V-E Day and Return to Normandy
Not long after the 9th of May (VE Day), we began leaving the city of Gera for our return to Camp Lucky Strike in Normandy. Teen-age girls and even some young mothers with children, seeing us loading up our trucks and Jeeps gathered around us, pleading with us to take them along! Many were crying and told us they feared the Russian soldiers who were advancing to occupy their area. Although I felt sorry for them, I thought to myself that had the German forces not slaughtered millions of Russian civilians they wouldn't have needed to be so fearful!
When we arrived back in Normandy we were stationed in Camp Old Gold, which looked much smaller than our previous Camp Lucky Strike from whence we'd gone to combat. Many of us suddenly realized we had survived combat and decided we should throw a "combat survival" celebration! We knew that the ancient Benedictine Abbey at Fecamp, which was not far away, was the local source of authentic Benedictine Liqueur for our party! Of course, as I was known to be French-speaking I was immediately pressed into service as "Chief Forager"! We talked our mess sergeant into giving us a 2-lb. bag of sugar and an empty 1-gallon jug. We then drove to the main gate of the monastery, pulled the bell chain, waited for a completely cowed monk to come towards us; he did not open the gate but waited as I explained our needs in French. He did not speak but opened a small square hinged wrought-iron door, within the main gate, through which we passed the bag of sugar, the large 1-gallon jug, and a total of 200-francs. (Note that in 1945 our official exchange rate for 1-franc was equal to 2-cents!) Still silent, he took our materials and money, went back down the walkway into the great doors of the monastery. We had been waiting no more than about 8 or 10 minutes when he returned with the entire jug full of the world-famous liqueur giving us the jug through the small square door. Our next mission was to drive to the ancient town of Yvet˘t, to find a boulangerie to buy bread and to find out where we should go to search for Armangnac (brandy) to make "B & B" ("Benedictine and Brandy"), as Benedictine liqueur by itself was too sweet and syrupy to drink straight.
After the tall, good-looking, blond young lady (her Viking ancestry was obvious!) behind the counter got over the shock of spoken French coming out of an American soldier like me, she called the baker, evidently her father, to whom I explained our purpose. He gave us a dozen loaves of long French breads and as he would not accept any money we invited him and his daughter, and any one else he would like to bring, to our party! We told him that we'd already bought Benedictine liqueur and needed some Armangnac to make "B & B". He then explained where we could purchase about 6 or 7 bottles of Armangnac from a stock hidden from the Germans since 1940 and that it had probably been bottled about 15 to 18 years earlier!
The next afternoon, which was Sunday, the baker arrived with about 20 people, including his daughter, (who remembered me and who engaged me in conversation, in French, of course), other young women and some older people (as chaperons, I guess). The mess sergeant had made lots of sandwiches from the breads, many boxes of Ten-in-One rations and some K-rations, the "B & B" flowed continuously and a good time was had by all! Vive la belle France!
One afternoon we visited the little Norman town of Veules-les-Roses on top of the chalk cliffs overlooking the English Channel. The fronts of all the houses, cafes and stores were covered with clinging vines of extremely fragrant miniature red roses. Their scent can be sniffed about 2 or 3 miles away while driving on the road, parallel to the Channel, towards this little town high above the sea. If the aroma seems to fade when you're driving you may be assured that you'd made a wrong turn somewhere and that you were traveling in the wrong direction!
One Sunday we visited the ancient city of Rouen and saw the monument in the market square where Jeanne d'Arc was burnt at the stake in 1431. It was hard to believe that Saint Joan was actually burnt alive at this very spot 514 years ago! Even though I was not a religious person I had always admired Saint Joan because her accomplishments represented a triumph of the human spirit in spite of her fear of death! Even at the very time when I was looking at the monument, I noticed that many Norman women, and some men, walking by would cross themselves as they passed! I thought, if anything, Saint Joan had sure made a lasting, 500-year-old impression on the French people!