Monday, June 4, 2018

Stones and Bones 10 - Normandy American Cemetery

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is located in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. The original cemetery here was called the American St. Laurent Cemetery, which was established by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944. The Americans needed a place to bury their dead during World War II and this was the first American cemetery established on European soil during that war. There are over 9,000 soldiers buried here and it is one of the most visited graveyards in the world. For those that visit, it is a truly moving experience. Join me as I explore the stones and bones found here.

The Normandy American Cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach, one of five beaches that was part of the Normandy Invasion. The beaches were all given codenames. Besides Omaha there was Sword, Juno, Gold and Utah. The Normandy Invasion occurred on a day that we all know as D-Day, June 6, 1944. This was the largest amphibious invasion in history.  Allied land forces were made up of troops from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Free French forces. They would later be joined by Polish forces and contingents from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece and the Netherlands. The night before the invasion, German troops were softened by massive air attacks from the air forces of these nations along with the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Overnight parachute and glider landings took place as well. Naval forces from all of these countries also bombarded the beaches the night before. The attacks were formally known as Operation Overlord. 

Troops from the United States landed on Omaha and Utah, Great Britain landed on Gold and Sword and Canada landed on Juno. The total number of troops that landed on D-Day was around 130,000–156,000, roughly half American and the other from the Commonwealth Realms. The fighting would last until July 9th. Over 425,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing during the invasion from both sides. This was a great Allie victory and the Germans had to push back to Paris. This was the beginning of the end for the Nazis. *Fun Fact: The D in D-Day stands for nothing. It was a term regularly used for the beginning of an assault, but after this invasion, it was forever made a permanent marker of this day.*

The Normandy American Cemetery was established on July 18, 1956 just to the east of the St. Laurent Cemetery. France granted the United States a special concession that lasts into perpetuity that gives them the land that covers 172 acres, free of any charge or tax. The bodies were all moved here from several temporary cemeteries. They were placed in wooden coffins that were put in metal vaults that were buried facing the United States. The remains of 9,387 American military dead are buried here, including 307 of the unknown and four American women. The image the graveyard creates is striking as rows of perfectly aligned crosses stretch across the acres in perfect lines laid out by string lines.

Most of the dead were killed during the invasion of Normandy and ensuing military operations in World War II. There are also graves of Army Air Corps crews shot down over France dating back to 1942. The Walls of the Missing is a semicircular colonnade that has 1,557 names inscribed on it. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. At each end there is a loggia containing large maps and narratives of the military operations. In the center is a 22-foot-tall bronze statue called “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” overlooking a reflecting pool. An orientation table overlooking the beach depicts the landings in Normandy. There is a circular chapel and, at the far end, granite statues representing the United States and France.

The American Battle Monuments Commission is a small independent agency of the U.S. federal government and it manages the cemetery. In 2007, the Normandy Visitors Center opened and dedicated on June 6, 2007 during the commemoration of the 63rd Anniversary of D-Day. The center is sited in a wooded area of the cemetery approximately 100 meters east of the Garden of the Missing. There are exhibits and they run three visitor films: Letters, On Their Shoulders, and Ok, Let's Go. There is a time capsule embedded in the lawn directly opposite the entrance to the old Visitors' Building. It contains news reports of the June 6, 1944 Normandy landings and is covered by a pink granite slab that reads: To be opened June 6, 2044. Affixed in the center of the slab is a bronze plaque adorned with the five stars of a General of the Army and engraved with the following inscription: “In memory of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the forces under his command.” 

Every person who laid down their life during the Normandy Invasion is notable, but obviously with so many thousands buried here, I can’t touch on everybody. We’ll look at some of those who are more well known and have more information on them out in the public space. Only some of those who died overseas are buried in the overseas American military cemeteries. After the war, family members were asked if they would like to have the bodies repatriated.

Lesley J. McNair was a U.S. Army general who served during both World Wars. He was one of the two highest-ranking Americans to be killed in action in World War II. He was born in Minnesota on May 25, 1883. He was a 1904 graduate of the United States Military Academy. During World War I, he served as assistant chief of staff for training with the 1st Division, and then chief of artillery training on the staff at the American Expeditionary Forces headquarters. He was so distinguished in his service at that point that he became the Army’s youngest general officer when he was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 35. During World War II, he was assigned as commander of Army Ground Forces. He was said to be the "unsung architect of the U.S. Army." Not all tacticians and historians agree with the ideas that General McNair made, but he is credited with modernizing the Army’s tactics. Unfortunately, he was killed by friendly fire while in France while commanding the fictional First United States Army Group. This group was used to mask the actual landing sites on D-Day and was called Operation Quicksilver. Operation Cobra was using heavy bombers to provide air support for infantry operations during the Battle of Normandy and an Eighth Air Force bomb landed in his foxhole.

Jimmie Waters Monteith Jr. was a United States Army officer whose heroic actions on D-Day led to him being awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Jimmie was born in Jul of 1917. He joined the fight during World War II in Algeria when he was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division known as the Big Red One. The division moved to Sicily in July 1943, and he received a field promotion to 1st lieutenant during the campaign. The Big Red One joined the Normandy Invasion, arriving in England in November of 1943. He was killed on D-Day. Jimmie’s grave can be found in section I, row 20, grave 12. The following citation was issued with his Medal of Honor:

“The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to First Lieutenant (Infantry) Jimmie W. Montieth Jr., United States Army for service as set forth in the following CITATION: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, while serving with 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, in action near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. First Lieutenant Monteith landed with the initial assault waves on the coast of France under heavy enemy fire. Without regard to his own personal safety he continually moved up and down the beach reorganizing men for further assault. He then led the assault over a narrow protective ledge and across the flat, exposed terrain to the comparative safety of a cliff. Retracing his steps across the field to the beach, he moved over to where two tanks were buttoned up and blind under violent enemy artillery and machinegun fire. Completely exposed to the intense fire, First Lieutenant Monteith led the tanks on foot through a minefield and into firing positions. Under his direction several enemy positions were destroyed. He then rejoined his company and under his leadership his men captured an advantageous position on the hill. Supervising the defense of his newly won position against repeated vicious counterattacks, he continued to ignore his own personal safety, repeatedly crossing the 200 or 300 yards of open terrain under heavy fire to strengthen links in his defensive chain. When the enemy succeeded in completely surrounding First Lieutenant Monteith and his unit and while leading the fight out of the situation, First Lieutenant Monteith was killed by enemy fire. The courage, gallantry, and intrepid leadership displayed by First Lieutenant Monteith is worthy of emulation.”

Two of the four Niland brothers are buried here, Preston and Robert. The Niland brothers were Irish-Americans from Tonawanda, New York. All four boys enlisted to serve during World War II. At one point during the war, it was thought that three of the boys had been killed in action and this led to orders to have the one remaining brother, Frederick "Fritz" Niland, pulled out of action and shipped back home. This story inspired the Steven Spielburg movie “Saving Private Ryan.” It would later be discovered that another brother, Edward, was actually alive and a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp in Burma. He had parachuted from his B-25 Mitchell and was captured in the jungles of Burma. He was a POW for a year and after the war returned to Tonawanda where he lived until his death in 1984 at the age of 71. Fritz was awarded a Bronze Star for his service and died in 1983 in San Francisco at the age of 63. His brother Bob was 25 when he died in Normandy. He was serving with D Company, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. He volunteered to join two other soldiers to man machine guns to holdoff the Germans while their company retreated from Neuville-au-Plain. He was killed while manning his machine gun; the other two men survived. Preston was a Second Lieutenant with the 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. He was killed in action the day after D-Day near Utah Beach. He was 29-years-old.

Frank D. Peregory was a United States Army technical sergeant who posthumously received the Medal of Honor. He had already received the Soldier's Medal for rescuing another soldier from drowning. Peregory was only 15-years-old when he lied about his age in order to join the Virginia Army National Guard. That unit was activated in December 1941. Peregory saved a fellow soldier while guarding a beach. He would take heroic action again when his unit was assigned to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He risked his life by single-handedly attacking a fortified German machine-gun emplacement, killing several and taking more than 30 prisoners. He managed to do this unscathed. But the Medal of Honor had to be awarded posthumously because he was killed in action six days later.

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was the eldest son of President Theodore Roosevelt. He directed troops at the Normandy Invasion on Utah Beach. He received the Medal of Honor for his service during that attack. His original track in life was not military. He was educated at private academies and Harvard University and he went into business. He enlisted with the Army when World War I started and he was given a reserve commission as major because he had attended a Citizens' Military Training Camp. He served primarily with the 1st Division, took part in several engagements including the Battle of Cantigny, and commanded the 26th Infantry Regiment as a lieutenant colonel. He helped form the American Legion and after the war, he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1921–1924), Governor of Puerto Rico (1929–1932), and Governor-General of the Philippines (1932–1933). He returned to active duty when World War II started and received promotion to brigadier general as assistant division commander of the 1st Infantry Division. He helped lead the North Africa landings during Operation Torch and then went on to the Normandy Invasion. He survived through that but died a month later from a heart attack. He had been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism at Normandy, but it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor after his death. He was the only general on D-Day to land by sea with the first wave of troops and he was the oldest man in the invasion at 56. His son also landed on that day.

Quentin Roosevelt was the youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt. He joined the United States Army Air Service where he became a pursuit pilot during World War I. He was a daring pilot with the 95th Aero Suadron who flew a Nieuport 28. He was shot down in aerial combat over Chamery in France on Bastille Day.  Two machine gun bullets struck him in the head. The German military buried him with full battlefield honors and used wire from his plane to bind two pieces of basswood saplings together to form a cross. Eleven years after the World War II American Cemetery was established in France at Colleville-sur-Mer, Quentin's body was exhumed and moved there. He is buried next to his brother Ted and the basswood cross was put on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton Ohio.

A really cool thing is that over a decade ago, a French couple founded an organization that matched French families with a serviceman’s grave and they lay memorials there since most have families that cannot do that personally. This truly is a moving cemetery. And that was just a little about the stones and bones found here!

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