This is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. It is a great blessing that western Europe is now at peace – regardless of how much political leaders squabble at the commemoration ceremony. D-Day back in the news reminds me of my first visit to World War Two venues.
In 1977, after dropping out of college, I hustled up the money to take off for a two-month hitchhiking tour of Europe. After landing and spending five days in Paris, I headed to the city’s western suburbs to catch a ride to Normandy.
Like most American kids in the 1960s, I loved TV series on World War Two – from Combat to Rat Patrol to Hogan’s Heroes. I was also transfixed by movies like “The Longest Day” (1962) and “Is Paris Burning?” (1966). I hoped to visit the landing sites, especially Omaha Beach – where the fiercest fighting took place on June 6.
But the hitching went badly. Perhaps French drivers were appalled by my use of a loaf of French bread to try to flag down a ride – like a giant thumb. (I avoided that flourish later in the summer when hitching in south France.) After several hours of strikeouts, I caught a ride with a trucker going to Le Havre, a port city fairly distant from the famous landing beaches. I had long since exhausted my meager French vocabulary, so I caught a boat to Southampton.
After a week of bad weather and worse food in England, I returned to the continent and, a few days later, was hiking along the Dutch North Sea coast. I accidentally stumbled onto a nude beach and was stunned to see so many natural blonds.
After leaving the bare buns behind, the beach was almost deserted. I strolled northwards a dozen miles, soaking up the undulating waves, sunshine that brightened without burning, bracing salty air…. and a giant round concrete bunker that suddenly arose out of the dunes. Its walls were sturdy enough to survive almost anything except a direct hit from a battleship’s 400-pound shell. From the bunker’s slots, soldiers could peer out and spray death on anyone who dared set foot on the beach. But the bunkers had no defense against the folly and depravity of the regime that built them. There were signs in several languages warning people not to walk in the nearby dunes, but hapless tourists still occasionally discovered unexploded land mines. (This is not a photo of the bunker I saw; I did not have a camera with me on that trip, and I have not been able to track down a photo of installations along that stretch of the Dutch coast.)
This was one of the few massive remnants of the “Thousand Year Reich” outside Germany’s western borders. I thought of Shelley’s poem, when a traveler came across the shattered sculpture and sneering visage of Ozymandias, the “King of Kings”:
“Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
*** The next immersion into World War Two venues during the trip occurred a couple weeks later in Berlin. West Berlin had mostly recovered from the war, though the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm church was left ravaged as an antiwar monument. Thanks in part to central planning, East Berlin had been less disturbed by progress. I made my first excursion behind the Iron Curtain with a Dutch lady I had met on the West Berlin subway. Hendrika was built a bit like a wheel of Gouda cheese, but she had bright cheeks and mischievous eyes. She and I were both planning to visit East Berlin, and we figured there would be safety in numbers.
Traveling from West Berlin to East Berlin was like passing into the mirror image of Disneyland. Instead of ticket takers at the entrance of rides, there were undercover cops enticing visitors to exchange currency on the black market – after which they would be arrested, fined, and perhaps jailed. The police were backstopped by civilian informers lurking everywhere, waiting to get paid for tidbits or smears. Hendrika’s fluent German helped keep us from being arrested as we traversed semi-forbidden parts of the city.
On AlexanderPlatz, near the city center, we saw elite East German soldiers goosestepping down the street. West Germany banned the goosestep after the Third Reich was destroyed. But that particular march naturally appealed to the Stalinist regime that the Russians imposed on East Germans after World War II. The goosestep perfectly captures the relation of the State to the people: anyone who did not submit would be crushed. The parading soldiers were complemented by the bullet holes left in many buildings from the bitter street to street fighting that occurred in 1945 when the Soviets took the city. (Some of the bullet holes may have also been leftover from the popular uprising in 1953 against the Soviet occupation.)
Almost all the people on the East Berlin streets looked browbeaten worse than the eternally-damned bureaucrats I later saw trudging the halls of USDA headquarters. I noted in my travel journal: “Perhaps despotism drains the soul. It would be difficult to have a high opinion of one’s powers if one was constantly being coerced and subjected to others’ wills.”
We visited the ghoul-like, cavernous main library in East Berlin. It was necessary to purchase a pass to enter, and only East Berlin students and visitors from non-communist nations were allowed inside. Every room had a guard, and we had to sign a registry and show our passes before entering it. There were vast empty spaces inside, perhaps symbolizing the Northwest Territory of information beyond the pale. The East Germans toiling with books and papers probably knew that anyone who raced across No Man’s Land to some forbidden idea might be terminated with extreme prejudice.
Why have libraries where thinking was a crime? Any government terrified of ideas must be doing something wrong.
As we gallivanted around East Berlin, Hendrika rattled on about life on her commune in southern Holland. She talked of being a “free spirit,” and I soon realized that the Dutch translation meant “also does animals.” She bragged of frolicking with any and all types of mammals with no reservations or prejudices. She was the first person I met who viewed anthrax as a sexually-transmitted disease.
The following day, I hitched back through East Germany and got dropped off late at night on the edge of Frankfurt’s sprawling metropolis. After slumbering in a field next to the autobahn, I set off next morning to check out Frankfurt’s historic district. At one street corner, I saw a gaggle of middle-aged guys warming their hands over a fire in an old oil drum and sharing the first bottle of the day.
“Wo is die Zentrum, bitte?” I asked, seeking directions to the city center.
One old guy with a beard even scruffier than mine responded in rusty English: “Are you an American?”
He unleashed a torrent of English profanity with superb pronunciation and even better inflection. The only thing missing was any trace of anger. Instead, his voice sparkled with joy as if he was embracing old friends. Turned out this guy had been a prisoner of war at Camp Pickett, Virginia. He was delighted to hear that I hailed from the state where he gained 15 pounds. When he offered me a swig of Schnapps, I told him I never drank anything more than 40 proof before breakfast. He was the first German veteran I encountered who flourished American cuss words like others whipped out pictures of their grandkids.
*** The above story is partly a spinoff from Public Policy Hooligan
Great story. Your trip to Europe reminds me of my govt. sponsored trip back in the late 70s to the FRG.
The bunkers and other fortified positions I was were located at a major training base at Grafenwoehr. These had been destroyed following VE day. They too, were impressive. The Germans have always had a knack for building things.
Your comment about the DDR troops reminds me of an unpleasant exchange with a person I had who claimed to be German. He was bitching about how sorry the US Army and Americans in general were. Well, I pointed out the DDR for him if he was that unhappy by saying to him with them they saved a lot of money on uniforms. All they had to do was to remove couple of emblems such as the eagle holding the swastika and replace it with the hammer and sickle. He wasn’t amused with my demonstration of American humor.
All in all, I enjoyed Germany and the Germans, particularly a group of Germans I met by accident when I got separated from the group I was with at the October Fest. I got tired of looking for them, sat down at the end of a table and ordered “ein bier, bitte.” At the far end of this otherwise empty table was a bunch of young Germans my age drinking beer and singing old German marching songs. They saw me and gestured to me to come to their end of the table by waving their arms and saying “ein American, komst sie hier”, etc. I went down there and joined them in their hell raising. It was quite an evening, particularly after all those liters of good German beer. When I finally had to leave we toasted our respective nations. I still have a group photo from this fun night with them. This is how I recall the incident. I hope they are all doing well.
“This is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. It is a great blessing that western Europe is now at peace – regardless of how much political leaders squabble at the commemoration ceremony. D-Day back in the news reminds me of my first visit to World War Two venues.”
Well, they could step on some unexploded ordinance.
Ryan – thanks for posting that great vignette. I had some similar beery encounters with Germans from 1977 onwards. Brew seemed to bring out their cheerfulness more reliably than the folks I saw drinking heavily back in the Virginian hills.
There’s a postscript to that story.
After making my departure from my fellow party goers I knew I didn’t have much time to make the bus back to Grafenwoehr. I took a short cut across a small field where at the far side I encountered a chain link fence around a meter in height. I thought to myself “I’m a trained cav scout; I’ll simply run up to it and flip myself over.” I did just that, save for one minor problem. Hands failed to ungrasped the top rail of the fence, so I found myself landing on my head and rolling out onto the ground. I got up, rub my head, and thought to myself “wow, that smarted”. It’s a good thing I drank all those liters, otherwise, I might have done some real damage!
Yeah, I know what you mean about that moon. I still like a taste of it in moderation. Like two shots at the most. My neighbor is from the mountains and occasionally we will sample some of the latest production, once in a blue moon, of course.
you must have had a lot of liters of beer if you forget to let go of the rail as you were flipping over the fence. It is good that the beer insulated your head on the landing. On the moonshine – I am always wary, since some of the folks I grew up with might skip over the difference between wood & grain alcohol.
While out playing Army in Germany and cruising the highways and byways on maneuvers, we stopped one evening at a little gasthaus in a little town to pick up snacks and soda. Chatting with the locals a bit – small town Germans being pretty GI-friendly back then – a group of older retired guys at the stammtisch got to looking over my uniform, the newly issued camouflage BDUs, and one of them leaned over to his buddy and said, in German, “Looks like what we used to wear,” and his buddy nodded knowingly.
Very friendly guys, offered to buy beers for us and chat more (in English) but nevertheless I would like to hope that maybe they were ex-paratroopers or tankers, since the camouflage uniforms tended to be the attire of the Waffen-SS, for the most part.
Oh my. Ya, hopefully they were paratroopers.
I read that the Berlin airlift in ’48-’49 radically changed the attitude of West Germans to the US Army.
I wasn’t going to get too worried about it – I spent a lot more time giving wide berth to the anti-American punk groups. Older Germans and German soldiers tended to be friendly-to-very-friendly in attitude.