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 4: Luneville, Harbouey, Blamont, Fremonville

At the German's back were the Meurthe River, the Foret de Parroy, the Vosges foothills and the Rhine. These were to be the sites of his last-ditch stand.

"We climbed Fort du Roule, and we crossed the Meurthe River. If we had to do one of the two over, we'd take Fort du Roule every time. Compared with this operation, Fort du Roule was a picnic." ~ Lt. Col. Ernest R. Purvis, CO, 3rd Battalion 314th

The 3rd Bn. made contact with the enemy's Meurthe River line at Frambois where a German force larger than a battalion held the river proper and a comparable force was in "active reserve" in a wooded strip just beyond the river valley. Emplaced machine guns and dug-in tanks bracketed the river's breast-deep fords and blown bridge sites with a murderous fire. Battalion non-coms even now refer to the Frambois action as "Little D-Day." When the smoke of battle lifted two days later, the Meurthe River line was no more; in the wooded strip beyond, the 3rd Bn. was mopping up.

US tanks line a street in Luneville, France
US tanks line a street in Luneville, France

The 79th stormed into the city of Luneville, and the enemy turned again - this time to familiar haunts. In World War I he had found a haven in the Forest of Parroy; here in World War II he elected to make another stand. Third Army chose a line extending from Donnelay to Baccarat as one of several American objectives to stymie the enemy's withdrawal, but to XV Corps went the task of clearing Foret de Parroy. Again Corps beckoned the 79th, and again it spearheaded the attack.

After nearly four consecutive months of combat as part of First and Third Armies, the 79th Division had sustained considerable casualties, yet it was allowed no time for rest or reorganization. Immediately following the seizure of Luneville as part of the Third Army, the division was thrust into the battle for the Parroy Forest, where Hitler himself had fought as a corporal in World War I. The thickly wooded Parroy Forest proved to be a major obstacle in the path toward the Vosges mountain barrier and the Saverne Gap. While the 79th Infantry Division and XV Corps artillery gradually wrested the Parroy Forest from elements of the German 11th Panzer and 15th Panzer-Grenadier Divisions and later, the 553rd Volks-Grenadier Division, the intense combat in this sector caused more than two thousand casualties in the division in less than a month, more than it had seen in any other single battles to date.

This part of my trip was the most anticipated and ultimately, the most exciting. The day started with Adjudant-chef Philippe Sugg and Lieutenant Selma Gallou picking me up at my hotel. Philippe Sugg is a frequent visitor to the Private Letters website and a friend to the 79th Infantry. Graciously, Selma was able to come along and be my interpreter. This was a full day to say the least. We started it off by visiting Philippe's museum. Words can't do this experience justice. To begin with, he has every imaginable weapon, uniform, piece of equipment, etc. in spades. Rooms and shelves are overflowing with artifacts directly from the battlefield and countryside in the surrounding area.

At one point, we were joined by Gérard Louis, a local WW2 Historian famous in his own right for discovering the missing dogtags of 2 missing soldiers of the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. Read his story here. Next, Philippe had in store for me, a history lesson. Let me assure you that this wasn't the brief synopsis of a hobbyist. This was a history lesson from a passionate historian, encyclopedist, and researcher. Where shelf space was available, Philippe pulled maps and copious amounts of documentation self-compiled and filled with notes scrawled in the margins. His expertise prepared us for our trip that afternoon, which would take me through the final places my grandfather saw before he was wounded and eventually died.

Next up we visited the Airfield Chanteheux. The air base served as home for the 324th Fighter Group and a monument is erected there. After that, we visited the newly erected memorial dedicated to the 314th Regiment's courageous battle action at Fraimbois and the Muerte River. Philippe, through Selma, refreshed my memory and added a number of details on the events that happened near this pivotal spot.

At that point, it was time to break and we enjoyed lunch at the Garrison, where I also had the opportunity to meet Philippe's Capitaine, Gilles Cuinat, whose enthusiasm seemed to echo that of everyone I had met so far. The afternoon kicked into high gear as we headed into the Foret de Parroy.

Tanks in the Foret de Parroy, France
Tanks in the Foret de Parroy, France

The Forest of Parroy is located about 21 miles east of the north-south line. It is about 7.5 miles from east to west and about 5.5 miles from north to south. It is characterized by dense woods and very thick underbrush, cut occasionally by very poorly maintained logging trails, fire breaks, and small clearings. Many of the field fortifications of the First World War remain in the forest and the Germans put them to good use in this war as well as in the last.

"On a cloudy afternoon it is a dark, forbidding place, a good home for the lost souls of all wars... We have our memories of Parroy, indelible ones which cannot be felt without-being experienced: Foxholes half filled with water, enemy minefields so laid that even Germans didn't dare pick them up, incessant shelling that gave no respite, the rain, the cold and all the misery of hopelessness for the present.

Stepping off the main road, the forest was dark, the empty foxholes oblivious to the summer sun shining brightly above. It is truly sobering to imagine soldiers huddled here under constant German artillery fire, red-hot, fist-sized pieces of shrapnel scything lethally through the trees. Leftover detritus can be found just under the surface, and immediately, we discovered remnants of a German cup, American K-rations containers, and a rusted spoon. Eventually we made it to the highpoint crossroads that upon gaining, turned the battle for the forest for the American forces. From there, Gérard Louis showed us the area in which he'd discovered the dogtags of the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. At another location, we found a small pile of material including a German fork, many shells of various caliber, and a myriad of tank parts. Shortly thereafter, Gérard presented me with an American bayonette he had discovered. A very generous act and a great addition to my growing collection! With the peace and quiet of this forest today, it is hard to imagine the violence and sacrifice that once echoed between the trees.

Third Army Front, 25 Sep 1944 From there, we traveled along the high ridge to the Fort du Mannonviller and continued on to Harbouey. On 9 November, field orders came down. Take the Saverne Gap in the Vosges Mountains. The Vosges were heavily defended by the Germans who were spread out, staggered, in the old World War One pillboxes and machine gun strong points. The 314th's first objective lay north of Harbouey, northeast of Ancerviller. Under cover of darkness with silence and secrecy stressed, on 12 November, the 314th moved to the assault assembly area southwest of Montigny.

On 14 November, the 3rd BN moved into the attack at 1115 with a battalion from the 315th to begin securing their assigned area. Most of it was secured but darkness halted troops for the night. 1st BN sent C/Co to 7A and they drew artillery fire. 2nd BN moved forward to assemble near Point 6 to support 3rd's drive the next day. On 15 November, once the 315th had advanced to equal points in line with the 314th, 3rd BN jumped off to take its targets and by late afternoon, all eleven points were held by the 79th Division.

At 1620, orders from Division called for a patrol to capture the bridge and crossroads south of Fremonville on the Vesouze River. The same river the 314th had crossed at Marainviller and Croismare on the trek to Foret de Parroy. The orders called for the bridge to be taken at night. The Regiment was to follow the patrols to Fremonville and send a force over to secure Barbas. 1st BN was given the Barbas assignment, while 2nd and 3rd took the Fremonville assault. As the plans were being drawn, the CP was being showered by German artillery. Orders were modified as a patrol reported that Fremonville's bridgehead was intact and defended by a squad of German infantry. The attack was reschedule for the next morning, 16 November.

In support of the 79th ID, the 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion fires into the city of Fremonville, France
In support of the 79th ID, the 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion fires into the city of Fremonville, France

At 0840, 16 November, the 2nd BN moved out headed to Fremonville. E/Co took immediate small arms fire and artillery, halting them fast, while G/Co faced artillery coming in from German positions southeast of Blamont. 1st BN headed into the woods south of Barbas, with C/Co on point, and captured 25 Germans at an outpost along the path. By nightfall, 3rd Battalion had made it to points 10 and 11, patroling west of the wooded area. It was during this day, that my grandfather was wounded and evacuated to the 51st Evacuation Hospital in Vincey.

I crossed the bridge at the Vezouze River, and looked back and the expansive field behind me, with the wooded area in the distance, to my right. It is very likely, that somewhere within my line of sight, my grandfather was wounded advancing on Fremonville. Just across the bridge is the old train station which would soon serve as a hospital. Immediately upon entering the town, Philippe sought out any residents that were living in Fremonville during the 79th's battle. The first stop found the resident laid up in bed from a heart attack. Knocking at the door of the Mayor's home, we discovered him to be out of town, but another man, walking past us across the street, stopped to talk. His name was Jean Picard and was only 6 at the time of the attack, but knew two sisters just down the street that were older at the time. A short walk later, we were at their door and I met Marguerite and Laurence Bailly, two of the most charming and funny ladies I've ever had occasion to meet. Speaking through Selma's translation, they told of hiding out in caves, hiding dead Germans under the bridge, Germans hiding under their sinks to shoot at American soldiers, and eventually coaxing chocolate and gum from the American soldiers. At one point, Marguerite asked if I had a picture of my grandfather, slying smiling and saying if he was cute enough, she might have been my grandmother! What a hoot! I had a great time with these three and reluctantly, headed back to Luneville.