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The sands of time

Following a curve of battle, death, burial, and peace

Email|Print| Text size + By Richard Carpenter
Globe Staff / August 1, 2003

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France—In not too many years, certainly by midcentury, World War II will have been consigned to the dry dust of history books. Students will read about a war that raged from 1939-45, and it will seem as remote to them as World War I does to us today.

But until then there are those who remember: The men who fought and came back to talk, or just as significantly not to talk, about what they saw and did. The women who waited and worked and worried. The cousin whose death at the Battle of the Bulge left an aching void in a close-knit family - a void never completely closed. The neighborhood woman who displayed three gold stars in her window for the three sons who had died in the war. The bittersweet songs about loved ones meeting again some sunny day. The rationing, the scrap drives, and the uniting of a nation in a way that it may never be again.

The memories flowed for most of the 37 participants in a World War II Memorial Tour through five European nations, a tour that visited the battle sites, the museums, the monuments, and the cemeteries for fallen Americans where the rows of crosses and Stars of David seem to stretch endlessly. Although we ranged in age from our 20s to our 80s, the tilt was definitely toward the over-55 side, so that the names of places we visited - names like Remagen and Omaha Beach and Bastogne - still rang with meaning.

With a knowledgeable guide and a comfortable, air-conditioned motorcoach, we covered 2,750 miles in 15 days, exploring dozens of sites associated with World War II in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and the Netherlands - ranging from the beaches where history's greatest invasion took place, to a camp of death called Dachau, to the cramped quarters where a girl wrote a diary destined to be read all over the world.

We also took a couple of detours into World War I.

But it wasn't all guns and generals. We visited the vibrant cities of Paris, Munich, and Amsterdam, smaller cities, and friendly little towns. We took long drives through the green fields of France, the pretty red-roofed villages of Bavaria, and even parts of Germany's Black Forest. We stopped at massive Gothic cathedrals and took boat rides on the Rhine, the Seine, and the canals of Amsterdam. And we enjoyed such simple pleasures as breaking away from the crowd for a cappuccino and a pastry, which never taste better than in Europe.

To see so much, the trip, offered a few times a year by Michigan-based Image Tours, requires logistics worthy of a military operation. Because of that complexity, and because of the passengers' common interest, this was one escorted tour that attracted even those who would normally shun such group gatherings.

Nonetheless, it was a tour, with all the advantages and disadvantages the word implies. Passengers saved money, time, and stress, with flights, land transportation, hotels, and most excursions and meals included. In return, we sacrificed some of the flexibility, freedom, and choice of companions that independent travel allows.

The trade-off was well worth it. One of the biggest pluses was the tour manager, Pieter van Konijnenburg, 58, a Netherlander. In addition to sharing an impressive amount of information about the places visited, he displayed delightful wit (for example commenting as we crossed the French border: "I know that Americans think that the French do not like them. This is not true. . . . They do not like anybody!"). He also played the role of a Dutch uncle, making sure passengers were comfortable and problem-free, even doling out lozenges when a cough began to spread through the bus, with the hacking sounding like scattered rifle fire. It helped that van Konijnenburg spoke four languages, including accented but excellent English.

The other half of the tour team was a cheerful driver named Dirk Knook, whose skill in navigating the coach through Europe's narrow, twisting streets was as impressive as the handlebar mustache he sported.

Because sites associated with different periods of World War II are sometimes close together, the trip didn't follow the war in Europe chronologically but hopscotched across the years. During stretches of riding, van Konijnenburg played recordings and videos of the sounds, songs, and stories of World War II - from Winston Churchill's stirring "We will meet them on the beaches" speech to Marlene Dietrich's smoky-voiced recording of "Lili Marlene" to a radio bulletin announcing the death of Adolf Hitler.

Beginning in Amsterdam, the journey took a crescent-shaped route into Belgium, Germany, France, and Luxembourg, then headed back through more easterly and northerly regions of France and Belgium, ending where it began, in Amsterdam. Here is part, but hardly all, of what we saw:

The beaches. For many, the highlight of the entire 15 days was stepping on the beaches of Normandy, France, where on June 6, 1944, Americans, Britons, and Canadians stormed ashore from landing crafts to begin the tough and bloody fight to take back Europe. At least one passenger had lost a relative on those beaches, and many filled containers with sand to keep always.

Both American landing beaches, Utah (where casualties were relatively light) and Omaha (where they were not), were visited. At one stretch of Omaha, where people were sunbathing and horses were being trained for harness racing, several passengers walked to the water's edge, not minding that their shoes were getting wet, then turned around to try to imagine what those men must have seen and felt as mines exploded, bullets flew, and comrades fell. It was perhaps beyond imagining.

The cemeteries. "I always seem to talk a little softer after visiting the cemeteries," said van Konijnenburg. Indeed, some tour participants could hardly talk at all. To stand on the perfectly trimmed grass amid the rows of simple white crosses and stars, to read the occasional inscriptions saying "Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God," and to think about so many lives ended, is to be profoundly moved. The elaborate monuments, memorials, and fountains surrounding the graves seem almost superfluous.

We visited American cemeteries in Lorraine, France (10,489 military dead), Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy (9,387), Luxembourg (5,076, including General George S. Patton Jr.), Margraten, The Netherlands (8,301), and in Waregem, Belgium (368), the graveyard made famous by the World War I poem "In Flanders Fields."

We also stopped at a German cemetery in Normandy, where the look was different - crosses were squatter and more Gothic - but the stillness was the same.

The other sites. There were so many. In Germany, we visited the courtroom in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, where Nazi leaders were tried after the war. In the same city, another stop was the rundown former parade and rally grounds. Some passengers climbed the stadium stairs to stand on the platform where Hitler stood, the roar and adulation of the crowds feeding his ego and his madness. An optional but fascinating visit was to the Eagle's Nest, Hitler's mountaintop (6,016 feet) retreat in Berchstegaden, near the Austrian border, which the acrophobic fuhrer seldom visited and where it was snowing during our visit in late May. At the concentration camp in Dachau, where records say 43,000 people died but the actual toll was probably far higher, the inhumanity was still hard to grasp so many years later.

In addition to the beaches and cemeteries, France was filled with sites. At the little church in Ste-Mere-Eglise, where a paratrooper's chute got caught on the steeple, leaving him hanging for hours while pretending to be dead, a dummy of the chutist now hangs from the steeple. Inside, the stained-glass windows also depict parachutists. Fort Hackenberg, part of France's virtually useless Maginot Line, is so huge that it even has its own train (which tour members got to ride). Near the World War I battlefields of Verdun, scene of hellish slaughter, is the Ossuary, where we could look through windows at the bones of more than 100,000 soldiers. In Reims, it seemed an honor to stand in the little room where the German surrender was signed.

Other sites linger in memory, including the remnants of the bridge at Remagen, Germany, which miraculously escaped destruction, allowing Allied troops to vault the Rhine River and shorten the war. In Arnhem, the Netherlands, we stopped at a bridge that told a different story: Miscalculations in attempting to seize the span caused it to become known as "the bridge too far." In the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg, where Germany made its last great stand, red-and-white markers blaze the path to liberation. In Bastogne, Belgium, a memorial honors Patton, and a statue salutes General Anthony McAuliffe, who famously answered a surrender demand with one word: "Nuts." It seemed a fitting finish to the trip to visit the hiding place in Amsterdam of Anne Frank, the teenager whose spirit lives on because of the diary (on display) that her Nazi captors discarded as useless. The half-dozen museums on the itinerary showed not only the guns, tanks, and terrible weapons of war but also how noncombatants somehow carried on amid them. And wherever we went, there were plaques and inscriptions containing proud words like honor, sacrifice, and valor, and an even prouder word, peace.

The other activities. No matter the purpose of the trip, one cannot go through Europe and ignore its nonmilitary attractions. An hourlong cruise down the Rhine was like a ride through a fairy tale, with a castle high on a hill at seemingly every turn. A ride on the Seine in a bateaux mouche showed both the landmarks and loveliness of Paris. And a cruise along the canals of Amsterdam immersed us in the distinctive architecture of a city both ancient and modern. We also stopped at city centers and visited cathedrals, the most famous being in Reims.

Although it was mentioned at the outset that this was not a shopping trip, there were nonetheless occasional opportunities, and tour members bought cuckoo clocks in Germany, perfume in Paris, and lace in Ghent, Belgium. One passenger bought a diamond ring in Amsterdam.

Because wake-up calls were early - usually between 6 and 7 a.m. - and because most hotels were not near city centers, there was not a lot of night life. But there were a couple of exceptions: a rousing night of beer and singing at Munich's Hofbrauhaus (now strictly for tourists but no less entertaining for that), and a chance to dine out and view the light show that is Paris at night.

The nine hotels we stayed at were fine, if not always elaborate. The included meals were usually good, with the exception of a dry piece of chicken somewhere along the way. Nearly everyone tried the local favorites, such as white asparagus soup in the Netherlands, wursts in Germany, wheat beer in Belgium, and the caloric but fabulous desserts of France.

The people. Along with their regional accents, travelers brought with them varying degrees of interest in World War II, ranging from those who knew every battle and battalion to a woman who frankly announced that she knew little about the war and was here because her husband was a military buff.

(Lest anyone think this was a "guy thing," though, two of the most knowledgeable people were women. And lest anyone think the talk was only of war, there was the chatter that always occurs when groups of strangers get to know one another: about everything from cooking to cars to grandchildren. Nonetheless, on many a night, names like Roosevelt, Stalin, Eisenhower, Montgomery, Rommel, and von Rundstedt could be heard or overheard.)

Jerome Smiskol, 66, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he had been reading military books for 40 years, "and now I'm seeing what I've read about." Bill Hasty, 71, of Conover, N.C., said the trip had a double impact because he is of German ancestry and cousins fought on both sides. Among the 37 participants was a recently retired history teacher, Earl Berro, 63, of Seal Beach, Calif., and a just-graduated history major, Zack Worley, 23, of Plainfield, Ind. Worley called the tour "an excellent way to bring history alive and solidify what I've learned."

We were traveling in the shadow of another war, and Iraq was occasionally debated, with eloquent arguments heard for and against the US action. But there was no disagreement that, despite its more than 50 million military and civilian dead, the Second World War had to be fought and won because the alternative would have been a planet so wretched as to be not worth living on.

Usually the World War II Memorial Tour attracts a half-dozen or so veterans of that war. But they are leaving us rapidly - by 1,600 a day, according to one estimate - and just one was on this tour, Jack Murphy of Vienna, Va., who looked and acted far younger than his 83 years. Although he worked in intelligence and understandably did not go into great detail, he did have many a tale about life during World War II and its aftermath. At one point, Murphy said, "They call us the 'greatest generation.' I don't know. . . . We were just a bunch of guys."

Jack, you were a whole lot more than that.

Richard P. Carpenter can be reached at carpenter@globe.com.

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