To Normandy And Back – Sgt.Hugh Lee Stephens & Me

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Some blog posts are harder to write than others as my drafts folder would illustrate if you were able to poke around in my unfinished business, but this story is one I’ve wanted to share since last year and as it’s Memorial Day, today seems right.

In 1943 my great-uncle, Hugh Lee Stephens went off to war to fight and die like many others. Thanks to the letters he wrote home and the historical work of others I found online, tracking his journey from his basic training days to a field in France was not as difficult as it could have been.

Once I realized that I could follow his path from the USA to England and across the English Channel to France using the APO addresses on his letters home, I tracked him to a field near Saint-Germain-sur-Sèves where he died.

I am including a link should you wish to do a similar search. The list of APO’s used during 1942-1947 can be found by clicking here.  You can see an example of a different APO numbers in the return addresses on the letters below.

WWII Letters Home

After I found the APO guide, I began to search his letters for information that led me to his unit and confirmed I had the dates were correct that placed him at the battle at Saint-Germain-sur-Sèves .

July 19, 1944 - There are details in this letter about being given time off to get clean clothes and a hot meal that fit with notes I found online about his unit's activity just before the battle of Saint-Germain-sur-Sèves.

July 19, 1944 – There are details in this letter about being given time off to get clean clothes and a hot meal that fit with notes I found online about his unit’s activity just before the battle of Saint-Germain-sur-Sèves.

 

July 21, 1944 - Last letter home of Hugh Lee Stephens

July 21, 1944 – Last letter home of Hugh Lee Stephens

I could go on and on about the history lesson that came from my research and my excitement at learning more about my great-uncle Hugh’s last days, but none of it would be complete without sharing the physical journey that John and I made last fall when we crossed the English channel and made our way across France to Saint-Germain-sur-Sèves.

We knew we had found the right area when we saw this sign. I took a couple of photos of it because it shows what the field looked like when American troops tried to take it from the German soldiers.

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Even though we were very close, we had problems finding the field. it was not as well-marked as we thought it would be and we didn’t see any people at first in the hamlet near the field.

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John and I circled round the area on foot several times and then a man came out of a house to speak to us. We were clearly not the first visitors he had directed and the chance meeting was more special as he explained to John in French that he was there when the Americans lost what they called ” The Island ” because it was a marshy space that was almost surrounded by water due to weather conditions.

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I took the first two photos on the sly as I walked up on John speaking with him so they are a bit wonky.

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The more he talked the more emotional he became as he shared how as a boy he’d watched German soldiers hide under grasses in the fields, in ditches and behind the hedges. He said the Germans were mostly boys by then, a comment which made sense as German forces had been spread thin across the rest of Europe by 1944.

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 He pointed to us in a direction that led to the path to the field.

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There is a small memorial stone at the edge of the field and both an American and French flag.

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Looking out at the peaceful space dotted with hungry cattle and water lilies in a stream that in 1944 helped make the field a slippery mud hole, it was hard to imagine my great-uncle bleeding and dying along side other young men who’d  barely had a chance to live.

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I brought some flowers to leave at the memorial for the men from the 90th Infantry Division, ironic in a way because I had never placed a single flower on my great-uncle’s grave in Georgia.

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As I was taking a moment and thinking some very subdued thoughts about war and death, a cat named Felix sauntered  up to distract me. He was cuddly and playful and relentless in his antics which had me smiling despite the solemn reason for our visit.

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John walked across a bridge and Felix followed part way and sat down. I went past him and down the steps to the other side and he followed me although slowly and in his own time.

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Once Felix was on the other side, he went right to work digging in the dirt like he had something he wanted to show me.  I pushed the dirt around a bit, but didn’t see anything except dirt and rocks and picked up some stones to take back to Georgia when I went back a few weeks ago.

Just before I left, I went to the cemetary in Marietta where Hugh Lee is buried next to his parents, his sister, (my grandmother) my grandfather, and my dad. I carried those stones back so I could lay them on his grave and decided that his mother and my dad should have one too. They were the ones who talked most about him and would have appreciated the significance of our trip to acknowledge his sacrifice.

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 A rock for his grave stone.

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 And two more stones from France rest just above the cross.

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It took me months to get this far and it seems as if it is mostly photographs. I wrote another post about Hugh Lee Stephens that says more about the man and his family life. You can find it by clicking here if you’d like to know a little more.

16 thoughts on “To Normandy And Back – Sgt.Hugh Lee Stephens & Me

  1. A perfect post, and I am so happy to see that you are blogging again. I so enjoy your blog and have missed hearing about life in England.

    • I totally forgot to thank you, my darling man!
      Without you, I would not have been able to understand the passionate Frenchman who helped us find the field and who communicated the pain he still felt about what he witnessed as a 14-year-old-boy in 1944. Meeting him added so much to an already moving experience and I was grateful to have you act as interpreter and road guide on our journey. xx

  2. Cat mighta been a link, if you buy that sorta thing.

    Found myself really immersed in your post and my own mind Thanks for the memories.

    • I thought the same myself about the cat. It was uncanny the way it sat patiently for me waiting until I had crossed the bridge even though John had gone over already and then when it crossed, only going so far as to dig in the one spot. It was single-minded in its focus. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post.

  3. You’re BBBAAAACCCKKKKKK! I have checked your blog often to see if you had a new post up. I really loved this post and your determination to find out all the information on your Great Uncle’s life and death. It’s so important to understand and truly appreciate the sacrifices of others. My Mom’s cousin died in Italy in 1944 while documenting the war as a British military photographer. His parents and sister never recovered. His dad wore a black tie every day until his death in 1981. His mom talked about him like he would walk back into the house at any moment. His sister never married and lived in that house with her parents until their deaths and until hers also. Four lives totally affected by an event that took place on one day during one war. As a child, going into their house was a little off putting to me, as it was like walking back in time to 1944 and it had a curious smell. Now, I would absolutely love to be able to look around their house with all its mementos and trinkets. My parents went to Italy in 2005 to visit Francois’ grave. They were the only relatives ever to do this…I’m sure it was a powerful moment. I wish they had thought to take some dirt or stones back to his parents graves or even to his house. The cat was your guide.

    Glad you are back to writing!!

  4. Elizabeth, Thank you very much for this moving and informative tribute. My mother was German and grew up/lived through the war. She never shared much about that time and so left behind many secrets; this instilled in me an interest in trying to understand her and history. Your post added to my understanding. More than that, I felt the deep need we humans have in trying to connect to others, to family, even those who are long gone.
    I am thrilled to know you’re back. I, like some others, have been looking from time to time to make sure I didn’t miss one of your posts. Thanks again for taking me along in your journey.

  5. Am thrilled to see you’re writing and posting again. I’ve missed you. A lot!

    Thank you so much for writing this. My mother was German and she grew up/lived through the war. She never shared much about that time and therefore left behind many secrets. As an adult I developed an interest in history, particularly European and German history. I guess I tried to understand myself by trying to understand the world I live in. Your quest reminds me of my own.

    Thank you for sharing a part of your history and heart and mind. I am glad you allow us to come along on your journey.

  6. What an eloquent journey that memorializes and strengthens the connection we have to the heroes that sacrificed so much. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words-reading this, puts me at the battlefield and I am moved. x

  7. Thank you for posting such a moving story. So many would love a chance to find the history of their loved one during that time. I’m so glad you were able to visit, and thankful John speaks French! I’m sure Felix the cat has accompanied many a visitor on the same quest.
    It’s a good thing you are not in Georgia this week….high 90’s, humidity, and bugs!!
    Amanda

  8. Very interesting to read about this. I’ve been trying to do some research on my great grandmother and have hit a wall. I would be thrilled to find as much info as you have.

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