Paratroopers Like Angels 

Most of the information for my trip has been taken from an interview that my brother conducted in the fifth grade. He asked Grandpa the questions that I never had the nerve to. This is how I know that at some point, Grandpa was in France. He told my brother that after leaving England he landed on “a beach in France.” Grandpa did not fight in Normandy. I decided to go to Normandy because of the historical significance of the fighting that took place here. Grandpa got to France in December of 1944, five months after D-Day.  

But before Grandpa landed on that “beach in France”, 61,732 American, British and Canadian men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner on five different beaches, spanning eighty miles in France. During the early morning of June 6, 1944, the Allies launched the largest and riskiest attack of World War II: Operation Neptune. For months they planned two attacks: one real and one fictitious. The decoy was to be in Calais, where fake units were sent. The Allies even went so far as to plant soldiers to be captured by the enemy only to be tortured into giving false information. The deception worked but for one Nazi general. But I will write further about that next time.    

Visiting the town of Sainte-Mere Eglise was eye-opening to say the least. Remember, Grandpa trained as a paratrooper but for one reason or another, never jumped in the war. The whole time I was going through this tour, hearing the statistics and the stories, I couldn’t help but be selfishly grateful that Grandpa had ended up instead in the infantry.  

My tour guide, a strawberry-blonde woman named Sunny, had grown up only twenty minutes from the town. Her grandparents had evacuated during the bombardments of D-Day. She told us that the Americans would always warn the civilians before they started a bombing and her grandmother insisted on taking refuge in the church. Her grandfather knew better than to hide out in the town center and convinced her to run with him instead to the outskirts of town, into the country. That saved their lives and the lives of their children. Seventy-five percent of the town was destroyed in the bombing, a rarity for Normandy. Most of the towns were fairly untouched. 

Sunny described to us the early morning of June 6th, when American paratroopers fell from the sky to liberate the people of Sainte-Mere Eglise. It was about one o’clock and an unfortunate house fire had been raging for nearly two hours. The fire made the night more bloody than planned. It awakened the German soldiers, who had to authorize a lift of the curfew in order for the townspeople to help extinguish the fire, and illuminated the town that would otherwise have been pitch black and empty. The paratroopers began descending in their virtually uncontrollable but silent parachutes, one soldier cutting off most of the flesh from his thumb as he struggled to get free of his parachute before being shot by the Germans.  

The most famous incident in this town is the story of John Steele, who was caught on the very top of the cathedral, called Notre Dame, in the center of town. He was not the only paratrooper caught on Notre Dame, but he was the highest up. On the other side of the building, Kenneth Russell found himself caught as well, about twenty feet from a German soldier, who drew his gun to shoot when behind him landed yet another American paratrooper, Sergeant John Ray. The German turned and shot Ray then turned back to shoot Russell and Steele but Ray was not dead. Ray drew his own weapon and killed the German soldier, allowing time for Russell to escape. Russell unfortunately believed that both Ray and Steele were dead and ran off to join the fighting.  

Ray died of his injuries the next day. Steele faked being dead for two hours before being cut down by German soldiers for looting. He was taken prisoner and escaped only three days later, rejoining the Allies and fighting in the rest of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge with my grandpa. John Steele returned to Sainte-Mere Eglise in the sixties and when he passed, donated his medals to the town. They are on display at the Airborne Museum. Steele became famous for his depiction in the film “The Longest Day” and as a result, the town hung a dummy paratrooper at the top of Notre Dame to appease the tourists. 

The paratroopers in Sainte-Mere Eglise suffered enormous losses. Many were shot down from the sky, many ended up drowning in marshes as they landed. Still, the survivors took the town by four in the morning, making it the first liberated town of the war. It had been under the Nazi rule for four years.  

The impact of that night and the liberation of the small town still resonates today. There are parachutes painted on shop windows, there are statues in honor of the paratroopers. To me though, the most touching tribute to those men was in the cathedral where John Steele and Kenneth Russell were trapped.  

The citizens were so grateful to the paratroopers that they wanted to make one of the stained glass windows of Notre Dame a tribute to them. They paid for a new window to be made above the alter in the cathedral, depicting Mary surrounded by paratroopers, falling from the sky like angels. You have to take a moment and think about this. The year that they made this happen was 1947, it was extremely expensive to make and the town, like so many other towns and cities during that time, was still recovering from the war financially and economically. The enormity of the sacrifice that it took for these people to put up the stained glass is something to admire. Just to put it in perspective: rationing of meat, butter and cheese in England, one of the world’s superpowers, did not end until 1954. The war had been over for nearly a decade.

When American veterans returned to the town years later, they were so enormously touched by the stained glass window of them, they donated two more to the cathedral: all to represent the friendship between the two nations and the day of the first liberation.  



The relationship between the paratroopers and the town of Sainte-Mere Eglise reminded me of a picture I found in my grandpa’s things. It shows a jeep and a group of soldiers and one soldier off to the left, kneeling down and embracing a child. I don’t know where or when it was taken or who the soldiers are, but it struck me.  There are many pictures like this in Normandy, on postcards and hanging in shops and restaurants.


Peace is all around this region. There is no room for hatred here. Even in the German cemetery, there is no graffiti, the grounds are well-kept and beautiful. “This is not a graveyard of Nazi fanatics,” Sunny explained, “many of the men buried here were not even German. They were prisoners of war or any citizen who could hold a gun.” The youngest soldier buried in Normandy is a German boy, only fourteen years old. The oldest is also German. A seventy-five year old veteran of World War I. If there are any SS soldiers in the German cemetery, their headstones do not note it. “We want to prevent any desecration, to forget the hate. It was hate and resentment that started the second world war.” Sunny said, “We do not want that again.”

Sunny is right, Hitler preyed on the disappointment and economic depression brought on by losing WWI. He blamed the Jews, harnessed the people’s anger and manipulated his way to power. By the time the true degree of his hatefulness, his fanaticism and evil was realized, most of the German population found themselves prisoners as well. This is something to remember, too many people paid for his hate with their lives.  


The GI Bill & A 65 Year Old Friendship

Grandpa grew up poor and scattered between Brooklyn, where he was born in 1925, and New Jersey, where his mother eventually raised him and his eight siblings on her own. She’d divorced her husband, who flip-flopped between dreams and states, eventually rendering them penniless. Grandpa and his siblings had to work in order to help support the family, but his mother always encouraged them to focus on school. She believed that an education was the best way for them to be successful.

In 1944 the GI Bill was signed, making a college education accessible for the first time to the working class and a generation of Americans who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford it. That bill changed my grandpa’s life. He used it to put himself through MIT, graduating and going to work at PPG, where he learned everything he could about making glass. Grandpa left PPG in the seventies to start his own glass company, Rochester Insulated Glass.  

And because of that bill and my grandfather’s success, I was exposed to more luxuries and opportunities than most. Nana and Grandpa took us out to nice restaurants whenever we were together. They liked to take us where there wasn’t a children’s menu, which was always a challenge for my picky palate. Nana would lean over to me and say, “You don’t have to finish anything you don’t want.” Still, I was encouraged to try anything. I loved going out with Nana and Grandpa. Their introducing me to fine dining contributed to my interest in the industry for sure, though I’m sure they never imagined that I would end up working in restaurants.   

The privileges extended further than nice restaurants though. Grandpa somehow wore down on my father’s pride, convincing my dad to allow him to help pay for our college tuitions. One year, he and Nana paid for my entire year of tuition. The amount of student debt that I didn’t have because of that is monumental, the generosity of my grandparents knew no bounds. Grandpa would be embarrassed for me to say it. He often donated to charities anonymously, or said it was a gift from his company.  

And his appreciation for education never faded. He started having us all get together with our cousins for what he called a “College Club” meeting. We talked about college, where we wanted to go and what we wanted to study and why. I was only about thirteen when we had our first College Club meeting and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I was so privileged that the concept of not going to college had never dawned on me. It had always been engrained in me that I would go, it was only a question of where and for what. As I grew up, I realized that contrary to my childhood, a college education had hardly been a possibility for my grandpa until he was nineteen.  

In doing my research for this project, I had the fortunate opportunity to interview a friend of my grandfather’s. He mentioned the GI Bill more than once. “The institutions were so worried, these soldiers coming from war and into college, they thought we would be hooligans and miscreants. On the contrary, we were often the best students. We were so grateful for the opportunity —  it was a rarity that it was wasted on us.” His name is Father Leo Hetzler, he met my grandfather in 1943 in Louisiana, when Grandpa was assigned to his original infantry, the 86th. The 86th was an elite infantry, reserved for the brightest soldiers, also called the Blackhawks, who were to be groomed as officers. “When we were training and got a break, we used to drive our superior officers nuts. They would give us fifteen minutes and we would all take out our pocket mystery novels,” he paused to chuckle to himself, “I don’t know what they expected of us, but not that.”  

Father Hetzler is a tall man with a kind face; whenever I’ve seen him, he’s been in his clerical clothing. When he speaks he gesticulates, hands meeting with fingers intertwined across his chest when he pauses to chuckle, which is very, very often. He is a retired English Literature professor and is incredibly articulate and insightful. I first met him about fifteen years ago when he appeared at dinner with Grandpa. I was told he’d served with Grandpa in the war and nothing else. Grandpa didn’t speak about the war and Father Hetzler didn’t either. Up until about a month ago, I imagined they did so in private. Of course, I was wrong. When I started asking questions about my grandfather, Father Hetzler didn’t even know what infantry he’d been in overseas or where he’d fought and he was entirely unaware that I was named after someone my grandpa had known during the Allied occupation. “Of course we were talking more, not so much about the war, we were talking about his business and — the glass works and all of that. And I suppose I talked about the college but we certainly didn’t talk about the war, there was just so many other things going on.”

It’s difficult for me to imagine living through what Father Hetzler and my grandpa lived through and never speaking about it. Father Hetzler explained to me that the mentality was that the war was something to get through in order to get on with your life. They wanted to get back home to start careers and families.  Then it was all over and they could, so they did. No one was thinking that they were making history, they were just kids trying to survive.

Grandpa had been so private about the war that Nana didn’t even know what infantry he was in off the top of her head. She had to do some digging to look for his discharge papers. “He threw most of his things away,” she explained to me, “he left the army angry.” Turns out that when Grandpa was in Vienna during the occupation, he’d applied to and was accepted into West Point. When they came to collect him, he was out on maneuvers, they couldn’t find him. So they gave away his position in the school and when he got back he took an Honorable Discharge, destroying most of his paperwork and any souvenirs he may have had from the war. The only things my grandpa kept were his discharge papers, some medals, his Kodak Retina and a blue pastry tin full of pictures he’d taken. That’s where I found pictures of who I believe is Thea.    


But before I got my hands on all that material, I was doing research on the 86th, going off of a story that Father Hetzler had told at Grandpa’s memorial in 2008. He said that they’d been fighting in the Ardennes and had come under fire by German flame-throwers. He said he and my grandfather had been lying face down, side by side when Grandpa turned to him and said, “And thus begins another monotonous day.”  

Once Nana had found the papers and I realized that Grandpa had not fought with the 86th, I asked Father Hetzler about the story. He chuckled, apologized and explained that it was a true story about Grandpa, but one that Grandpa had told him.  “I think he – he told me that himself. Now, when I told the story it was as if I was there. But he had that humor all the time, I think it was a good – good insight into his mind. The control that he had, the steadiness. That was very much him.” Father Hetzler had never fought in the Battle of the Bulge, he’d just told the story in the first person to shorten the length of his speech at the memorial.  

After some more digging and interrogating of Nana, I found that Grandpa had left the 86th to get his wings as a paratrooper. He never ended up jumping in war, but instead served in the 350th Infantry, light weapons. A light weapons platoon had two thirty-millimeter machine guns and three sixty-millimeter mortars. Every infantry had a light weapon platoon and a three rifle platoon.  

There was a period of time when “light weapons” was misremembered as “heavy weapons”  in the various memory banks of me and my family, so I ended up learning a bit about those soldiers as well. That little mistake, interestingly enough, may have shed light on a pile of pictures of jeeps that my grandpa had taken.

Father Hetzler explained to me what a heavy weapons platoon was. He told me that every battalion would consist of about 700 soldiers and every battalion had a heavy weapons platoon. That platoon would have jeeps carrying fifty caliber machine guns and eighty millimeter mortars. The jeeps would have either the mortars or the machine guns on them, each with soldiers specializing in the weapons. “There was one episode in, fighting in Germany, when we were going up the side of a valley – so we got strung out – and on the opposite side, the Germans had dug in and were laying an ambush for us. As soon as we got strung out then they opened up powerful firepower. Well, we invented a new kind of technique with our heavy weapons jeeps and fifty caliber machine guns, [the jeep] ran parallel to us up and down between us and it just, just snuffed out the whole enemy line which was strung out half a mile or so. And that was the new, that was the new weapons.”  

That would explain the amount of pictures of jeeps that I found in Grandpa’s things, they were vehicles of saving grace.  Without them, movement and survival would have been even more limited to say the least.


Father Hetzler will certainly come up further in my story. To learn more about his life and his war experience, take a look at this movie made by a man who walked by him in an airport and said, “You have a very interesting face.” After a brief conversation, the man ended up interviewing Father Hetzler and putting together this short film.

Father Hetzler’s thoughts on the movie: “…the only disagreement we had was this one on humor. I told all sorts of stories about humorous things that had happened and — he cut them all out. He said it would spoil the mood, the very serious mood. And I said ‘No, humor would heighten it.’  That’s what playwrights did, like Shakespeare. The audience just watched the murder of Duncan, Lady MacBeth is covered in blood. And she says, ‘No water will wash this away.’ And then the next scene is the drunken porter at the gate. The audience needs that. The humor is really what got us through.”  


The Churchill War Rooms

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go to the Churchill War Rooms. Passing Westminster, tourists and newscasters preparing for Prince William’s speech later in the day, I found my way to a small entrance at the base of enormously large and regal looking building. It resembled a cave, black with bronze lettering across the top telling me that I was in the right place.

I descended to the war rooms, between an elderly Italian couple and a family of three Americans. The first stop was The Cabinet Room, the room that Churchill saw and said, “This is the room from which I will direct the war.”  It was 1940, the basement formerly used for storage would shortly house hundreds of British officers and civilians throughout the next five years. Even Clementine Churchill, the Prime Minister’s wife, had her own room in the bunker.  

Churchill had a cleverly hidden secret room, disguised with a bathroom door.  The rumor was that Churchill had his own private bathroom with a toilet that actually flushed (everyone else had to use chemical toilets) but on the contrary, it was here that the Prime Minister would make top secret phone calls to The United States, to President Roosevelt himself.  He knew he’d need to work closely with America to beat Hitler and his Nazi’s.  It was 1943 when the lavatory door was installed, the same year that my grandfather enlisted and began training in Louisiana.

The first time I was in Europe I was nine or ten. My grandfather took me, my siblings and parents, aunts, uncle and cousins on a trip throughout Germany, Italy and Austria. I don’t remember how long we were gone. I remember loving Venice, I remember a beautiful home of a friend of his near Munich. I remember the family in Lower Bavaria whose grandfather had befriended mine in the fifties when they worked together. They remained lifelong friends, passing only a couple years apart from each other.  

The first time my grandfather was in Europe he was nineteen. It was England, he’d just taken an unescorted ship across the Atlantic, zig-zagging to avoid enemy tracking. Three days later he boarded troop ships, transferred to a landing craft and landed, in his words, “at a beach in France.”   

Normandy will be my next stop and I will have the opportunity to tour the American beaches.    


It’s Pronounced Tay-ah

Having been raised a bit isolated on a farm with my four siblings as my playmates, kindergarten came as quite a shock to me.  My parents sent me to a Montessori school in the city which meant I had to take the bus all by myself.  I was an introvert then and now but fortunately for five-year-old me, I was the only passenger on that bus.  The bus driver, whose face is imprinted in my memory, was a kind woman who told me stories and asked about my day.

She had light brown hair that she always wore down and she was always smiling.  She laughed a lot and told me to sit “right up front” so that we could chat.  I liked her and she seemed to like me too.  The only problem was she didn’t pronounce my name right and every morning when I boarded that bus, she’d say, “Good morning Thee-ah!”

I was too shy to correct her.  It was something I’d never done before: correct an adult!  Furthermore, no one had ever mispronounced my name before.  If they had, it had been to my parents and I had no idea.  This was uncharted territory so I did what any five-year-old introvert would do: I accepted my new fate as Thee-ah.

The inevitable flu circulated our tiny kindergarten class by the time winter hit and I succumbed to the germs in my own time.  Since I was the only person taking the bus, my mother called to tell the bus station that I wouldn’t be needing a ride that day.  That’s when my secret was let out.  My mother had obviously pronounced my name properly, my bus driver had obviously heard and recognized her mistake. 

The next time I got on that bus the driver stopped me on the stairs, she looked me in the eye and told me she was sorry.  “I was mispronouncing your name this whole time!”  She said, “Whenever that happens, you have to correct people, okay?  You can’t let people say your name wrong, they should say it right.”

I nodded, on the brink of tears for not knowing how to process whether or not I was being yelled at.  But from then on she continued to say my name right and from then on I took her advice and corrected every single person who mispronounced it. 

It has been a long road since.

This is how introductions go for me:

Me: Hi, I’m Thea.

New Friend: Tee-ah?

Me: Tay-ah, like Tea Leoni, the actress.

New Friend: Ohhh that’s so pretty!  What is it/what is it short for/is that a family name?

Thea is not short for anything and Thea is not a family name.  Thea is quite the opposite, the name of someone my grandfather knew when he was a child who had somehow not only survived but helped to win a world war.  Is it German?  I thought so at first, I was told she was a German girl when he was stationed there after the war.  Then I came to find out that he was stationed in Austria.  So was she a German girl living in Austria or an Austrian girl with a German name?  I’m inclined to believe the name itself is German after having an awkward conversation with a professor in grad school who kept forgetting how to pronounce my name and reverting back to “Thee-ah.” 

“Professor ‘Smith,’ can I speak with you?”  I said after class one night, about five weeks into our semester.

“Of course!”

“I’m sorry to bother you, it’s just, you’ve been saying my name wrong.  Not always – just every now and then.”

“Oh shit!  How am I saying it?”

“Thee-ah.  But it’s pronounced Tay-ah.”

“What is it?”

“I think German.”

“Well that make sense.”

And he never mispronounced it again.    

It’s been a hard fact for me to forget: not knowing who I was named after or why.  My whole life Nana always told me that I should have been named after her, Gretchen.  “You should’ve been a Gretchen!” she would say to me, her index finger and unbelievably long, pink nail pointing in the air.  She did this when I said something sassy, or wore a strange outfit, or got a good grade.  She said this when I acted as she taught me.  And she was right, I should have been a Gretchen.  If my parents had known how much I would eventually take after Nana, I’m sure they would have named me for her. 

But sometimes I think that maybe in some way it was meant to be that I was named after Thea instead, maybe she never got a chance to have anyone else named for her or imitate her and idolize her as I did Nana.  Maybe me carrying her name is all she’ll have of immortality.  Nana on the other hand, has children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren even, who all exist and strive because of her influence. 

Even as I was doing research at Nana’s house on this very project, she told me that she had dinner plans with her dear friends down the road.  She called to make sure it was okay that I come along.  This is what I heard, “My granddaughter is in town from Boston, is it okay if she comes too?  Yes, Thea.  Tay-ah.  T-H-E-A,” she let out a laugh, “see you then.” 

We were both thinking it, “You should’ve been a Gretchen.”Thea & Nana