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 3: Mantes-Gassicourt

The 79th had slugged its way through Fougeres, Laval, Le Mans. It had bridged the Sarthe River in its swing north to help close the famous Falaise "pocket". Motorized, moving like an armored column, it was clicking along in the vanguard of the Allied thrust toward Versailles and Paris. On August 15th, as the 79th made plans to push on to Versailles and beyond Paris, the Cross of Lorraine's Mission was changed. Its next objective: Capture the heights overlooking Manges-Gassicourt. This operation was designed to block the last important escape route to the East for the enemy caught in Normandy. The German supply situation was dire and the Allies' next move, in the Seine Loop, was designed to bottle them up for good.

The 314th Infantry Regiment crossing the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt
The 314th Infantry Regiment crossing the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt

From the western heights commanding the Seine River valley, Mantes-Gassicourt looked like a dead city. The Air Force had battered this prime Nazi supply center relentlessly, leaving rubble smouldering in the late summer haze. Roads to and from the city were glutted with wrecked enemy supply vehicles. When the Air Forces stopped, artillery resumed. The 79th Recon Trp. knifed in and out of the city. Combining its quest for information with on-the-spot, hit-and-run missions, it destroyed four enemy gasoline trucks. The enemy was moving from the city to make large scale defense preparations in the "natural loop" of the Seine, northeast of Mantes-Gassicourt. On the morning of Aug. 19, a 314th task force pushed into the city, reported it clear. Meanwhile patrols of the 313th mopped up wooded areas and prodded the vicinity of Rolleboise, to the north. The dams bridging the Seine had been blown, but a catwalk across one still was passable for foot troops.

In pitch dark and driving rain, the 1st and 2nd battalions, 313th, began moving across the river supported by Cos. A and C, 304th Engr. Bn. with assault boats and rafts. By dawn, the entire regiment was dug in on the far shore of The Loop. Throughout the day, the engineer battalion worked tirelessly under sporadic enemy artillery and aerial fire to ferry across division vehicles. Corps engineers began installation of a 40-ton treadway bridge. But with the bridge came the Luftwaffe. It was difficult to recognize this Luftwaffe as the same one that had contented itself before with an occasional bed-check. Rain and shine, high ceiling and low, it paid repeated (but unsuccessful) visits to the bridge site. Division artillery and attached ack-ack waxed fat. At first three enemy planes were shot down, then six, then eleven. At the nearby division PW cage glum-faced prisoners had a ringside seat for the one-sided engagements. But neither the revived Luftwaffe nor the first Nebelwerfer fire the division had experienced since Cherbourg could stop the 79th. By day foot troops harried the desperate enemy. By day and night artillery thundered. In a one night firing session alone Division Artillery and attached units threw a record 4600 rounds of 105mm. and 1048 rounds of 155mm.

For five thunderous days the enemy battered at the lone division holding The Loop. Each counterattack was spurned with staggering losses for the enemy. On August 27 the enemy uncorked his Sunday punch?a full-dress counterattack featuring everything from small arms to flamethrowers. Infantry and artillery met the assault head-on, stopping it cold. Next day the 79th was on the final objective. After customary mopping-up operations, the division passed to XIX Corps. Behind it, safely in Allied hands, was the Seine Loop, by far the most strategic bridgehead in ETO. The enemy's vaunted 18th GAF Division, pride of his Paris defenses, had been battered to bits. On the heights overlooking Mantes-Gassicourt moved burial squads, mute testimony to the awesome efficiency of Division Artillery. Beyond The Loop, Paris was free.

No matter how hurried the architectural tourist may be, the boundary-line of the Ile de France is not to be crossed without stopping in Mantes-Gassicourt. I only had a short time in to visit Mantes before heading back to the train to continue my journey East. While here, I visited Notre Dame de Mantes, a sister to the Cathedral of Paris, built at the same time, perhaps by the same architect, and reproducing its general dispositions, its mode of structure, and some of its details. However, the Cathedral of Paris has been greatly altered, so that its original arrangement is quite changed, while the church at Mantes remains practically as it was, when both were new, about the year 1200.