appeared to be not far from my own age. When I threw kisses to them, I was gratified to see many returned. Ahh, my lost youth!
The parade was incredible. My son Chris said to us, totally deadpan, "They really hate us here."
All over the country, they do this every year, not just for the 60th (though the plaques were for the 60th, the rest of it goes on every year). Gene Frice commented a few years ago that it was awfully nice of everyone to do so much. He was told, basically, that it was nice that he was there, but that they do it with or without us.
Marty wrote about a visit to Callian. As she wrote, we all (Dad (Allan Johnson 596), Lud Gibbons 3rd Battalion and Marty, and Leo Dean HQ, plus the assorted family members) went out to Callian the day after all the festivities were finally over in the Le Muy area. We searched the whole area surrounding the village, and found an olive farm with terraces (the kind for cultivation). Lud was pretty sure that this was the area where he'd landed, because he remembered losing his footing off of one of the terraces the night of the jump. The owner of the farm wasn't home, but we'd talked to his son. The father would be back the next day, but we'd been planning to leave that next morning.
After lunch, Lud and Marty left and we continued to poke around just a bit more, driving through all the neighborhoods and generally nosing around. We'd just about given up when we pulled over and asked a couple sunbathing in their yard. They didn’t know, because it's their friend's house. The friend came out and really seemed to want to help. He told us of a neighbor who would know and went inside to go call him. He wasn't answering, but why don't we all just drive over there, he says. Well, don't you know he proceeded to lead us right back to the farmhouse where we'd just been. Laughing, we told him that we'd already been here, and the man wouldn't be back until the next day. He took our phone number for our hotel, on the off chance that he could learn something, and we returned to our rooms an hour away near Le Muy. We really didn't expect to hear from him, and resigned ourselves to not finding the place.
Now, we'd been planning to move along this next day, and Callian was in the opposite direction over slow roads. But this gentleman called us as we were getting ready to leave and told me emphatically that he had spoken to his neighbor and he has seen the ravine that Dad described. He is sure this is the place and we must come back. He was adamant.
So (as Leo said, this is why we're on a flexible schedule) we returned and met everyone - first the neighbor who'd made the call, and then the French farmer - Jean Veyan - who hadn't been home the previous day.
The farmer is 77 and moved around his property like a mountain goat, easily outpacing all of us. We all scampered to follow him and followed each other in cars to the appointed place. Would you believe that he took us right to the ravine where Dad remembers landing 60 years ago? The brush had changed, of course, but the topography was the same and the distinctive rock face across the ravine confirmed it. As we followed them to see where we were in relationship to the village (because it had been only a short walk 60 years ago), it was clear. This was the spot. What a moment.
Now, Monsieur Veyan took us on a tour of his property, telling us that they had seen the first paratroopers come down with their lights (the British Pathfinders). He was very specific: the paratroopers were dropped in a straight line from west to east. He and his mother watched out the window, she saying, "They are here! We must help them!" He showed us a place where they'd had a tree, until the impact of a paratrooper knocked it down (the trooper lived). He showed us the spot where he'd picked up a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes, which I guess had fallen off of a trooper as he came down. He also showed us where the injured had been - first at a small house right in town, and then where they were moved to Montauroux across the valley because there were so many. After 60 years, they can still point out the house from Callian.
M. Veyan’s treasure, though, was a still-packed reserve chute. When he pulled that out of an army trunk, both Dad and Leo exclaimed - after 60 years - "Don't touch that red handle!"
The whole afternoon ended by returning to the farmhouse to celebrate with Kir Royale - champagne and creme de cassis - and we toasted our new friendship. It was sad to hear at this time that although the Americans' landing had been greeted with great joy and relief, the troopers left almost immediately to get to their intended drop zone in Le Muy/Les Arcs. We were told that the Germans didn't leave, but little else. It appeared that that part was too painful. Dad and Leo tried to explain that they'd landed with little in the way of arms and had to go to where all of the supplies and the rest of the troops were, and I think that he did understand.
And the man who brought together the American paratroopers and the French farmer? Why, his name is Hans. He's a German national in his early 60's who spends about half the year in France. It was because Hans took such a personal interest in the troopers and their story that this all happened. He later told me that he'd been thinking all night about the vets. When would they ever get to France again? He sensed how important the visit was, and he provided interpretation during the whole afternoon. The irony that a German helped was lost on no one, but it was Hans who first mentioned it.
The whole day was a lifetime highlight - it wasn't just the end of a search. It was a day of generosity and friendship and a new beginning. We left, our whole carload of people applauding to the waving French family and the German neighbor.
I brought my unit back with only a few minor casualties, having executed all major objectives except one: Leo had wanted to go skydiving; he'd wanted to do a tandem jump while there. It may be just as well, though. He was inside, trying to get the details, and I was outside, hearing from others there that they'd had a fatal accident just that day, and they didn't want to talk about it. Well, they might not want to talk about it, but I'd kind of like to, considering a friend wanted to play. But the wind didn't cooperate, so we moved on and toured the Normandy beaches and the coast down to Mt. St. Michel (that oft-photographed castle/abbey in the sea), and spent three days working hard in Paris. Paris was also celebrating its liberation while we were there; every town celebrates its own day of liberation.
In Lisieux, in the north not too far from the Normandy coast, a bunch of British vets we ran into told us that oh, yes, they're invited back every year and they've come often. The Americans go in smaller numbers due to the distance, but are more than welcome.
In one small town, we met a group of Brits and their wives (the men all wear the blue blazer) and stood for close to an hour on the street, talking with them and exchanging addresses.