Note: This isn’t the complete story, just my recollections of the fantastic and fascinating day we had trying to track down my father-in-law’s experiences during the Battle of Argentan, in World War II.
This day occurred close to the end of our trip, after we had spent four days in Italy, at the Italian Grand Prix, and then visited several cities in southern France. Here’s a bit of advice: Should you decide to go to the Grand Prix in Monza, Italy, get into good shape. It’s a 45-minute walk from the entrance to the park to the entrance to the race track, and walking is the only way you’re going to get there! I really appreciated all the work I’ve been doing, both with Pritam and on my own.
Don’t you just love it when you have one thing planned and then something unexpected happens that totally changes your plans? Well, maybe not always, but sometimes serendipity comes to play.
We had scheduled a day with a tour guide to take us through the Normandy Beaches. In talking with us about what we wanted to see, he asked if we had family that had died in Normandy. Bob, my husband Rob’s dad, had been critically injured at Argentan, on Aug. 18, 1944, so I mentioned that to Rudy, the tour guide. He began drilling down, wanting Bob’s unit particulars, dates, etc. He suggested that we spend less time on the beaches, and go to Argentan to see what we could find. Sounded like a great plan to us!
We headed first for Argentan, about 40 miles from Bayeux, where we were staying. As we drove, Rudy and Rob talked about what had happened to Rob’s father, his later years after the war, his life. We had copies of some articles from the Internet, written about the 318th Regiment (Bob’s regiment), and there were several historic photos and a couple of maps. Rudy was able to determine exactly where the battle took place from the maps, and we first drove through the forest where the German tanks that the 318th fought were hidden. Then, Rudy decided we should go find the little village where much of the battle took place, and see if we could find the Mayor’s office. He has had good luck with this strategy, as often someone in the office has more and/or better information than he has. After he got back in the car, he said, “I have a surprise for you. Let’s see if he’ll talk to us, but the ladies in the office say there’s a man in this village that saw the battle.” Whoa. An actual witness!
Rudy knocked on the man’s door, and we were promptly invited in. Serge, the witness, was 9 years old at the time of the battle and living in a house just up the street in the same village. His wife, Micheline, sat quietly as we listened to Serge tell his story through Rudy.
Serge remembers the first day of the battle quite well because the fighting was pretty intense near his house. All the villagers left that night and came back a few days later. He remembers piles of discarded equipment and materiel. At one point, he mentioned the farm where the American troops had to cross a little stream, and that they had to cut down all the trees so that their tanks could cross. Then, he offered to take us to the farm, which was just down the road from his house.
He and Rudy kept talking. Serge talked about finding a pile of items left behind, and among them were five helmets, each with a single bullet hole. He spoke for a long time about how poor and hungry everyone was and how his father managed to get a little something for his family when others couldn’t. It seems his father was the town’s only baker and as such, was immediately conscripted into working at the castle baking bread for the Nazi officers. Since he had access to the bread, maybe sometimes, it didn’t all make it to the Germans.
Listening to all this, and occasionally adding a comment of her own, was Micheline. She finally interrupted her husband and told her story. Her family was from the same village, although she was only 13 months old at the time. Her father had been executed for being in the Resistance, and when the battle started, her mother — fearing for her own life because she was also in the Resistance — led the village with her two children. They found refuge in a barn, but a shell hit the barn, and pretty much nothing of her mother remained. Her 3-year-old brother sustained significant shrapnel wounds, but survived to the age of 38, succumbing to the health effects of the shrapnel. Micheline and her brother were declared orphans, but her brother was sent to live with their grandparents, while she grew up in a girl’s orphanage. Because her mother is considered a victim of the war, she has a permanent resting place and can never be removed.
Micheline then took off into the kitchen, looking for something. She came back with two sheets of paper. This was the story of her aunt, Odette, and how she made it through the war. According to the account, Odette and her husband had a casino/hotel in Oujstrehan, which was on the very north end of Juno Beach and heavily bombarded. A missile hit the casino, and Odette scrambled to help people out before it collapsed. She got two of her friends to hide in a foxhole big enough for one person, so their heads and shoulders stuck up above the protection of the hole. She lay face down next to them with her feet toward the beach. A shell hit near where she lay, severely damaging one leg, blowing off one of her buttocks and injuring her in the abdomen. A male friend of hers was also severely injured. The British medics who eventually came, tried to evacuate her to their hospital ship, but she wanted to wait for her husband, who was off on a mission for the Resistance. She convinced her friend to go in her place. After some time, the medics told her that her husband had arrived and they were going to take her to him. (Knowing the gravity of her situation, they lied. Some lies are OK to tell.) Instead, they loaded her onto a transport barge, which was then hit by a German torpedo. Being of compartmented construction, the barge didn’t sink but the medics did have to raise the patients up to keep them from getting wet. Ironically, the male friend died when the hospital ship was also torpedoed.
After six months and many surgeries in Britain, Odette was sent home with a prosthetic leg. Odette and her husband rebuilt the casino and she could often be seen in the kitchen, leg stump propped up on a stool, doing all the cooking for their guests and family. The prosthesis was very uncomfortable for her, and she did without it whenever she could. The casino/hotel was sold in the ‘70s because the children were not interested in running it; however, Micheline remembers many good times with her aunt.
After about an hour and a half of listening to Micheline and Serge, Rudy thought it might be time for us to go, but Serge insisted on showing us the farm. It turned out to be the exact farm pictured in the articles that we had read about the battle. It’s almost without doubt that Rob’s father Bob crossed over this farm on the way to the edge of the Argentan forest where, only hours later, he would be wounded. The German Panzers were hidden in a tree line and shooting down the hill into the American forces. At one point, Bob jumped into a foxhole he had dug for cover, and the guy next to him started trying to take out one of the tanks with a bazooka. The Germans fired on the bazooka and shrapnel took off most of the front of Bob’s skull. When the Germans advanced, the Americans left him for dead, as did the Germans later. The next morning, when the Americans retook the position, they noticed that Bob was moving and evacuated him to a field hospital. We assume that once he was stable, they moved him to the hospital at the castle, where he remained until he was evacuated by ship to England, where he spent six months recuperating.
After seeing the farm, we went to the Chambois memorial, where the grander outline of the battle, actually called the Falaise Encirclement, could be seen. Earlier in August 1944, the British and Americans had tried to encircle the remaining Germans escaping from the Normandy fortifications. Forty thousand managed to escape and tried to mount a counter attack. Canadian, Polish, British and American troops finally encircled them at Falaise and the Polish and Americans were the stopper at the bottom of the bottle, so to speak, thus ending the Normandy Invasion.
We later visited Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery, both incredibly powerful and moving sites. As we climbed back up to the cemetery from the beach, I couldn’t help but think that I was certainly glad I’d been working out regularly with Pritam. It’s a pretty steep climb, and I can only imagine how arduous that must have been wearing all the gear and taking fire!
Having heard and seen all this, I felt the presence of the dead and the remains of the battles. I kept trying to picture the farm and the countryside during the war, and it wasn’t difficult. Perhaps because I’ve seen so many pictures over the years, but I think also because their deeds remain so fresh in the memory of the people and in the memory of the land.
— By Cheryl Wolotira
This is the latest in a series of fitness columns by Cheryl Wolotira, a retired educational technologist and middle school teacher. She is married, the mother of two adult children and three Labs. Cheryl loves to read, is a keen traveler, an enthusiastic consumer of technology, and is passionate about food and wine, which is why she has to exercise.
Cheryl is working with Pritam Potts, owner of Edmonds-based Advanced Athlete LLC, to reach her fitness goals.