Local daughter of soldier visits Normandy to reflect

Michel drove the 1944 Jeep found in a ditch after the war. Written on the Jeep’s front: 30th Division, 120th Infantry, F company. This Jeep was, coincidentally, my father’s unit. I sat in the seat next to the driver, braced lest I fall out, rifle mount ahead of me.

Note:June 6, 2019, marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces invaded Normandy, France, in World War II. Recently, Preston native Laurel Gruhn and family made the trip back to Mortain — a trip her father, World War II veteran Reynold Erichson, was unable to make. Gruhn recounts her family’s experience.

Years ago, Bob Melvold contacted me to write a story for his newspaper about my dad (Captain Reynold Erichson) and his World War II experiences following D-Day with the 30th Infantry Division. 

I was teaching in Sabula when Bob walked the three flights of stairs to see me after school. He wrote a great article on Captain Erichson (he died in 1977) and the 30th Division. 

In addition, my sister and I visited Bob and his wife in Maquoketa, where he shared stories of their trip (or trips) to Normandy. All this may have taken place 20 or more years ago, as time flies so fast. Nevertheless, we pledged to go there ourselves someday, but as things go, it didn’t happen until several weeks ago in early May 2019.

It was another era, June 6, 1944, when the Invasion of Normandy was launched. D-Day. Many historians recount the hugeness of it all. The more you read, the more you understand what a world war was. Words like “sacrifice” take on meanings that one shudders to confront.

Phrases like “paid the price” applied to so many men, women, soldiers, civilians, children —even entire races of people — that a grim calculator couldn’t keep up the tallying.

I confronted that hugeness on my trip to Normandy two weeks ago. It’s taken a lifetime for me to understand what my dad went through. There are huge pieces I will never know since my soldier-father didn’t retell the atrocities to twin girls around a supper table. We learned a lot, but much was left untold, waiting for me to uncover.

Meeting the locals

I knew a lot going into this trip, but so much more unfolded. I was fortunate to find a family in the town of Mortain, France, the site of the Battle of Mortain, where my dad was last commander on Hill 314. 

They filled in the details of my dad’s story. They told me all they knew of the battle that destroyed their town and of my father’s role in it all. My father, whose footsteps I literally tried to follow, a poor stumbler at times. 

I will be eternally grateful to Anthony Paysant and his family who, along with townspeople, have made it a top priority to never forget the soldiers of the 30th Division. 

The 30th, under Gen. Omar Bradley, came on the beach D-Day D+5; they overcame Germans occupying every Norman town, battled through Belgium, the Battle of the Bulge before ending up in Magdeburg, Germany, where the war in Europe ended May 8, 1945. 

My dad’s story is one of thousands of men and women. All of their ordeals — both losses and victories — fill scrapbooks, novels, movies, museums, and the Internet. There are just so many people like me searching for and finding those stories.

Exploring Mortain

The Paysant family met me at Deauville, France, where my Iowa Hawkeye tour was based, and took me on a three-hour drive inland to Mortain.

Anthony, a young engineer in the town of Mortain and his sister Melina, a student and helpful interpreter, brought me to the site I had heard about all my life.

Anthony’s father, Michel, drove the 1944 Jeep found in a ditch after the war. Written on the Jeep’s front: 30th Division, 120th Infantry, F company. This Jeep was, coincidentally, my father’s unit. 

I sat in the seat next to the driver, braced lest I fall out, rifle mount ahead of me.

Isabelle, Anthony’s mother, was in the “chase” car behind, to scoop me up if I got tired, beyond fathoming was that I may be sitting in the same Jeep as my dad. 

When we drove down the street, an older gentleman stopped and saluted. It humbled me beyond words. I can’t overstate to my readers the passion of the townspeople for visiting Americans. They gave up their lives, homes, churches, everything to gain their freedom. It kind of explains, sadly, why many people in America are so blasé about patriotism. We’ve never lost our freedom and got it back like the people I was meeting in France. 

I still get teary-eyed thinking of the words that were whispered or shouted — depending on the proximity of ears — all over Europe: “The Invasion is here.”

Visiting the Hill

The family of four took me to Hill 314 where we laid out the map, and with colored markers, retraced the battle action. The Hill was a strategic hill, looking out over all the main roads from the coast. On a clear day one can see a wide panorama from the coast. The Germans wanted that hill to keep a lookout out and to keep their hold on France.

The 30th entered Mortain thinking it would be a day of rest before going on. They had just battled at St. Lo, a horrible battle. (Prior to this trip, I found my father’s report on St. Lo to headquarters. Quite a read.) 

The Germans, however, had other plans as Hitler deemed Mortain should be held at all costs. American generals told their troops the same thing: “Hill 314, keep it at all costs.” And they did. 

After Panzers surrounded the hill, (my dad’s commander was captured by Germans), Capt. Erichson was put in place as last commander of the hill. After 8 days, more troops arrived, and Germans retreated. In total, 300 of the 700-plus who arrived walked off the hill. The Germans would continue to retreat, town by town, retaken by the Allies. But a victory in Europe was not as imminent as first expected.

The Battle of the Bulge was hard fought and finally won after a devastatingly cold winter in the trenches. Commanding officers sent Captain Erichson and others home on leave late 1944, (I read the letter — “Take a rest in your homeland,” the general said.). 

My dad got married, and went back to the 30th Division, which plowed on to Magdeburg, Germany. 

Captain Erichson was promoted to Major, awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross, and French Croix de Guerre. I treasure his medals, knowing that they represent all the men who served bravely with him. All were heroes.

In May, Americans shook hands with the Russians coming from the East to end it once and for all; They’ve never been friendly again.

On the hill I met a man who had driven 400 miles from Belgium to meet me. His father had housed soldiers of the 30th in his barn during the war. He asked me to sign his American flag. 

So I did, his name now recorded along with others whose children have since visited France and likewise signed the flag. 

I never thought I’d ever see a foxhole, but later on the hill, I was standing in one. Cows — field after field of Norman cows — grazed in places once bloodied by battle. 

The final event of the tour was a reception in the town hall of Mortain with the mayor, and lunch at the Hotel de la Poste, formerly the command post during the war. 

The owner keeps his best wine, aged, for visiting Americans. So we toasted, ate, and I tried to read the emotions of the Frenchmen surrounding me. We were communicating mostly with our eyes; there were lots of hugs, “merci’s”, and memories from both sides of the ocean. 

Reflection

Back with the Hawkeye tour on the coast, we traveled to the tourist spots. The weather was with us when we visited the invasion sites where Americans took to the beaches. 

There was great camaraderie among our U of I tour mates; a few were from Iowa, but most lived all over the country. One man’s dad was the nose gunner in a B-17 during the war in Europe. Another had a father who was a Ranger, D+2. The rangers had it tough. His dad never talked about it.

French people’s gratitude could be seen over and over in village squares where statues of soldiers and generals stood. Pictures of war heroes lined streets; the whole Norman countryside was preparing for the 75th Anniversary celebration. Everywhere was the bustle of preparation.

I had hoped to be in Normandy for the week of June 2-9, but believe now that Fate brought me there sooner to experience it in relative quiet. The Normandy American Cemetery played the Star Spangled Banner and Taps — which I managed to record, thanks to smart phone technology. Those songs solemnly and majestically reverberated against a backdrop of 9,388 American graves.

The wind battered the flags on Omaha Beach, furling and unfurling, cannonading still after all these years. I never experienced a breeze on the coast of Normandy while I was there. The flags on Omaha Beach were loud and demanding.

They said, “Don’t forget me, don’t destroy me, and don’t ever assume I am less than I am.” 

They proclaimed even louder, “Go home and fly me proudly, because you can!”

Omaha Beach sand is drying on my kitchen counter after I scooped handfuls into a Ziplock bag. The luggage is airing out; the souvenirs are lined up for gifting.

The ghost of a soldier haunts my thoughts; his spirit revives my American soul. My greatest hope is that people in our little towns and big cities, our prairies, mountains, deserts, lake country and bayous — all Americans — to remember D-Day in some way this month. 

Believe me, all over Normandy, people are saying prayers of thanks in their once-battered churches for some soldier you knew.