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In My Grandfather's Boots: From Utah Beach to Epinal

In August 2009, I had the rare opportunity to walk where my Grandfather, and countless others walked. From the landing beaches of D-day, following the path of the 79th Infantry and 314th Infantry Regiment across France, I caught a glimpse, perhaps, of how his 5 months on the front lines made him undergo a transformation from an apprehensive novice into a battle-tested veteran. Visiting the dark forests where empty foxholes tell haunting stories. Walking where the daily life of soldiers led, where they were locked in gruesome events far beyond their experience. Walking where they fought side-by-side under fire, suffered wounds, agonized over the deaths of friends, enduring true suffering and sacrifice. From Utah Beach to his final resting place in the American Cemetary at Epinal, France, this was my journey.






Day 2: Mont St. Michel

Mont St Michel is the one stop on this trip that had nothing to do with my grandfather's journey, but a definite must-see if you are in the region. This soaring 11th century Gothic masterpiece that rises majestically from its own little rocky island in the Bay of St Malo has been a place of pilgrimage for well over a thousand years, and is without question one of the most incredible places I've had the chance to visit. We rented a car in Caen driving across coastal farmland in full mustard-flower and through little villages, able to see it long before we reached the coast. We arrived at the parking area at the end of the causeway. Tide was high so the abbey sat like a jewel in a pool of blues and greens. By the time we were to return, the tide flats were exposed. The tides of the region are famously and dangerously erratic. They change so rapidly that Victor Hugo brought them to life by describing them as moving "a la vitesse d'un cheval au gallop" (as swiftly as a galloping horse). We walked a footpath to the gate of the island complex, stopping to examine stranded tidal pools. Once inside the gate, one is immediately transported back in time several hundred years! We began the winding walk up, up, up, along the Rue Grande, in a magnificent ascendance, from the gate and entry courtyard to the grand stairs and abbey entrance. I explored the arcaded cloisters where one can wander at leisure, and probably get lost, among the maze of rooms, staircases, and vaulted halls. Finally, I made it up the almost 900 steps to the Abbey at the top of the world, which offers vertiginous views of the bay. What it must have been hundreds of years ago to live in a place such as this!

Mont St Michel
Mont St. Michel

La Haye du Puits

After leaving Mont Saint Michel behind, I got back on track to see as many places I could where my Grandfather had gone before me. First, we drove through La Haye du Puits, visiting the obelisk memorial in memory of the 79th Infantry. In early July, 1944, the 1st American Army launched an offensive toward La Haye du Puits. The Americans engaged in a "battle of the hedges" that was going to be very costly. Before entering La Haye du Puits the Allied had to push back the Germans from two hills that framed the city: Montgardon and Le Mont Castre. On 6 July, the 79th American Infantry Division seized Montgardon. On 8 July, the 90th Infantry Division took the northern slope of the Mont Castre, after the parachutists of the 82th Airborne Division captured several hills at the foot of the Mont. The battle caused heavy human losses; at the end of the day, the 79th Infantry Division cleaned La Haye du Puits of the last snipers from the 35th German Infantry Division.

79th Infantry in La Haye du Puits
79th Infantry in La Haye du Puits

The three divisions of VIII Corps, the 79th, the 82nd Airborne, and the 90th, took the leading roles. The goal was to take a series of key high points around La haye du Puits and envelop the town. On the extreme west flank, the 79th Division would overwhelm the German defensive positions known as the Mahlmann Line along the Montgardon Ridge. To the east, the 90th Division drew the mission of seizing the crossroads of Beau Coudray, along with Hill 122. Ultimately the aim was to have these two divisions keep pushing south, beyond La Haye du Puits, and join hands somewhere around Lessay. In the center, the 82nd Airborne, now reduced to half-strength after a month of continuous combat, was to capture Hills 131 and 95 north of La Haye du Puits.

"You were the chaps at La Hay du Puits, weren't you?" the British liaison officer said. "We heard you had a piece of cake over there-and a bloody piece of cake it was!"

On the western flank, the 79th, just a week removed from its victory at Cherbourg, moved forward during the early morning hours of July 3. In five days of fighting, the division pierced the enemy's forward Mahlmann Line positions, located almost within sight of the coast, and advanced south. On 4 July, they captured Hill 121. From this point on, the going got tougher. The division spent several days fighting, hedgerow by hedgerow, and seized most of the Montgardon Ridge. Patrols from the division linked up with the 82nd and pushed into La Haye du Puits, but the Germans were there in force and the patrols had to retreat.

On Montgardon Ridge, the Germans were hunkered down in well-sited bunkers, protected by barbed wire and mines. Whenever the 79th Division soldiers made any headway, the enemy counterattacked. In one instance, they surrounded two companies from the 314th Infantry as they were resting along a sunken road. German infantry, supported by armor, popped out of the hedgerows that bordered the sunken road. The fighting was harrowing and intimate. The Americans were taken by complete suprise, but they had one thing going for them - they had communication with their artillery. The regiment's artillery battteries provided accurate, effective fire. The artillery, combined with the fighting resolve of about sixty solderiers who fought ferociously at several points along the road, broke up the German attack. But the enemy still got away with 64 prisoners. They also bought precious time to strengthen the main defenses on Montngardon Ridge.

In six days of fighting, the 79th, assisted by the newly arrived 8th Infantry Division, gained the crest of the ridge and La Haye du Puits itself by the evening of July 8, all at the cost of more than 2000 casualties, half of who were hit on July 7 in horrible fighting for the crest.

Lessay

Leaving La Haye du Puits, I then drove through Lessay. The 79th Division's plan of attack for "Operation Cobra" was for the 314th Regiment to follow the 8th Infantry Division's 28th Regiment across the Ay River, after the 8th Division secured the high ground south of Lessay, while the 315th Regiment was to ford the river opposite the town. At 0530, 26 July 1944, the 314th Regiment's cannon and mortars opened up in preparation for the 28th Regiment's attack but it was not until evening that the 314th Regiment's battalions began crossing the Ay River. Supported by tanks and advancing in spite of hidden death in the form of widespread minefields, the Division met little resistance in its envelopment of Lessay. Engineers from the 304th Engineer Battalion cleared the way for the infantry and tanks and despite heavy artillery fire the 315th Regiment was able to report Lessay taken by 2130 of the 26th.

79th Infantry in Lessay
79th Infantry in Lessay



Photographs