News Column

Battle sites as seen by the men who were there

June 16, 2014

By Howard Greninger, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.



June 16--TERRE HAUTE -- As founder of the Terre Haute Veterans Museum, the D-Day battle in Normandy, France holds special meaning to Brian Mundell.

Mundell, his wife, Ann, and son, Jason, returned Sunday from a trip to Normandy and a side trip to Belgium, where the Battle of the Bulge was later fought. But this trip, Mundell's third one, commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which occurred June 6, 1944, and was the largest seaborne invasion in history, with an armada of 5,000 ships crossing the English Channel.

The victory gave the Allies a foothold in Europe, leading to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Mundell's most memorial event was tagging along for eight hours with five veterans of the 82nd Airborne division on June 7, the day after D-Day.

One veteran was Don Jakeway, of Ohio, who brought his three grown sons.

"Each of the veterans went around and retraced their steps. Jakeway knew which tree, by a church, where he landed after he had jumped out of a plane and parachuted down. He had to cut himself down and that started his battle," Mundell said.

"There were probably 30 people who toured around with these guys the whole day and saw where they fought and heard their battle stories. To me, you couldn't put a price on that. There are probably 10 different museums you can go to, but the stuff we saw and heard these veterans talk about, you can't get that out of those museums. These guys are like walking museums," Mundell said.

The Mundells toured St. Mere Eglise, a small town, about the size of Seelyville, Mundell said, which played a big part in the D-Day invasion. The town is not far from Utah Beach, where US solders landed ashore and was featured in the 1961 film "The Longest Day," which helped establish the town as a symbol of the liberation of France. Now, there is a museum to the paratroopers who landed there, Mundell said.

In a side trip to Holland, Mundell was able to visit the burial site of three Terre Haute veterans, featured in the Terre Haute Veterans Museum.

Charles Cree, Alfred Conrad and Freeman Newman, all US Army soldiers, were killed in action. Mundell has all three of their purple hearts at the Terre Haute Veterans Museum. The three are buried at Margraten American Cemetery in Margraten, Holland. Mundell had photos taken of himself next to each of their grave markers.

Mundell told family members of two of the three veterans he planned to photograph the burial markers. "This shows the stuff in the [Terre Haute] museum isn't just stuff. To me, it is personal," Mundell said.

The Mundells also visited cemeteries in Luxembourg and Normandy.

"This is probably one of the last, if not the last, big celebrations over there, as the guys will not be around much longer. The veterans we met were 89, 92 and 93. We met one veteran who was 95," Mundell said. "These veterans, in 5 years, if they are around, would not make the next trip" for the next big celebration, Mundell said.

In addition, Mundell used the trip to visit the remains of the Remagen bridge, which had spanned the Rhine River. It was the first bridge the Allies captured intact, allowing troops to flow into Germany.

"We wanted to see what was left of the bridge. The two big pillars of the bridge are still standing. It was one of the most famous bridges of World War II," Mundell said.

Mundell said the 70th anniversary celebration was unique for him, as well as World War II veterans.

"Everywhere you would see the D-Day veterans, they were just mobbed with at least 15 people around them. They were like rock stars. They couldn't go anywhere without someone shaking their hands, saying 'thank-you,' or wanting a photo with them or their autographs. That's the kind of attention they got over there. If anything, if all the World War II veterans knew that they were that much appreciated, it might make their day a little brighter," Mundell said.

"Some veterans think we have all forgotten. Over there in Normandy, they have not forgotten," Mundell said.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.

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Source: Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, IN)