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Remembering Normandy: A 75-year-old Willys rolls along the D-day trail
The stocky kid by the bathrooms was about 22, wearing a vintage army jacket and an old boat-shaped garrison cap with a World War II paratrooper’s patch sewn on. He had flushed cheeks and reeked of booze. The kid wanted to say something, but instead he just looked down, pulled at his hands, and swayed slightly in a half-stupor. Finally, he said, “I’m sorry. I was listening. Are you English?” No, we said, we’re American. I pointed at my oldest friend, Aaron Karnell, who was standing next to me, and told the kid that Aaron’s grandfather had landed on Omaha Beach back in the day. At this, the kid’s eyes turned up wide, and he grabbed Aaron’s hand. “I want to say…I’m sorry…I want to say thank you. I am from Czech Republic. I want to say…your ancestor give us our freedom. Thank you.”
Just a car show? Well, it had a lot of the same elements. There were columns of old machines cruising the roads and folks clustered around open hoods, gossiping about where to get parts and who has them for less and how to get at that one difficult bolt holding on the thingamabob that always breaks. Oil dripped and wrenches clinked and wires were rewired and tires were kicked. And there were spouses and friends and children around, and lots of laughing and munching of baguettes and the aroma of sausages on barbecues wafting over raised sudsy bottles. But this wasn’t just another car show, because Normandy in June isn’t just another place.
English speakers call it D-day. The French, le jour J. It happened 75 years ago on a blustery Tuesday in 1944 along a 50-mile stretch of rain-swept seashore on France’s northwest shoulder. After five years of war, the allied democracies were finally ready to relieve the beleaguered Soviets by liberating France and opening a second front against Hitler’s Reich. Every June 6 since then, people gather on the shores of Normandy to peer out at the lapping waves and ponder a time when the fate of the future swung by a thread. And for the past couple of decades, the military vehicle clubs of Europe have made the five-year anniversaries something else entirely, invading Normandy en masse to get their vehicles dirty on the sacred sands of the D-day beaches. The 75th promised to be the largest reunion of wartime rolling stock since the invasion, as well as the last major anniversary likely to be attended by living veterans.
So, at the kind invitation of the North Staffordshire Military Vehicle Trust, one of the groups that had been planning its trip to Normandy for two years, we shoved our gear into a 1944 Willys MB jeep that Hagerty had only recently purchased in England for insertion into the company’s permanent collection in Michigan. We formed up into a small convoy with an old Mazda campervan that my wife, Tina, and I keep in a friend’s shed in northeast England, and hit the British motorway system at a trundling 40 mph, headed for the ferry on the south coast and 10 days of camping in France.
People like to talk about how important this or that collector vehicle is. Let us introduce you to one that helped save the world. Enzo Ferrari reputedly said the only true sports car America ever made was the jeep. The original item, or, as the U.S. Army called it officially, the “¼-ton truck 4×4,” is tiny by today’s standards, being shorter, narrower, and lighter than the original Mazda Miata. “Uncle Sam’s new mighty midget,” as the Battle Creek Enquirer called it in 1941, is indeed fun to drive, with light controls, an easy-shifting synchro three-speed, and enough strapping torque from its 60-hp “Go Devil” four to go “places that would leave a horse with its tongue hanging out,” the paper said.
According to jeep historian Ray Cowdery, its design was actually inspired by the German Army. American military observers in Germany in the late 1930s were impressed with how quickly soldiers on motorcycle sidecars could whiz around the battlefield, jump off, do their business, jump back on, and move again. U.S. planners obsessed with motorizing the heretofore horse-drawn army subsequently conceived of a small car with a low, doorless body that soldiers could scramble from in any direction. It wasn’t until the tiny American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania, produced its Blitz Buggy prototype in 1940 that the army got the first glimpse of what it wanted. Eventually, it adopted a sturdier design from Willys-Overland in Toledo, Ohio, and then turned the plans over to Ford as well, because nobody built cars faster or cheaper than Henry’s house. The government figured a jeep’s life expectancy in combat at 90 days, so it bought 647,870 of them during World War II, with Willys assembling the majority.
Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the American ground forces in Europe, was known to spend five to eight hours a day in a jeep touring the front lines. He swore that riding in jeeps was good for the liver. “It does everything,” wrote the famous war columnist Ernie Pyle, “it goes everywhere. It’s as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It doesn’t even ride so badly after you get used to it.” By the end of our 195-mile slog to Portsmouth, however, my liver as well as my butt were in agony. Veterans of the Normandy run call this “jeep bum.” Besides that, the water pump was howling, and the oil sump was nearly dry. Unable to scrounge motor lube from the other vintage jeeps in the ferry line, at Tina’s suggestion we upended a bottle of olive oil into the 134-cubic-inch side-valve four just to get it on and off the ship. Then, like the thousands of troops who preceded us out of Portsmouth harbor by seven and a half decades, we set sail for France.
The earliest pioneers of military vehicle collecting returned to Normandy in 1974, driving their wartime jeeps and GMC deuce-and-a-halfs down the bucolic lanes through D-day landmarks such as Vierville-sur-Mer and Sainte-Mère-Église, when it was still not uncommon to see a rusty Sherman tank serving as lot decoration in a local gas station. Back then, some of the hundreds of thousands of vehicles the U.S. left in Europe after the war were still serving in national armies from Norway to Greece. In the early 1980s, those nations began selling them off in huge auctions, and military vehicle collecting in Europe took off in earnest.
We spent the next couple of days at our leafy campsite near Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, a ridiculously quaint fishing village between the British and American beaches, working in and under the jeep. In went a new distributor, spark plugs, accelerator pedal, oil, and coolant—all purchased from various jeep vendors who had descended on Normandy in anticipation of brisk business, as well as an unlikely shop near Omaha Beach with the unambiguous name of Jeep D-day 44. No English is spoken there, but a few silly hand gestures can obtain a brand-new water pump for a wartime Willys.
We met our fellow campers from the “North Staffs” and rifled their tool bags. Jeep driver Dan Ainsworth from Staffordshire, wearing two gold medals that he earned from the club for most breakdowns on the Normandy run in consecutive years, handed me a hammer and said, “When in doubt, give it a clout.” Our neighbors George Edwards and his pal Granville Hine were two old Normandy shoes who lent us a generous number of “spanners” from the back of their Bedford MWD, a slab-faced utility hauler used by the British Army. George said going to France was just an excuse to get the truck dirty. “If I had a pristine concours vehicle, I would never take it anywhere,” he said, although I did catch him later rubbing baby oil on his truck.
Daily life in Camping Port’land was pleasant, thanks partly to the North Staffs’ advanced planning, which included a central beer tent for evening story swapping. Pints from its keg cost a mere two euros. One night, a Hawaiian-themed luau featured a riotous floor show by a local one-lady band, a typhoon of sound who physically yanked reluctant dancers from their chairs and jumped on tables while crushing out Chuck Berry with her Gibson semi-hollow. This being France, the camp office took daily orders for baguettes and croissants to be delivered fresh at sunrise.
With our jeep clouted into working condition and christened with the new nickname of “Ernie’s Pile,” we stripped the roof, folded the windshield, and headed out on the D514, the coast road that traverses the invasion zone. Every few seconds a jeep or a hulking Dodge or a lumbering four-ton Diamond T six-by-six would chug past, their cargo beds usually packed with happy riders and the driver flashing us a wave or a thumbs-up. We returned with a V-for-victory sign. Whatever seatbelt laws France has were being flagrantly ignored by civilians and police, although one clearly overworked parking cop scolded us for having no front license plate.
We rolled past ancient limestone farmhouses and fields of red poppies and fluttering wheat. Sometimes we turned down a quiet two-track gravel lane hemmed in by the towering Norman bocage, retreating from the 21st century amid the thick hedgerows that proved such deadly obstacles during the three-month battle for Normandy. Navigating with battle maps and guidebooks, we surveyed airborne drop zones, crawled into derelict German bunkers now manned by chittering swallows, and listened to the silence in a church that was used by 101st Airborne medics to treat both American and German wounded. There are still visible blood stains on the pews.
Working the two short levers on the floor of Ernie’s Pile, we put the jeep into four-wheel low and motored onto the beach, inspecting concrete casemates pummeled for a day by U.S. Navy shells and then chewed at by wind and wave over the ensuing decades. The Willys flathead engine roared, working hard for every foot of ground in the powdery silt above the tide line, but the little jeep refused to get stuck.
To those possessing even a passing acquaintance with world history, the names are familiar: Gold, Juno, and Sword were the designations for the British and Canadian beaches to the east, Omaha and Utah belonged to the Americans to the west. The audacious plan, honed over many months under the direction of British field marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, was to use 916 transport aircraft and gliders to drop 13,000 airborne troops into the predawn blackness to capture critical points, then follow up with a horizon-spanning fleet of some 5000 ships ferrying 130,000 troops, 2000 tanks, and 12,000 trucks and jeeps from England. Operation Overlord was, in the words of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, the first time in human history that such an invading force had been assembled not for territorial gain or colonial ambition, but solely to defend an ideal. To his assistant, Kay Summersby, he confided on the eve of the invasion, “I hope to God I know what I’m doing.”
This sleepy and perennially soggy locale of dairy farms, apple orchards, and rapeseed fields was otherwise unremarkable in 1944 except for two attributes that ensured it a climactic rendezvous with destiny. It was strategically situated near the French port of Cherbourg, which the invaders hoped to capture and use to resupply their armies, and it experienced deep tide cycles. When the Atlantic Ocean recedes off these beaches, as it does twice a day, it exposes 400 yards of flat, well-packed plage, as the French call it. When the sea rushes back in, as it started to shortly after the 5:58 a.m. sunrise on the sixth day of June in the year 1944, it rises enough to sweep a flat-bottomed landing craft right up to the open gates of hell.
The jeep carried us to one of those gates, a place known as the Colleville Draw, the easternmost of four narrow valleys leading off Omaha Beach. This is what happened here: The Germans had built fortified strongpoints on either side of the draw, code-named Widerstandsnest (WN) 61 and 62, with field cannons hidden in concrete casemates, low beehive-shaped structures called tobruks hiding mortar and rocket tubes, and trenches bristling with machine-gun nests. This arsenal opened up well before the bow ramps dropped on the first landing craft to reach the shoreline, obliterating whole boats at a time full of 1st Infantry Division men and picking off their support tanks trying to wade ashore in the choppy surf. Those who avoided the mines and other beach obstacles to be deposited on the sand were scythed down like weeds before an iron blade. The second wave landed at 7:00 a.m. amid smoke and fire to find the thin remnants of the first wave battling for their lives at the water’s edge, the waves splashing against their boots as well as the mangled bodies of the dead.
The minutes of one of our nation’s longest, bloodiest hours ticked by with little change, only ruthless carnage. Col. George A. Taylor shouted at his men, “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here!” By 8:00 a.m., a few tanks were able to get ashore and lay down covering fire. Navy destroyers, casting aside the battle plan, risked the mines and stormed in so close that their keels dragged the bottom, their guns pumping shell after shell point-blank into the German positions. Slowly, small groups of men, under no unified command, were able to inch up the hillside, just below the spot where, today, 9388 headstones stand in military-straight ranks crisscrossing the exquisitely manicured lawn of the Normandy American Cemetery.
A café serving various flavors of quiche sits amid the surviving pocked bunkers of WN61. We paused there to try to lift back the veil of time in our minds and be eyewitnesses to the maelstrom, but it was difficult. Helicopters were nosily rehearsing for the pending arrival of President Trump, while tour groups milled around on the sand and a cluster of German-vehicle collectors fussed over their BMW motorcycles, VW Type 82 Kübelwagens, and an example of the super rare amphibious Kübel, the Type 166 Schwimmwagen.
My pal Aaron’s granddad Eddie Karnoogian, a dry-cleaning clerk from Pontiac, Michigan, had landed here but farther west. His beach, Easy Green, was shrouded in covering smoke from hillside brushfires, and Eddie was able to duck the bullets and survive. Like a lot of his generation, Eddie never talked much about it, and today Aaron regrets that he wasn’t old enough at the time to pull it out of him. “I asked him dumb kid stuff like, ‘Did you ever shoot a German?’ He said, ‘No, but I almost shot a guy in front of me who wouldn’t move his ass.’ ” Heeding the sentiment, we moved out, driving west on the coast road and tracing Eddie’s path in the days that followed D-day. Hundreds of parked jeeps and trucks lined the village of Vierville-sur-Mer, which played host to a sprawling military swap meet. Enough euros could buy you anything from a deactivated M1 Garand rifle to a German helmet with a hole in it. Instead, we used our euros to buy some of France’s greatest contribution to western cuisine, freshly deep-fried frites.
Farther along, we stopped to poke through the weeds near a river crossing, looking for the remains of a German machine-gun pillbox that Eddie’s unit assaulted in the weeks after D-day. The bucolic landscape around the ancient stone bridge has barely changed. At nearby Grandcamp-Maisy, we dismounted to listen to a memorial ceremony. Modern-day military troops of various nations stood at rigid attention as a band played “The Star Spangled Banner,” then, significantly second, “Le Marseillaise.” Afterward, Aaron found the former town mayor, Serge Bigot, no doubt by looking for the grayest, chunkiest fellow wearing a tricolor sash, and told him in rusty French about how Eddie had helped liberate the town. Bigot shook his hand vigorously and gave him an exquisite lapel pin commemorating the date.
As we rode into Sainte-Mère-Église, the streets teemed with tourists, a huge Ferris wheel spinning wide-eyed sightseers into the air while a mannequin in 82nd Airborne gear hung by his parachute lanyards from the church steeple, just as paratrooper John Steele did all those years ago when his unit dropped on the town amid murderous gunfire. At the edge of the village, a cohort of French collectors and reenactors had organized an enormous encampment of canvas bivouacs and mess tents called Camp Geronimo. Vehicles ranging from jeeps to ambulances to giant wreckers, heavy haulers, command cars, armored cars, mobile antiaircraft batteries, and M4 Sherman tanks drew in crowds of gawkers. Men of all ages and waistlines strolled around in period uniforms and combat gear while women donned nurse’s gowns, glamorous 1940s frocks, or Rosie the Riveter overalls. It was a movie set without the cameras.
Most spoke French, one of the most surprising things about the D-day anniversary. Of course, it’s in France. But crass stereotyping of this supposedly aloof nation of wine sippers and Gauloises smokers would figure the French to be blithely indifferent to the whole affair. This is not the case. We watched as the young, French-speaking crew of a Sherman lovingly hand-cranked its Continental nine-cylinder radial engine as a prelude to starting it, admiring their nerdy devotion to keeping this 40-ton gas-sucking, earth-churning monument to wartime Detroit in fighting trim long after its original masters had abandoned it to the rust. We tried to ask them questions, but they spoke not a word of English.
One Frenchman who did was Pierre Favre, born in 1936 on the south side of Caen, which was doomed to be bombed into rubble after D-day. “I remember a German in my garden,” he told me. Favre’s father, an iron mine engineer, hid the family car lest it be confiscated by the Germans. Shortly before D-day, he hung a white flag on the vehicle, drove the family south, and returned to work by bicycle. He found two German soldiers in the house sleeping in his bed, and he tried to kick them out. “He slept in his bed—okay, with a German on either side of him,” Favre said. His father watched from a water tower as American paratroopers landed on D-day.
In the fields between Sainte-Mère-Église and Utah Beach, we stopped Ernie’s Pile at a crossroads to stretch. A 75-year-old Douglas C-47 Dakota roared by in the distance, expelling black specks that blossomed into gray balls hanging in the air. An organization called Daks over Normandy had somehow persuaded the U.S. owners of 16 of these old troop transporters to brave a North Atlantic crossing via Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland in order to stage paratrooper drops during the D-day 75th anniversary. At a sausage stand, we found Gary Corippo of the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles, California, who told us it cost $300,000 to fly their Dakota, “Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber,” to Normandy and back. It seemed worth it, especially since three of the paratroopers who jumped for the anniversary were over 90 and veterans of the original drop.
We traced Eddie Karnoogian’s path away from the beaches as he fought over the ensuing months before a shrapnel wound in August sent him home. At a bridge north of Saint-Lô that Eddie’s regiment had suffered terrible losses taking, we studied gouges in the stone walls of a primitive barn, no doubt witness marks to the battle. A monument nearby to the 29th Infantry Division bore inscriptions from survivors, such as Frank Wawrynovic of Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania, who wrote: “In eternal debt to the three brave medics who were killed as they came to help me.”
On June 6 this year, dawn broke on Omaha Beach as a spectacular pyrotechnic sky laced by backlit clouds, the first rays of sun casting long shadows from the people milling around on the seashore. A squad of maybe 30 Frenchmen costumed head to toe in reproduction 101st Airborne gear tromped past us in tight military formation, heading for the waterline and whistling the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Some jeeps including Ernie’s Pile sat parked in a line, waiting for orders. Somewhere, a recording of another American folk tune, “Ashokan Farewell,” made famous by Ken Burns’s 1990 Civil War documentary, drifted from a loudspeaker.
“It’s funny,” said Aaron, looking down this hallowed stretch of sand 75 years after his grandfather waded ashore in defense of liberty. “I don’t think of him as a hero. I think of him holding a dinner tray and yelling at the TV.” What would Eddie have said about our return all these years later, we wondered? “Move your ass,” suggested Aaron. So we mounted up on Ernie’s Pile, locked it in low gear, and drove up the hill to rejoin the free world.