When we decided to visit Paris, I knew that we could not cross the Atlantic Ocean into France without retracing some of my Grandpa Zimmerman’s steps during World War II. Researching his life that eventually turned into my book, Blinded by His Shadow, I went from knowing a total of three things about him eight years ago to learning who he was as a person and also knowing a very detailed route he took during the Allied invasion of France and Germany. It is something I shall treasure always.
We didn’t have much time, so I knew it would be a very arduous day of driving and adventuring, but drive and adventure we did. It turned out to be the best AND the worst day of our time in France.
We woke around 4:30 AM, if I remember right, and took the train to the airport in order to pick up our rental car. It was a wonderful little car and much better than I had expected it to be. (“WAS” is a key word to keep in mind.) And the GPS (named Dorothy) was invaluable, a lesson we learned before even leaving the parking lot.
A couple hours of driving lay before us, so we enjoyed the beautiful French countryside waking up to a glorious day as we journeyed along.
Our first stop was Reims, France where Grandpa had be stationed for a time after the war. Really at each of our stops today, we could have spent a day or even a week, so we had to keep focused on the overall plan in order to be able to get in as much as possible. The only place we went to was St Remi Basillica (built in the 1100’s I think). We stopped here because Grandpa had taken a picture of it, so we knew he had visited as well.
It was a perfectly crisp morning, peaceful and so very spring-like. A quick tour of the outside and inside, and we were on our way.
Next place was a World War I memorial at Berry-au-Bac. We found the place listed and pictured as the same memorial Grandpa had visited, but the monument was different. I don’t know if it had been torn down or if we were at the wrong spot. It was kind of a bust, but the drive through the back roads in France to get there was pretty.
Then there was a three hour drive, so Grace and Matthew conked out (and I tried not to be jealous). We eventually came to Sarreguemines, France, right on the border between France and Germany. This was the first place Grandpa came to when shipped overseas in February, 1945. The regimental headquarters was in the city, and the men would go back and forth between resting a day in the city to living in foxholes on the front lines up ahead (mind you, this was February). I found a picture of Grandpa’s unit during this fox hole living time – one of the only times they could move around was to get some food.
As Grandpa’s regiment began to move forward in order to attack the Siegfried Line (bunkers between France and Germany) and invade Germany, they ferried across the Saar River…
…and gathered in the Muhlenwald (Muhlen forest). We found the river right away but drove around the town about a half hour trying to find the Muhlenwald. I finally stopped in a gas station to ask, not knowing if I still was in France or Germany…ten seconds of listening told me. We were in Germany, bless their stout little hearts.
This was a very little gas station in a very little neighboring town – therefore, the people no-speaky English. I wasn’t too worried because I know more German than French thanks to college classes. Unfortunately, I never learned German very well, have never spoken to a German nor have thought about German since college, many moons ago.
“Wo ist Muhlenwald?” ask I, very proud that I could even ask. Yeah, all pride stopped there. I forgot to use the “German” pronunciation. “Muhlenwald?” they replied. “Ja,” says I. “Hmmmm, Muhlenwald. Oh, Muuuuuuuuuuuuuhlenvalt!” they exclaim with understanding in their eyes.
They start talking away, and I quickly clarify “Ein bisschen Deutch (a little German).” At that point I had used up about all the German words I could remember…all I could think of were the stupid French words I had been using the past five days.
A kind lady kept asking “Muhlenwald Strasse (street)?” “No,” says I. “Forest” while wildly waving my arms in the sky like she would guess those arm waves were to indicate trees. “Family?” – her one known English word. I thought, hey my good strong, German family name my elicit some sense of belonging, so says I “Zimmerman.” “Ah, Zeemermahn. On Muhlenwald Strasse???” Ummm, no. “Long time ago” explains I while waving my arms behind me. I didn’t even try to explain that my Zeemmermahn family had not lived on Muhlenwald Strasse but INVADED Muhlenwald. I thought it prolly wouldn’t help in my current situation.
This kind lady and I were getting NOWHERE, so she beckons me to stay. She goes inside to grab her coat, and she motions that she drives and I follow to “Muuuuuuuuuhlenvalt.” She.Led.Us.There.
About ten minutes of driving through back country roads and numerous tiny German neighborhoods…
…she stopped, jumped out of her car and swung her arms in front of her, “Muuuuuuuhlenvalt!” proclaimed she with a grin. And Muhlenwald (the forest, not the street) it was.
We loved it. It was serene and beautiful and humbling. We were standing in the forest where Grandpa had gathered with his regiment at the beginning of their invasion of Germany. We walked through the trees and I thought, “If only he could see us now.”
As much as we loved the area (we are quickly learning that we linger most at the peaceful locations on this journey), we had to move on. (After I grabbed a couple pieces of Muhlenwald wood and a fern leaf – the best kind of souvenirs.)
Bliesbruck was the next stop. All along the way, I kept having Grace take pictures of the town signs. I KNEW these towns!!! I had studied and researched them, and now I was seeing them.
Sarreguemines had been the headquarters; Bliesbruck had been the front lines. Though it’s a little long, I’m just going to let the first paragraph of Blinded by His Shadow do the explaining.
The night hung cold and damp as L Company’s 2nd Platoon
moved out. Fewer than forty men stumbled through the dark
winter night, several of them having joined the unit just that
day. Carefully picking their way up the southern side of the hill
through woods thick with underbrush and mud, they navigated
through terrain that was difficult in the daytime and all but impassible
at night. Intermittent enemy gunfire pierced the stillness.
The men were not able to see the enemy, but they nervously
heard and felt their movements all the same. Finally, the platoon
reached the destination. They relieved Company I and took their
turn holding this hill, which had been won seven days earlier.
Finding newly abandoned foxholes, the men, some still strangers
to each other, settled in for what little rest they could manage in
the remaining night of February 13, 1945. Among these defenders
was Private Joseph T. Zimmerman.
And this is that hill…
The Nazi German Army had control of the village of Bliesbruck. The Allied Army fought for control of the three hills overlooking the village. We drove through the village and up the opposite hill on what became a dirt path in a pasture. It was not unlike driving on Grandpa Bland’s farm, and our sturdy little car did great. This is where Grandpa first saw combat.
Next on the journey were just a succession of small villages Grandpa had marched through and fought the enemy in during the invasion. We just managed to go through a few, time was precious and many adventures awaited.
I had found on the internet just before leaving on the trip that there were several ruins/remains of the Siegfried Line in the area. As I said before, the Siegfried Line was a system of concrete bunkers. But it was also rows of Dragon’s Teeth, three foot high concrete pyramids used as tank obstacles. The man online gave the following instructions.
Continue through the village of Lambsborn toward Bechhofen. Approximately 700 meters out of town, turn left at the bus stop circular “H” sign, on a farm road labeled “Haus Heideblick.” Park at the fork in the road and walk along the tree line parallel to the highway approximately 130 yards. A well-preserved emplacement of dragon’s teeth is visible about 20 yards into the forest.
Between Dorothy, the instructions and my two very competent traveling companions, we found those amazing dragon’s teeth. Another “wow” moment.
In the same town somewhere was located an old bunker. This took a little more searching than the dragon’s teeth and some walking and looking in a forest, but, praise the Lord, He allowed us to find it.
It had a very narrow opening, and the online instructions said “though not advised to enter, a small person could squeeze in.” Well, I was going to forgo the squeezing, but Grace pulled out her adventurous spirit and encouraged us to do the same, and squeeze away we did.
After looking around, I came back out, only to hear Grace and Matthew sing a couple verses of Amazing Grace. I just sat there and was in awe and tears. Here they were, seventy years after all the fighting, singing of God’s grace in a place that seen so much pain.
After that, we searched and searched and SEARCHED for our last stop…and finally found it, thanks to Grace’s tenacity. Poor Matthew, the guy who never gets car sick was car sick in the back. (Sorry, Matthew.)
There was so much more to see, but we had to start back. This is where the story goes from great…to awful. I will try to tell it quickly. First, Dorothy the GPS became a stinker. She didn’t realize that the highway entrance was under construction, and, no, I COULD NOT TURN RIGHT! She refused to recalculate. Thirty-five minutes wasted.
Driving on the Autobahn was exciting…but the whole trip I had to drive too fast for my comfort level in order to make it back to catch the last train back to Paris. Driving fast on the Autobahn and French highway for a little while is fun. Doing so in the dark for four hours without cruise control is exhausting.
And then there was the deal with the fuel. *sigh* I had gotten a diesel car because it was cheaper, and I had carefully checked the entire trip to make sure I used the right fuel. Well, our last station was at 10:00; it was dark and no one was there except the owner taking a smoke. (He was nice, btw.) I looked at the fuel choices. “Gazoil” and “sdiuerwdsfsdf.” The “sdfsdfsodui” was green, just like the previous diesel pump (and just like home). The “Gazoil” was another color. “Sdfslerwesf” must be the diesel, right? Because “gazoil” would indicate, oh I don’t know, maybe GAS.
Not so. So not so. But I didn’t know that for the next 170 kilometers. I became VERY aware of it the last 30 kilometers. At that point, all I wanted to do was make it back to the airport. I didn’t want to break down on the side of the French road at 11:00 with two teenagers. I DID NOT.
The poor car kept dying in low gears (like at toll booths and around round-a-bouts), so I revved that poor little gassy engine. I revved her all the way to the airport. I was scared. I was tired (did I mention the night before only contained two hours sleep?) I.wanted.My.Man. I was praying.
We made it to the airport, only cause God got us there. It died before we were in the correct area, so in my panic, I tried to drive over a median. Hey, the engine was ruined already, I might as well work on the rest of the car. Little cars do not go over medians. Our guardian angels shook their heads, picked up the car and got us off the median, and we parked.
The man at the counter did not understand my explanation of “the car is running rough.” “Excusez-moi?” says the French rental car man. “THE CAR NO-WORKY!!!” “You need ‘nother car?” After our little exchange, he said it was ok, and just to leave the keys. (I am still waiting to hear from the company…prayers are still needed.)
So we ran through the airport to catch the last train before midnight to Paris. Made it!!! Except the train was undergoing construction, and the station was closed. “But you take bus to Sdrwensfdsd and then catch next train.” So, after questions to many French people, we found the bus. After the bus ride, we caught the last train. After the last train, we walked back to our flat.
God had safely gotten us home.
I and my guardian angels were tired (and a wee bit grumpy) but safe.
And thus ends the longest post I’ve ever written.