Back to France|
Story and photos by
Sgt 1st Class Pam Briola, 47th Military History Detachment, 70th RSC. First
appeared in the 70th RSC publication, "Three Star Final", May/June 2001, pg 4-5.
The citizens of the United States have not, in recent history, been occupied by
a cruel conqueror. We've never had our homes bombed into piles of rubble, gone
without warmth or food for any long periods of time, or been deprived of our
Therefore, it is very difficult for us to understand just how precious our
present freedom is.
There's no question that the people in the small villages of the Vosges
Mountains of France understand the precious gift they received when the soldiers
of the 70th Infantry Division liberated them 56 years ago.
In May, the citizens of these villages took off work, put on their Sunday
best, and turned out to greet their returning 70th Inf. Div. heroes with songs,
toasts, wreath-laying ceremonies at monuments, bands and speeches. From French
World War II veterans wearing their war decorations to small children released
from school for a "holiday," the villagers celebrated the small group of 70th
Inf. Div. soldiers' return.
John Haller, 70th ID veteran and member of 70th ID
Association, and Joe Thompson, son of a 70th Inf Div veteran, visit the graves
at Epinal American Military Cemetery in France. Many graves are those of 70th
Inf. Div. soldiers. Haller was looking for the grave of a soldier whom, he said,
he told to keep his head down - but the soldier didn't.
As someone who has sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States, it was
a very moving experience to be in the center of the whirlwind of attention
around these men and to witness the esteem, respect and honor with which they
It seems that when soldiers are involved in a conflict as intense and
horrible as World War II, years later some feel the need to return to the former
battlefields as a form of closure.
Others in the 70th Inf. Div. made friends during the war and have been
trading visits for years.
For many reasons, the soldiers of the 70th Inf. Div., now an association of
veterans, have returned to Germany and France every other year for about the
last 20 years.
It is amazing to those of us accustomed to a jaded American reaction to
Memorial and Veterans Days, that this many years later the 70th still receives
heroes' welcome! Even their former enemies - men from the 6th Mountain SS
Division - have made peace with the past and the men of the 70th Inf. Div.
Representatives from the German division visited with the soldiers and placed
a spray at the St. Avoid American Military Cemetery with a wreath-Iaying
This year's tour -the 2001 Pilgrimage Tour -began May 8 and ended May 24. I
joined the group in Cochem, Germany, on May 13. My mission as a history unit
soldier was to record memories of 70th Inf. Div. soldiers as they toured old
battle sites and present day monuments.
On the 15th, the group headed for Saarbrucken aboard a chartered bus. It
seemed ironically appropriate that Saarbrucken, these soldiers' goal during
their World War II offensive to cross the Saar River into the land that Hitler
had declared "sacred," would be our "base" for forays into France.
Although these towns and little villages are very close to Saarbrucken - for
example, Forbach is only three miles away, as the crow flies - one cannot drive
"straight" there. It is a circuitous trip, at best. I looked at those hillsides,
which are densely forested, and wondered what it must have been like for these
troopers to have slogged through snow and then mud, in the coldest winter in
Europe in 50 years. Many of them suffered trench foot and frost bite.
Another told me one of his most memorable stories - of being given a message
to take back to the squad after his patrol had pushed almost all the way into
Saarbrucken, and of having to follow a communications wire up a forested slope
in the dark. His biggest fear, he said, next to being shot by a German patrol,
was the shu mines so generously planted throughout the area.
On the 15th, there was also a somber wreath-Iaying ceremony in Epinal
American Military Cemetery under cloudy skies. Bill Bergren of the 70th read the
poignant John McCrae poem, "In Flanders Fields."
Afterward, several of the veterans took turns reading the names of fellow
70th Inf. Div. soldiers who had been killed. This scene was repeated a few days
later in St. Avoid American Military Cemetery. I felt honored to have been asked
to help carry the wreath at the head of the column of veterans marching into the
cemetery for the solemn ceremonies.
On the first morning the group met with the Lorraine Automobile Club in
Behren. The Automobile Club was quite a shock for this novice 70th ID pilgrim -
here was a line of smart-Iooking but obviously World War Il-era "OD green"
jeeps, and standing next to them, young people dressed in World War Il-era
uniforms, and adorned with the 70th Inf. Div. patch! The Lorraine Auto Club
members restore these jeeps as a hobby. They also reenact World War II battles
in their uniforms. Many of them were friends with the visiting veterans. I
learned that each time the 70th veterans came as a group, the auto club members
Andy McMahon, 70th ID veteran and member of the 70th Inf
Div Association, visits with Thomas Kirsch, a member of the Lorraine Auto Club.
The French auto club restores WW II-era vehicles and members re-enact WW II
battles in their era uniforms. They wear the 70th patch to honor their
liberators. Kirsch lives in Spicheren, near the orginal Inf. Div. "patch"
These volunteers formed a convoy and led the way for the bus with the
veterans from town to town Lixing, Grossbliederstroff, Oeting, Forbach,
Wingen-sur-Moder, Phillipsbourg, Alsting, Zinzing, Kerbach, Spicheren, Bousbach
- towns I had read about in the veterans' accounts of their battles on their
website, but could not locate on maps in my atlas because they are so small.
Each of the veterans on the 2001 Pilgrimage tour shared some of their memories
with me. In future issues of this publication, I will share these stories with
our readers. I hope that you will enjoy these stories and photos as much as I
did gathering them.