Steve Key’s dispatches from “Writing the War,” the National WWII Museum’s European tour retracing the footsteps of Ernie Pyle and the great war correspondents.
Hoosier Abroad No. 1
Today was a day confirming the power of food and drink to restore one’s outlook on life.
Mike Bush and I arrived before dawn at the Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris Sunday after an eight-hour flight from Milwaukee followed by three and a half hours to get through security, collect our luggage, wait for the pink shuttle bus, hit the multiple hotel stops, and then check in at the Best Western Hotel at Roissy (row-SEE).
Leaving Indy at 1 p.m. Saturday (6 a.m. From Billings, Montana, for Mike), we walked into our hotel room at 4 a.m. according to our bodies. We were exhausted , but looking forward to our trip. Marketed by the National World War II Museum and Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in Dana, Indiana, we are going to be a part of a 43-member tour with the theme: “Writing the War – In the Footsteps of WWII Correspondents.”
Monday, we’ll be taking a bus to Bayeux near the Normandy beaches of D-Day fame. I’m betting the presentation by accompanying historian Donald L. Miller will include passages from Indiana-born Ernie Pyle’s dispatches from there- chronicling the bodies and stories debris left behind on the invasion site.
That wasn’t on our mind though this morning following hours in the Boeing 777 of Delta Airlines. The cabin crew was attentive, but my ample behind felt numb and my 62-year-old legs were threatening to cramp in those tight quarters. More than once did I stand in the aisle just to straighten my legs for a bit.
I thought I would read a lot on the flight, but the cabin arrangement meant my aisle seat light would have covered my seat mates nearer the window in a beacon of bright light as they tried to sleep. So, instead I spent a couple of hours watching the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy on the tablet-sized screen located on the back of the seat in front of me. I still think the second of the series was better than the first, but the sound quality through the airlines-provided earbuds was disappointing. The scene with Groot grooving to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Skies” just wasn’t as enjoyable.
So most of the trip was spent watching time pass as the little plane on the computer screen’s flight tracker arced across the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t realize how much farther north the European continent is compared to Indiana.
At least Mike’s trip had a momentary spark of activity. An emergency room physician, he was one of seven doctors who responded to an intercom call for assistance when a passenger passed out in row 44.
There were times when I nodded off, but nothing I would call sleep. The same could be said for Mike – a fellow history-lover and friend who is married to a cousin of my wife, Gayle. So sleep beckoned us while the rest of France was waking up,
We awoke around 6 p.m., which is noon in Indy. We could have ate in the hotel restaurant, but after hours in an aluminum capsule and box of a hotel room, we both wanted to get outside and breathe fresh air.
Lucky for us, nestled within the airport complex and ancillary businesses and hotels is Roissy, which stills feels like a small French village, complete with a stone and rock-walled church built in the 1500s.
Throughout the community, there are displayed blown-up photographs of Roissy taken nearly 120 years ago – aligned with buildings still in use. Mike and I hiked around the neighborhood, admiring the gardened, small private spaces of homeowners shielded from the street by stone walls. We then chose to have dinner at The Place Restaurant on Charles de Gaulle Avenue. We had a window seat on its glass-enclosed porch.
Mike had a roasted sea bass served with rice while I ordered the recommended chicken supreme with its mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes. Mike ordered a bottle of white wine produced locally to go with the meal.
The food, wine and conversation were excellent. We agreed The Place served as a good omen for what we expect to be a fantastic trip. We walked back to the hotel with a bounce to our step that was missing as we slogged through the airport hours earlier. Our compliments to the chef.
Hoosier Abroad No. 2
Seventy years later, World War II can elicit strong emotions.
This was my takeaway from the first group dinner for the 40+ participants of the National World War II Museum’s tour: “Writing the War – Following the Footsteps of WWII Correspondents.”
Dining on sea bream and a filet in Chateau Sully, conversation at my table revealed most had a parent who was involved. My traveling partner, Mike Bush, told of his father who fought in the infantry in Attu, Alaska, then transferred into the 101st Airborne – just in time to be trucked into Bastogne, which was encircled by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge during the dead of winter.
Phil Satre of Reno, Nevada, was reading on the bus to Bayeux his father’s artillery unit’s service history, while his wife, Jennifer, over breakfast told me her mother was in the Red Cross in England helping the B17 Flying Fortress crews remember home between bombing missions.
Michael Harmon of Santa Rosa, California’s father was in B24 Liberators and spent two years as a Japanese prisoner of war and Michael Bylen of a Farmington Hills, Michigan, recounted how his father, who was in the Signal Corps, participated in five amphibious invasions from North Africa, to Sicily, to two landings in Italy, before southern France.
I’m only guessing, but I think this trip may help them connect to that parent, particularly the combat veterans who universally were reluctant to share any details about the fighting. Belen said as a 13-year-old he pressed his father on details and his father told him, “If you want to know so much about combat, join the army.”
Mike Bush’s voice choked with emotion recalling a connection made in a Billings, Montana, hospital with a veteran whose tank unit helped break the siege at Bastogne where his father was trapped.
Those around the table recalled stories fathers told about training, leave in Paris or others places they saw, but not about the waging of war. The conversation reinforced my belief in the importance of the battlefield reporting of the correspondents, such as a Ernie Pyle.
Those on home front in the 40s could follow pins on a map to note the progress of armies and where battles were fought, but it was Pyle who told them what was happening to loved ones through the individual stories of specific soldiers. When he wrote about the dog-tired infantry filing down one hill and up the next, anyone with a relative fighting in North Africa could picture that husband, father, son or uncle in that line.
Pyle didn’t make combat heroic. He stated the G.I.’S point of view, it was a war they didn’t ask for, but a job that had to be done. In their minds, the heroes were the ones who died. It still strikes me that Pyle’s connection between soldier and family at home was so strong, that it was President Harry Truman who announced his death to the country, killed by a bullet from a Japanese machine gun on tiny Ie Shima in the Pacific Ocean.
Interested in journalism since my days working on my high school newspaper, The Howe Tower, I’m looking forward to the presentation tomorrow by historian Donald Miller before we visit the Utah and Omaha beaches where the Americans landed. Think about the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan” when you try to conjure a vision of Omaha beach on D-Day.
But first some time spent in a setting that seems a world apart from World War II. We stay tonight in Chateau La Cheneviere – a place in the 17th century where hemp was cultivated. The hemp was used to make both rope and the clothing for English Channel fisherman
The Gosser family built the beautiful yellow stone home, which is now a hotel and restaurant. Walls enclose the home, stables now converted into guest rooms, and gardens. A Sequoia stands majestically near the Chateau, much to our surprise. The red, onion-shaped pumpkins in the garden were another surprise as we explored the grounds. The serene setting appears far removed from a World War, but that isn’t the case.
A German officer made the Chateau his headquarters and installed a communications station on the grounds. A plaque memorializes Armand Lapierre who on June 4, 1944, took part in the “Grand Coupure,” designed to destroy German communications lines around la Cheneviere before the Allied landing.
The Chateau, like its guests, carry a connection to the war not necessarily evident on the surface.
Hoosier Abroad No 3
While World War II was a necessary task for Americans, my visit today to the D-Day beaches in Normandy illustrates the waste exacted by war.
The American cemetery on the bluff overlooking Bloody Omaha Beach is a rare place that compels one to walk and talk softly in respect for those buried under 9,385 white, marble Latin crosses and Stars of David laid out in precise rows on 177 acres of France deeded to the United States.
When the second American flag is lowered in the cemetery at 4:05 p.m. to the sound of Taps, one feels a melancholy well up for all those who died to break through the Atlantic Wall built by Gen. Erwin Rommel of Germany.
According to our guide, Pierre-Samuel Natanson, the average age of those buried in the national cemetery is 23 years old. As part of our National World War II Museum tour: “Writing the War – Following the Footsteps of WWII Correspondents,” all the mothers in the tour laid a wreath at the cross of Roy Talhelm.
When Roy left the United States, his girlfriend was pregnant with his child. He was a member of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, which parachuted into Normandy west of Utah Beach.
When Roy died – he was 17. He’d lied on his enlistment papers two years early – when he was 15. A complete life ahead of him, but ended on the battlefield. Those buried above Omaha Beach are only a fraction of the American dead as families had the option to have the remains of their loved ones returned home for burial.
All of those future lives – their loves, talents, maybe genius lost to the world.
All of the tour members were given a white rose to lay at the grave of our choice. I wondered aloud, “how do you choose which grave to recognize?”
“ Someone from your state, suggested Mike Harmon, who lives in Santa Rosa, California. I considered his idea while I gazed across the perfectly manicured grounds where the monuments seem to line up in a row regardless of the direction you look.
I then came across one of the 300+ graves of unidentified soldiers. “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known only to God” is carved into the cross. That’s where my rose rests.
My traveling partner, Mike Bush, chose a Montana member of his father’s unit, which like Talhelm was the 101st Airborne.
Guide Natanson and tour historian Donald Miller led the group today out on the flat, firm sand of both American invasion beaches and the top of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, which was assaulted by the 2nd Rangers – the commandos of the U.S. Army.
Unless you’re an expert, I recommend one visit the battlefield with a guide. As a history fan, I know the details of the landings, but Pierre, who grew up in the French seaport of Cherbourg, and author Miller, whose next book will focus on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the capture of Vicksburg in the Civil War, taught me facts I never knew and pointed out machine gun emplacements I never would have seen.
Omaha Beach was where I wanted to be on this overcast Tuesday. It’s because that’s where retired New England press association executive director Morley Piper landed with the 29th or Blue-Gray Division on another overcast day on June 6, 1944.
I like to think the retired 90+ Morley is a friend. A classic gentleman and quick wit, he remains a mainstay at meetings of the Newspaper Association Managers as its secretary. If you ask about his health, he’s likely to respond, “I plan to live forever and so far, so good.”
Although he was wounded by shrapnel while fighting through the Norman hedgerows surrounding the invasion beaches, Morley’s enjoyed a long, productive life unlike those young Soldiers who fell in Normandy – among nearly 37,000 Allied ground troops.
A waste Ernie Pyle captured in a dispatch from the invasion site. He wrote:
“But there is another and more human litter. It extends in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. This is the strewn personal gear, gear that will never be needed again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.
Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home …
The strong, swirling tides of the Normandy coastline shift the contours of the sandy Beach as they move in and out. They carry soldiers’ bodies out to sea, and later they return them. They cover the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them.”
Hoosier Abroad No. 4
It rises on the horizon like a scene from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter – take your pick.
It’s the second most visited site in France behind Paris – Up to 30,000 a day or 3 million a year.
It’s Mont St. Michel. It’s the 13 centuries old abbey built on a red granite outcropping in a tidal bay that makes it an island when the tide is up.
The trip to the southwestern edge of Normandy on the English Channel was a break from the historical norm for travelers on the “Writing the War – Following the Footsteps of WWII Correspondents” tour organized by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. The only 1940s connection was a dinner taken by a group of correspondents, including Ernest Hemingway in the island restaurant called La Mere Poulard located just beside the old drawbridge. There’s film from the occasion taken by John Ford, the Hollywood director who was also covering the war. The film in surprisingly vivid color can be found on YouTube.
Poulard’s atmosphere is unique and the entrée was the lightest omelette I’ve ever ate. It had the consistency of a pancake. My only problem was I had anticipated ordering their lamb casserole – particularly after our tour guide Pierre-Samuel Natanson had shown me where the sheep were grazing on grass on a tidal flat. He said the occasional flooding from higher tides left behind salt, which the sheep ate with the grass. Pierre smacked his lips describing how tasty this self-seasoned lamb tasted.
Hemingway wasn’t the first or last celebrity to visit Mont St. Michel. I’d say the first was William, the Conqueror, who started out as William, the Bastard, until he won the Battle of Hastings and became the King of England in 1066. (Note: the name change – winners get to write history.) The abbey was already more than 300 years old when William and his fellow Normans bested the Saxons in southern England.
The first abbey was established in 708 A.D. I don’t want to spoil the story of why the abbey was built on this granite protrusion, then known as Mont Tombe, but it involved a skull with a hole in its cranium.
The circumference of the island is approximately 6.5 miles and set within an ecological wonder. When the tide is at low ebb, the water’s edge has retreated eight miles from shore. Hiking across the exposed sand was the way to reach the abbey before a bridge was finished in 2016 and you had to be careful about your timing because the sea returns at a five to six mile per hour clip.
Dedicated to Michael, the Archangel, the site became a destination for pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Even then, it took on the trappings of a tourist mecca. Selling representations of Michael molded in lead and providing food, drink and a place to stay for pilgrims grew a village within the parapets.
The tradition continues today with multiple shops lining the narrow cobblestone road leading up to the abbey. There are also multiple restaurants and a hotel within the fortress walls.
Being 1,300 years old, the church is a hodge-podge of architectural styles. Our special guide for the day, Romanian-born Florin Petre, showed us sections that are Romanesque, Neo-Roman and all topped by intricate Gothic spires with a gold-leaf covered copper statute of The Archangel with a sword and scales held in his hands.
A contingent of monks and nuns still reside on the grounds and church services are held daily.
But as awe-inspiring as it is from the outside, the church’s interior is bare stone throughout its various crypts, hallways, and great rooms. The blame lies with the French Revolution. No fan of the Catholic Church, the successful revolutionaries seized the property and turned into a prison where a total of 14,000 prisoners were kept over the years.
That period was also when a giant wooden wheel powered by six prisoners who walked within its circumference like hamsters to pull up supplies on a wooden sled attached to a rope that would wind around the wheel’s axle up a stone track on the outside walls of the church.
One other caveat: the tour is an absolute hike. Tour member Lorna Rutherford of Riverside, California, had mildly complained earlier how she wasn’t getting enough exercise on the tour. When the tour was over, the Fitbits had registered 28 floors climbed and more than three miles walked. She said she’d be careful about what she wished for the rest of the trip.
Hoosier abroad No. 5
Anyone with a little knowledge of World War II knows about D-Day. What most don’t know is that was only the beginning of the battle for Normandy.
That’s a benefit of being part of the National World War II Museum’s tour: “Following the Footsteps of WWII Correspondents.” Historian Donald Miller and guide Pierre-Samuel Natanson have filled in gaps in historical knowledge, using the on-scene reporting by an Ernie Pyle or Lee Miller, one of a handful of women reporters.
When the Allies secured the beachhead, the soldiers’ work was only beginning. They literally were forced by the Germans to advance one small field at a time in the “bocage” or hedgerow country.
No barbed-wire or wooden fences were used to mark individual pastures in Normandy, each field was marked by a mound of earth from three to five feet high topped by a nearly impenetrable hedge that could add another 10 feet to the barrier. The hedgerow offered German machine gun teams or snipers both protection and near invisibility as our G.I.s moved south and east from the beaches.
Whether they advanced down the narrow roads between the hedges or tried to cross the fields, Americans were exposed to gunfire before they knew the Germans were dug into or behind the earthen mounds. It was a meat-grinder of a battle, spitting out the dead or wounded back to the field hospitals at the beaches.
Our fighters couldn’t provide air support and Sherman tanks trying to go over a hedgerow exposed a soft underbelly for German anti-tank weapons. And as a platoon moved forward within a field it was at risk of fire from three sides, not to mention the possibility of land mines planted by the Germans.
Not only were soldiers risking death with every new field, but thousands of cattle were slaughtered by both sides.
Natanson explained, “Cows are dumb and curious. If either German or American troops moved into a hedgerow, the grazing cows would wander over to see what was happening, which would give away their position to the enemy, so the soldiers would shoot them as soon as they got to a field.”
G.I.s also would release cows into a pasture they suspected had been mined. Wait an hour and if the cows hadn’t been blown up by a mine or killed by a German trying to prevent his position from being compromised by Bessie, then it was probably safe to move forward.
With this intricate, almost personal dance of death between American and German infantrymen playing out across Normandy, it took U.S. Troops nearly 50 days to advance the 20 To 25 miles to reach St.Lo, a crossroads at the southern edge of the bocage.
Desperate to avoid a stalemate along a static front, Gen. Omar Bradley approved a risky move to spring Sherman tanks into the more open French countryside south of the hedgerow country. He ordered the Air Corp’s B-17 Flying Fortresses to carpet bomb a six-mile wide front a few miles west of St. Lo.
Miller told the tour as we stood by what was a heavily damaged church in July of 1944 that U.S. 8th Air Force commander Gen. Carl Spaatz called the plan madness – the four-engine behemoths were designed to bomb cities not offer close-air support for ground troops. Bradley insisted and they then negotiated the distance between the frontline American troops and the line for the bombing to begin.
Bradley wanted 400 feet, the Air Force wanted 4,000. They settled at 1,200. Bradley wanted the bombers to fly parallel to the American line, but the Air Force came in north-to-south over the Americans before releasing their bomb loads.
The historical record of the artillery unit that tour member Phil Satre’s dad fought in reports the line of B-17s crossed over the Americans for two hours. The start line for the bombs was marked by smoke ahead of the troops ready to spearhead an attack dubbed “Operation Cobra.”
Ernie Pyle was with the 4th Division at the point, watching the rumbling B17s pass overhead and begin dropping their bombs “The thundering of the motors in the sky and the roar of bombs ahead filled all the space for noise on earth,” the Hoosier-born war correspondent wrote.
But the smoke line began to drift back toward the American line and the bombs obediently followed. Pyle and everyone else began diving for cover.
“There is no description of the sound and fury of those bombs except to say it was chaos, and a waiting for darkness. The feeling of the blast was sensational. The air struck you in hundreds of continuing flutters. Your ears drummed and rang. You could feel quick little waves of concussions on your chest and in your eyes,” Pyle wrote.
Six-hundred Americans died or were wounded in the friendly fire, but the attack moved forward. Miller told us that the German commander said even his troops who were not killed, were walking like zombies, unable to talk let alone fight effectively.
Despite the tragic error, the breakout was accomplished. In the next five days, the Americans advanced to Avranches, near the southern border of Normandy 50 miles from St. Lo, according to Natanson.
But few today know the price paid to break through, and free, of the hedgerows to win the battle of Normandy.
Hoosier Abroad No. 6
After several days of focus on the worst of man – the waging of war, today was a celebration of the best of man’s aspirations.
The National World War II Museum tour: “Writing the War – Following the Footsteps of WWII Correspondents” visited the great Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. Our special guide for the day, 84-year-old Brit Malcolm Miller, said it is the most preserved Gothic cathedral one will find.
In a “short” 75-minute presentation, this preeminent authority held the group spell-bound even if it was difficult to hear his every word due to the noise of others visiting the beautiful interior.
I’ve heard of horse whisperers, but Malcolm is a church whisperer. You find yourself leaning forward trying to capture every word. When it was over, the collective unspoken cry was for more. He did say he could talk about the huge Catholic Church for three weeks and I do believe he could after 50+ years of guiding visitors through the cathedral.
With his green laser pointer, Malcolm described the parallel stories of Adam and Jesus depicted on the series of 4-foot square stained glass panels in the windows above the
southwestern entrance. The glass pieces lit by the sun were dazzling, with blue being the dominant color.
In his introduction our silver-haired guide explained how 95 percent of the population was illiterate in the Middle Ages and the stained glass scenes and carved statutes on the inside and out was an educational tool for the population. He said there were 10,000 individuals in the statues and windows telling multiple stories. Whether figures were bare-footed or had shoes or which way fingers were pointed, up or down, all had meaning in the art.
He also explained how the use of flying buttresses freed up walls as load-bearing units so the windows could be placed to allow for light into the cathedral.
His talk ended outside the southeastern entrance, where the figures above the doors depicted Jesus judging the dead. Accompanying figures of the Apostles, each included symbols of their deaths – be it a piece of wood signifying crucifixion or swords for beheadings.
We didn’t even get to the labyrinth on the center of the church floor or sculpture behind the alter or details of the second Gothic spire built in the early 16th century, roughly 300 years after the fourth cathedral was started on that site. The first three were on another site in Chartres.
It doesn’t match the plain pyramid steeple built in the late 12th century. I’ll have to do some digging to find out why they didn’t upgrade the older spire to match the Gothic version. Where’s Malcolm when I need him.
Tour manager Nathan Huegen displayed his cool under fire after the church tour. The hydraulic fluid line for the power steering on the bus had failed. No problem, Nathan stationed the tour members in the Café de Serpent on the southeast side of the church with 10 bottles of wine while he secured a second bus.
No one complained and our delayed arrival in Paris allowed us to view the 8 p.m. light show on the Eiffel Tower as we drove by along the Seine River to the Westin Hotel. Nathan even led three of us to the Ritz Bar that Ernest Hemingway liberated after the Germans withdrew from Paris.
It’s Fashion Week in Paris and the Westin has rooms filled with racks full of the latest designs. We’ll see tomorrow if it impacts our Paris tour.
Hoosier Abroad No. 7
How do you describe Paris? The word that comes to mind is grand, or more appropriately grande.
Everything is large, if not grandiose.
You really can’t do justice to Paris with only one day, but that was the chore for Veronique Murie, our special guide for the “Writing the War: Following the Footsteps of WW2 Correspondents,” organized by the National World War II Museum.
So what did she do? She followed the path Adolf Hitler took on his one-day trip to the French Capitol to celebrate its surrender to Nazi Germany.
The First stop was the Avenue de Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe. The broad avenue, which is the finish line every year for the Tour de France bicycle race, was designed by Georges-Eugene Haussmann at the direction of Napoleon III, who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew. Housmann demolished the existing slums to create long, wide boulevards that create lines of sight that connect central points and bring light into the areas that were tiny, crooked streets.
The vistas created are similar to those found between the presidential monuments, White House and Congress in Washington, D.C., which also was designed by a Frenchman – Pierre L’Enfant.
Veronique explained that Napoleon III’s modernization of the city wasn’t totally altruistic. Revolutionists could easily within 10 minutes create a formidable barricade within the cities narrow lanes to challenge the emperor’s troops. That couldn’t be done on the Champs-Elysees.
Anchoring the boulevard is Napoleon Bonaparte’s tribute to himself – the massive Roman-style arch that stands 164 feet tall in the intersection of twelve avenues. The Arc de Triomphe touts Napoleon’s 100 military victories, but Veronique pointed out you won’t find any of his losses. Waterloo, for example.
I’d say the structure’s size correlates to Napoleon’s ego.
She also noted Napoleon died in exile never seeing the completed monument that’s now a Paris icon.
Hitler’s next stop was the Eiffel Tower – THE icon of the city built by engineer Gustave Eiffel. There’s a famous picture of the Fuhrer dancing a little victory jig at the sight where we stopped to take photos of the centerpiece of the 1896 World’s Fair.
Veronique said Parisians hated the tower. Iron was associated with industrial use, not art. And it replaced cathedrals and churches as the tallest structures in the city. It, in fact, was the tallest structure in the world (1,063 feet) until the Chrysler Building/skyscraper was built in New York.
We’re fortunate to have the opportunity to see the two symbols of Paris because Hitler gave the order to blow them up before the Allies liberated the city. German Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz did not carry out the order, surrendering an intact Paris to French Gen. Philippe Leclerc, who led the free French troops into Paris.
Hitler’s last stop before returning to Berlin was Les Invalides, where Napoleon’s remains lay in a massive, mahogany-colored tomb covered by a beautiful dome that is covered in gold leaf. Just as Napoleon admired Julius Caesar, Hitler admired the artillery corporal who eventually crowned himself emperor in the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Behind Napoleon’s tomb is now the Musee de L’Armee – France’s military museum with exhibits stretching across the centuries. You can see medieval suits of armor, Napoleonic-era military uniforms or exhibits covering both World War I and World War II.
While Hitler then left for Berlin, Veronique guided us to the island heart of the city surrounded by the Seine River where was built Notre Dame Cathedral.
The Gothic structure also was saved from destruction- not at the hands of the Nazis, but the French. The church was badly damaged during the French Revolution. The cost to renovate would be greater than the cost to demolish it and rebuild a new cathedral.
But the success of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” sparked a tourism trade that pushed France to preserve, not destroy the third icon of Paris. This is where War correspondent Helen Kirkpatrick witnessed the attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle and other French
Grande structures, grand stories, and a great city.
Hoosier Abroad No. 8
The best thing about vacations are those unexpected surprises. Zum goldenen Einhorn in Aachen tonight was that moment.
Our tour group arrived in this German city near the Belgium border a little before dinner time and dinner was on us to find. Donald Miller, the historian for the “Writing the War: Following the Footsteps of WWII Correspondents” tour organized by the National World War II Museum, suggested Mike Bush and I find a restaurant with a deer’s head on the front of the building. He said it was near the cathedral in the city center. He couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant.
Mike, an emergency room physician in Billings, Montana, and I walked from the Hotel Pullman Quellhoef to the city center. We circled the Gothic cathedral, distinctive with its dome, but found no deer head.
Our fallback position was two restaurants flanking a Starbucks. A young Starbucks employee cleaning up tables outside confirmed our first choice, the Golden Unicorn, when we asked which of the two she would recommend.
With no room in the restaurant, we were seated in one of two wooden booths in the small, front bar. We later learned our seats were formerly benches in a Belgium train station. The bar area featured white tiles with blue artwork of a bygone era.
Melanie was an attentive bartender. She seemed to have another beer poured and ready for Mike before he had finished his first. She also was singing along to the music – incongruously America’s “Horse with No Name.”
Turns out she’s a fan of 70s and 80s American music because her parents operated a disco in the small German town where she grew up. Sorry, I didn’t catch the name but it’s located somewhere between Aachen and Frankfort. Melanie was the reason we were listening to America while sitting in a bar housed in what was a home built in the 1700s after the original structure was consumed in the city’s great fire of 1659. The previous building was first mentioned in records of the 1300s as a “public house,” the equivalent of today’s hotel and tavern.
Melanie said the disco music was how she learned to speak English as a child.
Our waiter, not as outgoing as Melanie, said the Schnitzel was “fine” when I asked how good was it – lacking enthusiasm behind his recommendation. I ordered it anyway – it came with fried potatoes and mushrooms in a brown sauce and sounded like a good German change of pace after a week in France. Mike ordered a meal including Nuremberg sausages, a pork loin, mashed potatoes and black pudding, I still don’t know what that is.
While appetizers – meatballs with mustard and minced pork with onions on French bread – and more beer came, we learned that Melanie came to Aachen because “she could” although the plan had been to go to Rotterdam because she was “tired of speaking German.”
The food was as excellent as the ambiance. My serving size was large, so I drank my dark beer slowly to let the food settle.
Melanie then convinced us to try a special, chilled liqueur made in Düsseldorf, called Killepitsch. It’s flavored with herbs and fruits and has a sweet, but strong taste. She then told the tale behind the name.
Supposedly, soldiers would say, “let’s pitch this down before we get killed – hence Killepitsch.
When she poured our two shot glasses, she also poured one for herself and two for the two men from Bremen in the other booth. She then sat in the booth with us to tell the story of the liqueur. With a toast to new friends, that’s how we met Uwe and Matthew.
Matthew is in the renewable energy field and Uwe is an engineer for Lurssen, which builds those gigantic yachts that only the very rich can afford. The crew for these ships number a dozen, but the majority are there to serve the owner and guests because the ship practically sails itself.
There were smiles and handshakes all around as we left for our hotel.
You won’t find the Golden Unicorn on a trip itinerary, but it’ll be a major memory from the trip.
Hoosier Abroad No. 9
Our tour hit some somber notes on the last day.
“Writing the War-Following the Footsteps of WW2 Correspondents” visited the Huertgen Forest in Germany. A six-month battle for a 50-square-mile pine forest that no one remembers.
It was a nightmare for our infantry. It was dark, damp and deadly. The Germans were hidden in concrete bunkers some built nearly 10 years earlier- before there was a World War sparked by the invasion of Poland. The dense forest of trees 100-feet high deprived the Americans of tank and air support.
Under machine gun fire, the infantry had to get close enough to jam explosives into the pill boxes to either force a surrender or kill those inside. The intensity of this battle is illustrated by the fact military units continue to sweep areas of forest today to clear now 75-year-old land mines, so loggers can safely harvest trees. These units continue to find the remains of dead soldiers from both sides of the conflict.
Part of the Huertgen Forest battle’s obscurity is due to the historical question raised as to its necessity and lack of leadership by its commanding officer, U.S. Gen. Courtney Hodges, who seemed oblivious to the nature of battle in the deep forest, according to tour historian Donald Miller.
You can get lost in the number of casualties at this battle, which paused during the more famous Battle of the Bulge. The personal aspect of war was brought home at the Henri-Chappell Cemetery where the National World War II Museum tour also stopped. Tour members Rich and Karen Coffman of Montgomery, Texas, lay a wreath at the grave of Rich’s uncle Carll in the cemetery that holds 8,000 American dead.
Rich told the tour how he never met Carll because he was only a toddler when his uncle, a civilian pilot enlisted in the infantry. The U.S. Army put him back in the air in a Piper Cub as an artillery spotter, calling in enemy locations. He was shot down and killed by Luftwaffe fighter planes.
The bus carrying our group also made a stop at Vogelsong where Adolf Hitler built a camp to train selected young Nazi party members to become the next wave of government administrators. The primary curriculum for the two 400-member classes was racial purity and Aryan superiority.
Some of the students became the Nazi officials on the eastern front who decided whether a person was sent to a labor camp or death. It’s been documented that one “graduate” was responsible for 80,000 deaths.
I don’t know if this was intentional, but the stops remind us that while we remember those who served and won the war, we don’t celebrate war.
Today’s stops pointed out that our military leaders are not infallible;fathers, uncles and sons die in war; and extreme nationalism can have deadly consequences.
The tour’s final dinner at Pullman Quellhoef Hotel in Aachen, Germany, lightened the mood.
The Hokkaido pumpkin soup and Yakitori roasted kernels were followed by a beef filet and roasted king prawn, over sweet potato puree.
The excellent food and wine accompanied conversation, which occurred at every group lunch or dinner. During the tour, discussions ranged from historical to personal to geopolitical. I met a, golf course owner, Retired CEO of multiple casinos, and someone who helped with Hollywood casting. There was an optometrist, a dentist, and a principal. They were all friendly and I only regret there wasn’t time to talk to everyone during the trip.
This was my first travel tour experience and I didn’t totally know what to expect. Any trepidation was unfounded and I would be happy to make another trip if it was handled in the profession manner of this National World War II Museum production.
As a proud Hoosier, journalist, and member of the board for the Ernie Pyle World War Ii Museum in Dana, Indiana, I’m very aware of the role Pyle played in the global conflict. Donald Miller though introduced my to a half-dozen additional war correspondents that I now want to get to know more thoroughly.
But I am ready to get back home to Indianapolis and my wife, Gayle, who encouraged me to take what might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
To view Steve’s pictures Click Here.