Utah and Omaha beaches, Fort du Roule, La Haye du Puits, the Seine River, Parroy Forest, Haguenau, Hatten, Rittershoffen. Names that will be forever etched in the minds of the veterans, the widows and the families of America's 79th Infantry Division, known by the American High Command as the fastest in the U.S. Army.
These were names that would also soon become familiar to me. In the company of real heroes just like those in "Saving Private Ryan", I was invited by the specialist veterans tour operator MilSpec Tours to cover the return to Normandy and Alsace-Lorraine of the 79th Infantry Division's veterans. A story of tears, laughter and hugs and firm friendships forged in a roller-coaster of the most extraordinary range of emotions which accompanied the passing of the torch of American Second World War Remembrance onto the younger generation.
Across France, from the haunting loneliness of the invasion beaches of Normandy to the excitement and nightlife of Paris, from the architectural grandeur of Nancy to the cosmopolitan feel of Le Mans, from the parliamentary splendor of the European Commission's governing city of Strasbourg to the champagne city of Reims, and through all of the tiny hamlets in between, there was a warm welcome for the American liberators from the 79th Infantry Division of Patton's Third Army and Patch's Seventh Army.
An avalanche of genuine affection and undiluted Gallic pride would be the underlying theme of this trip. But who was this 79th Infantry Division that the French people had taken so warmly to their heart? Its history dates back to the trench warfare of the Great War of 1914-18 when the 'doughboys' of America's 79th Division adopted the blue and white Cross of Lorraine as their divisional patch in honor of its combat role in the Lorraine area of the western front around the Meuse-Argonne sector.
With America's entry into World War Two following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, some 25 years later, the 79th Infantry Division was re-activated on June 15th 1942 with the famous Cross of Lorraine patch once again in evidence. Basic training took place at Camp Pickett, Virginia and Camp Blanding in Florida, followed by field training at Tennessee and then desert maneuvers at Camp Laguna in Arizona. In December 1943 the 79th was ordered to Camp Phillips in Kansas for Winter training, then in April '44, the Division was pronounced ready for overseas service and was sent to Massachusetts Port of Embarkation and Camp Myles Standish, ready for transportation to the European Theatre of Operations.
The advance party arrived in Glasgow, Scotland on March 31st 1944 on the cruise-liner the Queen Mary, whilst the rest of the Division arrived in England at Liverpool Docks on April 7th 1944. Billeted in Cheshire, intensive training in amphibious assaults began, followed by a move south to Tiverton in Devon where it continued to practise for its part in the invasion of France. Shortly after June 6th, 1944, the 79th moved to the south coast ports of Plymouth, Falmouth and Portsmouth and on D + 4 (June 10th), found themselves ready for embarkation in support of the first wave of American, British and Commonwealth assault troops who had already fought their way ashore on the coast of France via the invasion beaches of Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah.
Landing on D + 8, (June 14th) the 79th Infantry Division was to be involved in many
critical and bloody battles, prompting Major-General Ira T. Wyche to comment after the
"I shall always look upon my command of the 79th Division as the most
successful period of my official career. This is so because of those fine Americans
who wore the Cross of Lorraine"