Wednesday, June 25, 2014

travels | normandy +70 | jack schlegel

The first afternoon of our DDay tour took us down narrow, winding, tall-hedge lined roads, until we came to this chateau.  It was the type of house that you thought only existed in black and white movies.  Ancient, elegant and regal.  The kind of home that you know has lived to see some pretty incredible things and you wish for a minute that you and those proverbial walls could just have a chat.  You know that they are filled to the brim with stories and secrets.
This is the home that used as his personal headquarters for Nazi officials (the photo here is of a photo  of General Field Marshall Rommel standing by the front door).   It was a spot chosen by German General Falley, and since he was too cautious to stay here overnight, he instead would drive around back every evening to a small trailer that was hidden in the woods.  On June 6, 1944, Falley and his driver were killed by American GIs.  It was several hours that a disoriented paratrooper named Jack Schlegel happened upon the car and discovered the dead general.  The area was still buzzing with Germans and Jack was quickly taken prisoner, but not before he took a large swastika flag from the car and hid it in a barn by the road.  After spending several weeks in a German prison camp, enduring torture, he attempted to escape three times and finally on his fourth try, he made it back to the American side.  While riding back to the beach, he asked the driver of the jeep to stop at the barn so he could retrieve the flag as a little souvenir.  He kept it and 25 years later he returned to Normandy and donated that flag to the museum at St Mere Eglise.  The full story can be read here:

We're not a group to decline a brief "turn about the grounds"...  So we took a few minutes and explored this beautiful French property.  We discovered that it had massive stables (which are being renovated into a B&B room), a private and incredibly beautiful family chapel as well as an orangery that came straight out of my dreams.  Currently, a Countess, who fluently speaks 6 languages, lives here and is a friend of our tour guide.  She is as lovely as you'd imagine her to be.
 Driving back down the road we took a right turn onto the tiny single lane that Falley would have driven on.  Where it all happened.  And there is the sign that says "Jack Schelgel".  (the photo above is his road.  It's breathtaking and peaceful now, I can hardly believe that the ugliness of war marched through it.  This photo also shows the density of the famous hedgerows and gives a bit of perspective on how difficult it would have been to navigate around Normandy as a soldier.)
It was several days later when Anna & I had just completed our tour of the Utah Beach museum and I was in search of some coffee, that we started down the sidewalk towards the best (okay, only) restaurant on Utah.  There was a crowd of people gathered around a very animated old veteran.  We were curious to see what what going on and heard the name Jack Schlegel mentioned.  We both looked at each other with wide eyes and rushed over to a gentleman who appeared to know what was going on and said "Who is that?!?"  

"It's Jack Schlegel!"

I forgot all about my coffee and leaned in to hear what he had to say.  He was the kindest man, laughing and joking and reveling in the joy of being a celebrity for a few days.  He talked about being a paratrooper at the age of 19 and what that was like.  Then he saw Anna & I (it must have been our pretty faces! haha!) he asked if we wanted his autograph.  Of course we did!  He signed our papers and looked at us with tears in his eye and said "You know, I go to a lot of schools and I talk to kids about the war and what I did.  They always ask me "how many people did you kill?" and they're excited about it.  And it makes me sad, because killing is no fun.  Dropping a bomb is one thing, but when you have to look a man in the eye and shoot him, it just takes something out of you.  War is not fun, we did what we had to do."

As I was doing some last minute fact-checking for this blog post, I googled his name and the first thing that came up was an obituary from Woodstock, NY.  Jack died only a week after we met him on the beach in Normandy.  My heart just sank and I remembered what my Mimi says every time someone of note passes away.  "A library has been burned".  The very reason this trip meant so much to me was because I knew that most of these precious men would never come back, but knowing his story and meeting the the man behind it, shaking his hand, thanking him.  It gives such a personal connection to what happened at DDay.  I'm so thankful to have had the opportunity to say hello and that he took the time to tell his story.

You can learn more about Jack Schlegel here:
NBC News - War Hero Dies Days After Celebrating DDay Anniversary - link to video

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