As a traveler, I have discovered frequently the best memories are unplanned and unscripted.
On 3 June 2009 I bicycled into the American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer at Omaha Beach, the culmination of several years of research, study and pursuit of a long held avocation.
My plan was to cycle 500-plU.S. kilometers solo along the Norman Coast from Le Havre and Honfleur to the Normandie Beaches then inland along Voie de la Liberte retracing where my father, a Combat Medic with the Troop A, 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Fourth Cavalry Group, U.S. Army was 65 years earlier.
As I unsaddled, I heard the final refrain of the United States national anthem followed by “Taps.” Three days prior to the arrival of presidents Sarkozy, Obama and other dignitaries, I stood upon the red-carpeted stage and listened to a 30-piece orchestra in dress rehearsal. It was emotional before I viewed the first white cross and was grateful to be a free American cycling in a liberated France.
My journey began similar to my father’s, training in the southern UK, staying in Portsmouth with day trips to Rowland’s Castle, Goodwood, Chichester and Bognor Regis where he trained and bivouacked from December 1943 until jU.S. t after D-Day. Portsmouth has an excellent D-Day MU.S. eum that hoU.S. es the Overlord Tapestry. There I found on display a letter with the return address from a soldier in my father’s troop.
An evening ferry departure landed me in Le Havre at 0700 hour and I bicycled over Pont du Normandie (a climb like some of the lesser mountain passes in Colorado) 25 km to Honfleur for my first night in France. MU.S. ee de Eugene Boudin is a nice way to spend a quiet hour and the cobbled walks among half-timbered buildings was invigorating.
The next day as I left the PegasU.S. Bridge MU.S. eum at a roundabout I made an acquaintance that would greatly enhance my time in Normandie. Levi Daniels, a 30-year-old touring cyclist from Ypres, Belgium, was looking at the same map I had. We cycled in an echelon of two along the coast through Lion-sur-Mer with a day trip to the Mémorial de Caen and Eglise Saint Pierre, and well-landscaped grounds, Longues-sur-Mer and Arromanche to view the remnants of the Mulberry harbor and to our destination, Grandcamp-Maisy.
At Point du Hoc, I watched laughing children running up and down the 10-meter-deep, six-and-a-half-decade-old bomb craters. In Carentan, through misted eyes I watched a World War II veteran in a wheelchair, his tears running down his aged cheeks as 400 school children sang in French. Neither he nor I understood the songs, but I thought that 65 years ago he never thought his actions would result in such a peaceful tribute.
Looking out on the channel on a clear day from the pier at Gramdcamp-Maisy one can faintly see Iles St. Marcouf, 14 kilometers northwest from Grandcamp-Maisy (7.5 km east from the beach east of the town of Saint Marcouf.) In 1849, Napoleon had constructed on Ile du Large a fortress to protect the coast from seaborne invasion. The fortress consists of an outer wall and a 53-meter diameter tower of two levels with 24 bunkers on the lower level and the second has 24 gun emplacements and shooting platforms.
At 0430, 6 June 1944, two hours before the main invasion of Operation Overlord, members of Troop B, 4th Cavalry Group assaulted the islands in rubber boats becoming the first seaborne allied forces to land on French soil. Presently, the Fourth Cavalry Association is in discU.S. sion with the French government to have a plaque placed recognizing their efforts and success. In that effort I met with Mme. Renee Barbot of the Association Ile du Large. Since 1960, it has been known as Reserve de Ste. Marcouf; the islands are a protected wildlife area and access is prohibited.
On the evening of 6 June, after a day cycling to Cemetrie Allemande le Cambe, Utah Beach and back to Chez la Fontaine, our campground; 83 kilometers total, we climbed in the back of a canvas topped, 2 1/2 ton Army surplU.S. truck for a bumpy ride to Grandcamp-Maisy to watch a uniquely coordinated fireworks display. From our vantage point near the pier the channel and skies were quiet yet portentoU.S. and ominoU.S. as post sunset grays deepened into the dark of night, much like I imagine 65 years earlier. There, hundreds, locals and visitors, witnessed four simultaneoU.S. fireworks displays at once. Precisely at 2300 hours, a red sweeping laser turned green as it swept the channel east 4.2 km, to Point du Hoc then arcing back to the northwest 9.8 km to Utah Beach and the Varrevile Battery another two kilometers up the coast signaling the launch of bursts of red, yellow, and green and white the same at each location flashed in unison, only the thunderoU.S. sounds were delayed by distance. In 20 minutes it was silent, unlike the real bombardments that in places altered the landscape and changed communities and history forever.
The next morning I began the route of following the guidon of the Fourth Cavalry. Near St. Hilaire-Petitville, Levi and I bid, “Au revoir” and parted — he on his way to Ste. Mere Eglise, me along the Voie de la Liberte during the Breakout of Normandy in July and AugU.S. t of 1944. South on the side roads that roughly parallel N174 and D999 I pedaled effortlessly along the marais and the Bocage making real the names I had seen on maps, Montmartin-en-Graignes, Tribehou, St. Lo, St. Ebremond-de-Bonfosse, St.-Martin-de Bonfosse. Names I had read about in the unit histories of the Fourth Cavalry, the 4th, 29th and 30th Infantry Divisions. Each town I passed, each church yard I visited from Martin-en-Graignes to le Mesnil-Herman I found monuments to the liberators and flower display remembrances to the fallen. They, the French people will always remember.
Late Sunday afternoon I rode into le Mesnil-Herman, a hamlet liberated by my father’s unit and the 29th and 30th Infantry on 2 AugU.S. t 1944. There, another of those unplanned and unscripted and unforgettable occurrence happened; a reason why travelers want to be more than tourists.
I came upon a woman closing her allée gate and in my broken French I said, “Mon pere ici soixante-sanc anni.” Or more correctly, “Mon père était ici il y a soixante-cinq ans”
She called her daughter who also had difficulty with my French. But when I spoke to the father and said, “la libération,” he opened the gate and invited me in. Gilbert Lefevre, his wife Brigitte, and three adult children — Michel, Julien and Marhilde — welcomed me and made me feel like an adopted relative. I camped in the backyard of the quaint chateau on a manicured lawn next to the chicken coops. I know for the French Sunday is the day for the family but they shared their table for three inspiring hours with a man whose only connection was the events of 65 years ago, the liberation of Normandie. Gilbert spoke as much English as I speak French but with the aide of dictionaries and rudimentary cartography (he drew me a map to find the local monument) we conversed quite well, his parting comment that night, “petit déjeuner demain.”
In warm gratitude as I packed to leave the next day I gave Gilbert the special baseball cap I wore, one with the shoulder patch insignia of the Fourth Cavalry. He smiled broadly and proudly as he put it on.
As Gilbert directed, I found the memorial dedicated to the 29th and 30th U.S. Infantry Divisions then cycled to Moyon, Tessy-sur-Vire, and Vire where I took a train to Chartres and comfort of Hotel Jehan de Beauce and enjoyed a rainy day ride near the cathedral. I came upon municipal workers the setting of a new bronze statue of three young men, reminiscent of my three sons who have called their father a “hero’’ (knowing I was but following the path of real heroes) for undertaking a lengthy cycling tour solo. Seeing the bronze sections lifted with a noose around each figure’s neck was quite comical. It is located in the open area near le bureau de maire.
In 2010, my hope is to continue my personal Tour de Voie de la Liberte cycling south and east of Paris from Chartres to Saint Vrain, Nanville-les-Roche and Melun. Following the guidon of the Fourth Cavalry will take me to Reau, Meaux, Chateau-Thierrey, Sissons and Charleville-Mezieres then into Belgium and the Ardennes. Several stages to the 2010 Tour de France pass in close proximity of the Fourth Cavalry’s route and I hope to experience both. In the meantime, for me, its research, language study and continued pursuit of a long held avocation; touring France by velo.
Val Valentine is a recreational cyclist of advanced age, a Francophile and freelance writer, a novelist of western U.S. historical fiction living in the mountains of southwest Colorado. Double Jack, Search for a DU.S. ty Jewel is currently ranked 4,062.630 on Amazon Books Bestseller list.