In a manila envelope in the top drawer of her dresser, my mother kept a Scottish Grenadiers’ cap with a red checkered band and ribbons falling from its back. Her brother Monroe had sent it to her from Great Britain a few months before D-Day.
He was always looking for gifts to send home. From the American Southwest, where his unit trained, came Navaho trade blankets; from Edinburgh, a Scottish wool sweater bought on the “QT,” and of course, the Grenadiers’ hat. He also sent letters home, filled with lists of things he wanted his sisters and parents to mail him in return: Hershey’s chocolate, chewing gum, the Saturday Evening Post. They fitfully arrived at the army’s convenience. He was especially fond of the Chesterfield “cigs” they sent, which he traded for a bottle of good Scotch.
My uncle, whom I never knew, was killed on the fifth day of August 1944, somewhere south of Hill 211, along the Sée River in Normandy, a waterway so narrow a giant step will take you across. Monroe was a First Lieutenant assigned to HQ of the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. I’m told they were like scouts in the old cavalry pictures. The eyes and the ears of the infantry. Probe, engage, report, like a dental pick in a cavity.
But this story is about Normandy. About chasing his ghost there.
At the Brittany American cemetery at St. James, where he lies, the markers are arranged in gently curving arcs, pure white marble sentinels on a field of green. Acid rain has gently routed the edges of the crosses and stars, softened the inscriptions. In a few years they’ll mellow like the headstones at Gettysburg and Chattanooga and Cold Harbor, visited only by war buffs and sparrows.
Beneath the grass a system of concrete beams and pilings ensures that each marker will stand straight and true, no higher than its neighbor. The engineering to do this was prodigious, but it ensures the last great democracy: officers, buck privates, Joes, regimented in life, equal in death.
“The truth,” said David W. Bedford, the superintendent of St. James, “is that each individual represents a family, a future, a life denied.”
When I found my uncle’s grave, I said Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, but could find no stone to leave behind to honor the tradition.
Two were already sitting quietly on the star, a pebble and a stone really. The Jewish custom has a long provenance. There’s a lovely folktale that tells of a shepherd keeping track of his flock with a stone for every sheep, stashed in a sling thrown over his shoulder. A jog to memory. In another story, the ancients would pile stones on shallow graves in the sand to keep animals away. Once a year when their circular journeys took them back to the grave, they’d replenish the pile.
I picked up a couple of chestnuts and placed them on the wing of the star. My brother had meant to send me stones from Monroe’s hometown but never did.
Monroe was the war hero in our family. And that was not a trifling thing to a boy growing up Jewish in New Jersey in the ’50s. His death was our credentials, our hall pass to the suburban dream, at a time when older brothers in the 82nd Airborne were sending home silk baseball jackets from Korea, embroidered with maps and dragons.
Monroe was a commissioned officer, a law-school graduate from Cornell, young, good looking, always in tailored suits, with a toss-it-off cynicism we could all emulate. Before the D-Day invasion, he had tooled around England with a freedom that seemed to be denied the other draftees. His letters home are filled with tales of this Red Cross girl and that one.
My mother clipped a newspaper mention of Monroe from one of those Red Cross girls: “He criticized our hair-dos, complained about our policeman shoes and heavy stockings… and generally big-brothered us. We loved him for it. He promised us they’d never get him.”
I think my mother especially adored him. Even though she was the second oldest, she was small and slight and so her siblings protected her. I think she missed that most after he was gone.
The army had picked him for Officers Training School, and he went, figuring he’d get a better deal. He wrote letters trying to get into the Judge Advocate Department, but they turned him down. My aunt last saw him at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. She and a girlfriend spent a day there with him. Judy Garland entertained the troops that evening.
I’d come to Normandy not expecting much. I figured I’d sign the guestbook, visit the grave, have lunch—spend a day in the country after a week in Paris.
The B&B where I stayed surprised me with a guide. He wasn’t easy to find.
The Normandy beaches have a small industry in tourism, and you can easily find a trip on YouTube. But here, where the war spread across an arc 500 kilometers wide, half the hamlets don’t appear on maps and the scars of war are so long buried, you can barely dig out a plaque.
Years ago my guide, Noël Sarrazin, was the superintendent of the cemetery, but now he’s the president of the 30th Infantry Division Association. He’s not a trained historian and that is his strength. History, for Noël, is a good story, well-told.
Noël and I headed off in his car into the hedgerow country of Normandy that’s taken on the stuff of legend, great overgrown Roman-built mounds to keep the cows in and the Allies out, the perfect defensive line for the German troops. I’d heard about the hedgerows from my father—who also fought in Normandy. It was there he said he saw his first dead GI.
He had landed at Utah Beach three days after the invasion, nearly a month before Monroe’s unit. He headed into the country. German artillery had zeroed in on gaps in the hedgerows where the Americans streamed through, making the perfect killing field. The dead soldier lay in a ditch by the side of the row.
But Noël and I saw no hedgerows. For the most part, they’ve been plowed under.
Our goal was the little hamlet of Le Mesnil Tove. The After Action Report, the army’s daily rendering of deeds and death, says that was where Monroe was killed. But Noël said it couldn’t be. The town wasn’t liberated until a week after his death.
Noël had something else to show me: the commune of Mortain. Few people have ever heard of the battle here, but to hear Noël tell it, this is where Germany lost the war.
Mortain has no place in our popular history. It’s missing the slaughter of Antietam, Guadalcanal, or Da Nang, the desperation of Bastogne, the misbegotten glories of Gettysburg. But for those left who fought here, history’s slight is just another stone in a soldier’s pack.
Mortain was Hitler’s Hail Mary. If his Panzers could drive through to Avranche and the Channel, 36 kilometers to the west, they would slice the American advance in two, cutting off Patton’s overextended army in Brittany from its supply lines and driving the allies on the other side back to the beaches of Normandy. It would be the master stroke to revive a Germany reeling from disaster on the Eastern front, the collapse of Italy and the Allied breakout into the heart of France.
What stood in his way was the commune of Mortain, more precisely the high ground to its east, Hill 314, Montjoie, Mount Joy. From its peak, a 14th-century pilgrim caught first sight of the Roman abbey of Le Mount Saint-Michel, Jerusalem for the faithful.
That high ground was the prize. The American 30th Infantry sent a battalion up the hill. The German counterattack began just after midnight on the 7th of August, 1944. Twenty-six thousand troops, 120 tanks, in the first wave along the entire American front. Mortain fell to the 2nd Panzer—it would change hands seven times over the next five days.
Noël asked me if I’d heard the story of the lost battalion: The Germans surrounded Mountjoie, cutting off the entire American force still holding the high ground. And the keys to their survival were two artillery spotters, dug in on the escarpments.
Their shallow foxholes are still here. From them, with a little imagination you can look out on the fields of that August where history made one of its about-faces and the fog lifted on the coming German defeat.
The Nazi tank commanders below wore black, a death’s head pinned to their caps, in tribute to the Black Huzzars, German cavalry who fought Napoleon at Waterloo. There is no place in Europe, it seems, where the nightmare of history is not repeated. Over and over and over.
The American artillery spotters watched from where we stood as Panther and Tiger tanks crawled along the roads, trailed by SS troops. The spotters in their shallow foxholes called in artillery five miles distant. For five days and nights the SS divisions stormed up the hill and for five days and nights white phosphorus worse than napalm rained down, burning through uniform and flesh to the bone. It’s intent was not so much to kill as to cause havoc, even among seasoned troops. The chemical stuck to the sides of the tanks; its smoke blinded the drivers and drove crews out into the open butchery.
The battalion on the hill morgued its own dead in crevices in the rock, stripping the bodies of food, water, and ammunition. The spotters’ radio batteries were left in the sun every morning to coax whatever power remained. The troops dug carrots from the inhospitable soil, bled water from ancient cisterns. But they held. By the 12th of August, the German forces turned away. The great counterattack stalled. Von Kluge, the German Field Marshall, returned to Berlin, where he committed suicide.
Some 700 Americans went up Montjoie; 370 came down.
Less than two weeks later, the Allies were in Paris.
Noël and I grabbed lunch in a workingman’s café where he seemed to know everyone. But you don’t grab lunch in France, you idle. I ordered a cheese omelet, perfectly browned from butter on the edges. When his dish came he was finally at a loss for the English. He rubbed his chest.
“Ribs?” I say. No.
His hand went to his stomach.
Beats me. I was flummoxed.
Finally he rubbed his belly.
“Only from here.”
For dessert, Noël ordered creme fraiche, into which he poured teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar. I settled for creme brûlée.
I couldn’t help but ask about food: “The troops must have lived off the land. Did they just take?”
“Yes. But they always paid.”
I couldn’t be sure if this was true or lingering resentment of the occupied.
We turned off the road to le Mesnil Tove through an allée of plane trees. Noël said, “I want to show you the headquarters of 30th Infantry Division.” A chateau. I asked if this is OK. “I know the owner.” Is he royalty? “He’s a count.”
We met the Count of Bazoge in front of his chateau, a movie-ready version of Norman architecture, its towers topped by dunce caps. It was built in the reign of Louis XIII, the stuttering fashionista from the early 17th century. It was once a castle, but the stones were taken down and fashioned into a barn, with a stone cat on the roof.
Overgrown with wisteria, the family chapel sat unused in the forecourt of the house.
The count was delightful, chubby royalty in English country garb. His grandchildren squealed around him.
“Tomorrow I’m sending them off to Corsica,” he said with a bit of a grandfatherly huff.
Being a greedy American tourist, I asked if we can see the inside.
There was a moth-eaten boar’s head hanging over the dining room door and antlers and a brass hunting horn over the other.
The neglect was both charming and palpable. I was tempted to think of bankrupt royalty, starved by taxes. But that’s not so; the Count was a financier in Paris. The neglect was rather an unspoken need to stop time in August of 1944.
In the parlor, the furniture was draped with sheets, as it was when an American general desperately tried to hold his sprawling front lines from faltering. Marquis and Marquises from the Count’s own family stared down in powdered wigs from their oval portraits on the wall.
The Count was 13 when Mortain was overrun. Outside, he told us how his father sent him to the attic and told him to stay there until the battle was over. Eight days later, he and his father bicycled into Mortain. “I remember the road with the broken tanks and trucks, the swarms of flies, the unburied bodies and the stench. The stench.”
About that time, back in the States, my grandmother’s house was still a Jimmy Stewart version of middle-class America between the wars. Every Sunday the family gathered together for dinner. And even though the upstairs bath had a stained iron tub and a water closet, the dining room hutch held cut-glass goblets and good china.
My grandmother was the president of the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society, played expert bridge—and poker—and rode a bike. She was said to be a soft touch for the hobos who passed through Perth Amboy. When she died, the synagogue opened its front door as her funeral procession passed.
But here she was, alone, when she got the telegram that her only boy was wounded.
She screamed so loudly a neighbor came running. A neighbor she intensely disliked. Then, silence from the war department. Nearly a month later, a local man came by while the family was at that Sunday dinner, telling them Monroe had died the day of the telegram. It was too late for the family to sit shiva, but my mother mourned for the next 60 years.
We drove over the roads Monroe’s battalion would have taken, crisp, neat blacktop now covering the ruts the tank treads would have left on the packed dirt. He was wounded early in the morning when his command post was shelled as the Germans were positioning their units for the thrust into Mortain. His death in the morning dark probably came as a surprise; an artillery barrage would have left little warning.
We stopped in one of the hamlets that populate the province: a crossroads, a chapel, four houses, and a black-and-white sign that says Le Mesnil-Gilbert with a red diagonal slashed through it. Noël said, “You’re probably seeing the last things he saw.” I kept trying, but I couldn’t see anything.
I had asked my aunt what the army had sent back from Monroe’s footlocker. She really didn’t know. Uniforms? Letters? There were lots of letters. Her father—my grandfather—kept them in his office. My grandmother didn’t want any of it in the house. Whether my grandfather read them, I don’t know.
One letter did survive. It’s a marvelous description of a weekend jaunt through London and on to Scotland, from a chance view of Churchill at the theater (“he has that round, jovial W.C. Fields look without the red nose”) to a night with a Scottish “lassie” “…that turned out to be more than I bargained for, born in Edinburgh with a mixture of Jewish, Scottish, and Irish ancestry, not to mention having been married, the mother of a little one with a legal separation. We finished off half a bottle of Scotch and…” But more than that, there isn’t.
I have no idea what else was in that footlocker. What does a man choose to hold onto when his future is as tenuous as a barrel balanced atop a waterfall? A picture of that girl? That theater ticket? Gifts bought in war-starved London? Can these things tell a story without the teller to make sense of it all?
But that’s why I was here, wasn’t it? To fill in the puzzle. A man my mother and my aunt adored, canonized even. Only to find that it was impossible. That past was down the rabbit hole. I would never know “what he saw.”
Perhaps that’s why I felt so little emotion. I had thought that being here, in Normandy, walking the roads and fields he walked, breathing the air, drinking the wine, would conjure up the ghost. But all I was left with was a pleasant day in early November, some iPhone pictures, and a full belly from a remarkably good regional lunch in a workingman’s cafe.
And so Monroe remains a mystery, a shadow out of the past, defined only by my mother’s incessant tears at the mention of his name. Some V-mail. And a Scottish Grenadiers’ cap.
But maybe that’s as it should be. As incomprehensible as those perfect rows of crosses at St. James. A person I never knew, whose death was nearly three quarters of a century ago.
I took no comfort in any of it. I admit I shed a tear when I first saw the marble sentinels at St. James. But only one. It all happened too long ago. Too far away.
And yet what moved me that day was the inexplicable courage of the men on that mountain, a feat beyond my understanding, and through their story perhaps I learned a little of my uncle’s story as well.
On the road north of Mortain, we stopped at an abandoned 12th century abbey. It was here, in the darkness of the 6th at the beginning of the counter-attack, an American platoon halted an entire Panzer regiment at a roadblock, piling up 60 vehicles on the narrow road.
The irony was probably lost on any soldier without a guidebook. This was Abbaye Blanche. The White Abbey whose first Abbess was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror, the last king to conquer England a thousand years before.
As we walked through its haunted colonnade with its old stone vaulting, Noël said to me, “I want to do something for you. Once a year, I’ll leave a flower on your uncle’s grave.” That seemed wonderfully characteristic of the people of Normandy, genuine and appreciative.
I was deeply touched and thanked him for the unexpected gesture. But I said no. “That’s not the Jewish way. Flowers wither. A stone is more than enough to tell him someone came by.”
“I saw two stones already there, besides yours. Where did they come from?”
A lost relative? A grateful stranger? The Scottish lass?
I wondered about that, too.
The next day, I took the TGV back to Paris.
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