In the wee hours of June 6, 1944 (Day-D, World War II) the long awaited Allied invasion of France began. Paratroopers and glider forces began landing soon after midnight, the Americans behind the western beaches, the British at the eastern flank. Their roles were to secure vital transportation junctions and river crossings to prevent, or delay, the arrival of German reinforcements. After sunrise, American, British, and Canadian ground forces came ashore at five beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. By late afternoon the Allies’ objective was reached. Beachheads were established to the interior of the entire 50-mile front from which the invasion could be sustained. German General Erwin Rommel correctly predicted this would be “The Longest Day.”
Frank Lee, a Norwood farmer, watched the Ken Burns PBS television series “The War” and was eager to participate in a mid-summer WTVI promoted battlefield tour. Frank persuaded me and his son, Michael Lee of Raleigh, to accompany him. Our eleven-day tour began in Normandy and continued through the Argonne and Hurtgen Forests, to the Battle of the Bulge, across the Rhine River, and on to Weimar, Buchenwald, Berlin, and Potsdam. We visited museums, battlefields, and military cemeteries from both WW I and WW II, as well as other locations of historical interest, including the sites of Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake (Rouen, France) and Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 points of church reform (Wittenberg, Germany).
Early in our trip we stopped at a hillside park dedicated to American paratroopers. I was particularly interested in this park as a dear friend from Norwood jumped with his company near this site. The park overlooks the bridge at La Fiere, Normandy, where units of the 82nd Airborne Division sealed the Ste. Mere Eglise and Utah Beach areas against German reinforcement.
As others climbed the hill to observe the monuments, I remained behind at the park entrance to read the names posted on the Order of Battle. I was looking for, and half expecting to find, my friend’s name listed there. To my delight, Lt. James M. Irvin’s name does appear, and not far below those of Generals Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin. Jim is listed as Commander, B Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.
Night paratrooper drops over enemy terrain, and especially on dark, cloudy nights, were notoriously inaccurate. As occurred with others, Jim and his company landed miles from their intended drop zone. Jim was wounded and captured. After an extended march to the rear, Jim and other officers were loaded aboard a bus for transport to Germany. As their charcoal-fired bus slowed on an uphill grade, Jim and two companions scrambled through the back door and found concealment in a roadside ditch from a passing German convoy. Later, a French farm boy discovered the three asleep in a barn and informed his father who provided them a secure place to rest, in a hayloft. They brought food and civilian clothing, tended Jim’s wound, and instructed them to travel south toward Brittany, where the Germans were fewer.
To reduce the risk of recapture, the three traveled on separately. At one point, Jim found refuge at an orphanage where a priest gave him a bicycle to ride. Another farm family secured French identity papers indicating Jim to be a “deaf-mute.” Sporting a newly grown moustache and beret, Jim bade farewell to his French friends and peddled toward Brittany. During the journey, Jim passed work details supervised by German guards, but none asked to see his papers. In time, Jim arrived at a seaport, proved himself to be an American soldier, and caught a vessel back to England. Jim’s two-month odyssey ended when he made his way to the 82th Airborne Division headquarters where he resumed command of Company B, then being reorganized for the September invasion of The Netherlands. It was there, in Operation Market Garden, that Jim sustained his most severe wounds. In all, Jim jumped in four campaigns – Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and Holland.
Near the end of our trip – at Torgau, Germany – our local guide, Heinz Richter, told how the American and USSR armies first met at Torgau on the Elbe River. Across the river from the old castle and church fly the flags of the three countries involved in that historic moment, those of the U.S.A., the U.S.S.R. and Germany. The group then visited the old church, the first Protestant church ever constructed. It remains standing and in service today. Martin Luther preached the inaugural sermon here, and according to Heinz, Luther credited Torgau as being the “wet nurse” of the Protestant Reformation, as his ideas for reform secured prominent adherents in this city.
Before departing Torgau, we learned that Heinz is a retired farmer, so he and Frank had much in common. Torgau is located in what was once East Germany, a communist country and enemy of the U.S.A. for more than forty years. Heinz managed a state-owned collective farm of 7,500 acres. Among other crops raised there were cereals, sugar beets, and forage.
It is amazing how time can heal our most desperate fears. Not so long ago communists were considered by Americans to be the most despicable form of human existence. Today these very people act and look just as ourselves.
Published in the Stanly News and Press, Albemarle, NC - August 5, 2008.