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WWII veteran returns to Normandy

November 10, 2000|By ANDREA ROWLAND

WWII veteran returns to Normandy



A sentimental visit to Normandy, France, prompted Hagerstown native Jack Stoeber to dig out the yellowed newspaper articles and the black and white photographs he "never talked about."

The World War II veteran confronted the faded pictures of Nazi generals, prisoners of war, U.S. Army comrades and himself as a uniformed 19-year-old for the first time in more than 50 years in September as he prepared to embark on the return trip to Normandy.

"I guess I just wanted to see it again, and think about what I went through," said Stoeber, 79,

U.S. Army Pfc. Stoeber landed on Omaha Beach with the 331st Regiment of the 83rd Infantry Division 10 days after the Allies stormed the Normandy Coast on June 6, 1944- D-Day.

The Jeep driver in an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon, Stoeber was among the soldiers who scouted for danger on the front lines of the Allied Forces' inland push.

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He remembered one bombing that "blocked out the sun" and made his pants vibrate from miles away.

"In Normandy, the battle was field by field. We had to fight the hedge rows," Stoeber said.

He remembered living in foxholes for six weeks, strapping a surrendering Nazi to the front of his Jeep, greeting a tank column of Russian soldiers on the other side of the Elbe River - and losing his friends.

Fifty-six years later, Stoeber strolled among the more than 9,000 U.S. soldiers' graves at the Colville ser Mer cemetery near Omaha Beach. He asked for a list of deaths from his division. There were 558.

"It was an emotional experience," he said, his voice trailing. "I didn't know there were that many."

Stoeber's return to France with his wife, Goldie, tour guide John Schildt and a number of other veterans was like "stepping back in time," he said.

"You would've thought the war had just ended," Stoeber said. The people in Normandy "treated me like I was a hero. It was unbelievable."

The group spent eight days on a "behind-the-scenes" tour orchestrated by Schildt, of Chewsville, a minister who has been to Normandy five times since his postwar service in the 29th Division.

Schildt said he first returned to Normandy in 1988 as a chaplain during a memorial dedication for his division. He was asked to serve as acting chaplain during D-Day 50th anniversary activities in Normandy in 1994, he said.

Networking with the French families he's built relationships with over the years, Schildt began leading his own tour groups to Normandy in 1997.

Stoeber and other members of his group stayed in the coastal town of Bayeux and visited Arramanches, Vierville, Pointe du Hoc, Grandcamp, St. Mere Eglise, St. Lo and the area near Utah Beach.

It felt strange to return to towns in which he had fought, Stoeber said. St. Mere Eglise was the first town where he saw combat, and St. Lo was "pulverized" when he was there in 1944.

Memorials dot the villages and countryside, he said.

"There's something awesome about the place," Schildt said. "If (the people of Normandy) know one English word, it's 'liberator.' "

The returning veterans were met with gratitude nearly everywhere they went, Stoeber said.

A shopkeeper hugged him and gave him a lapel pin with a flag and picture of Omaha Beach. A French child at the Normandy Museum in the City of Caen gave another veteran a year 2000 commemorative coin.

Stoeber and 29th Division veteran Dick Fox dedicated a wreath to fallen soldiers.

In St. Lo, city officials awarded Stoeber and two other veterans commemorative medals.

Stoeber, who also survived the bloody Battle of the Bulge, was hesitant to discuss military honors bestowed upon him for his service in World War II.

"I don't think I'm a hero or anything else. I just did what I had to do," he said. "I'm sure there's a lot of guys who had it a lot worse than me."

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