• To Stand Where They Stood

    History professor Rod Andrew took a group of students to France and Belgium
    to analyze the events of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.
    The students came back profoundly affected.
    By Nancy Spitler

“There are some 376 Clemson alumni, more than almost any other school
in the country, who were killed in WWII, many of them in Europe, many of them still buried in one of the three cemeteries we were going to visit.”

Clarence K. Hollingsworth ’41 got married a month before he shipped overseas during WWII, entering the service with the rank of second lieutenant. He arrived overseas in 1943, serving with the 8th Infantry Division in France.

He was a good soldier, one of only two of his class promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. While serving as commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division, he led his men in action against enemy forces on April 14, 1945, where he sustained injuries that resulted in his death on May 16, 1945. According to the citation for his posthumous Distinguished Service Cross, his “outstanding leadership, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty at the cost of his life, exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 8th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.”

The Distinguished Service Cross was only one of the medals he received. The British government awarded him the Distinguished Service Order, the French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre. He also wore the Oak Leaf Cluster, the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Add to those medals one that now sits on the right crosspiece of the cross that marks his grave in Belgium: a gold Clemson 2016 National Championship commemorative coin, left there by Clemson student Patrick Chambrovich.

Chambrovich was in Belgium as part of a summer study abroad course with history professor Rod Andrew, studying the D-Day landings and the Battle of the Bulge. During the 10-day trip to Normandy and Bastogne, Belgium, Andrew led the class in analyzing these events “from a tactical and strategic point of view, but more so asking students to consider issues of commemoration and memory and how WWII has affected our ideas of patriotism and martial sacrifice.”

As part of the class, each student was assigned to research a Clemson alumnus who had died in WWII and was buried in one of the three cemeteries they would visit. Chambrovich had been assigned Hollingsworth. In his research, he discovered that Hollingsworth had no children and no siblings. In his presentation to the class, Chambrovich said it had struck him that quite possibly they were the only people to ever visit his grave. As he finished his presentation, he pulled the Clemson coin from his pocket and carefully placed it on the cross marking Hollingsworth’s grave.

“It was very moving,” said Andrew, visibly affected as he remembered.

It wasn’t difficult for Andrew to come up with eight Clemson alumni who had been killed in action in WWII. “There are some 376 Clemson alumni, more than almost any other school in the country, who were killed in WWII, many of them in Europe, many of them still buried in one of the three cemeteries we were going to visit,” said Andrew.

Military Strategy and the Reality of War

Students prepared for their trip to France and Belgium by reading D-Day by Stephen Ambrose and large selections of Danny Parker’s book on the Battle of the Bulge, as well as by taking some online quizzes covering the material. Knowledge in hand, they departed on June 8, took the red-eye and arrived in Paris first thing the next morning. Without any sleep, they drove straight to Normandy and started the tour. “That first day,” said Andrew, “we went 34 hours without sleep.”

Three days in Normandy were followed by a day-long trip to Bastogne, Belgium, three days in Belgium, and then a day and two nights in Paris before they flew back. Andrew, who is a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and served in Desert Storm, was particularly suited to lead the trip.

The group visited battle sites in France and Belgium as well as museums, memorials and cemeteries — American, British, Canadian and German. They explored the sites of the Merville Battery, Pegasus Bridge and Pointe du Hoc, where they stood in the craters that still remain. They saw the stained glass windows at the church in Ste. Mere Eglise, showing the Virgin Mary as well as paratroopers coming down from the sky. They saw the famous hedgerows. They walked the beaches — Juno, Utah and Omaha — and discussed the challenges of defending or attacking these positions, how difficult amphibious landings were in the face of strategically positioned German machine guns.

Most of the group were rising seniors. One student actually delayed his graduation until August to go on this trip. Another student, David Gaffney, brought the perspective of an Iraq combat veteran whose grandfather had fought in WWII and landed at Omaha Beach. In the journal he wrote during the trip, he imagined himself in the shoes of the soldiers who had fought these battles.

Clemson students walk along the hallowed ground of Omaha Beach at low tide.

Clemson students walk along the hallowed ground of Omaha Beach at low tide.

“Omaha Beach at the low tide seemed like a huge amount of open territory to have to cover under gunfire,” Gaffney wrote. “Under direct fire and soaking wet would make it all the more difficult … I would be so mad watching my friends die that I would be in an adrenaline rage and charge in, just like the plaques we read for heroes today. They were not looking to be heroes; they wanted to stop the Germans from killing their friends, plain and simple. I have seen this firsthand, and the emotion in someone after a battle would change the opinion of who they are. Those heroes would feel pretty empty inside at some point because their friends died.”

Madison Martin, on the other hand, found herself thinking about the young alumnus she had researched, 1st Lt. James M. (Mack) Harris ’35, who shared her hometown of Fort Mill. Harris had married and become a teacher before joining the army in 1942. His son, James M. Harris Jr., was born three days before Harris’ family was notified of his death.

Martin had been both anticipating and anxious about the visit to Omaha Beach, having learned that “her soldier” had landed there on D-Day and died just eight days later.

“What was he thinking when he survived the initial invasion? Was he focused on the task at hand? Was he in awe that he survived? What was he seeing in this terrain just over the sand dune, in comparison to what was before me?” she wrote in a reflection paper about the trip. “These were the questions I would not have asked myself without having to research a soldier and put a place with a name, a face and a person.”

“I told students before we went over,” Andrew said, “you can read about Omaha Beach, about the D-Day landings. You can watch ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘The Longest Day.’ But until you actually stand on that beach and realize you are standing on ground that was soaked by the blood of American soldiers, and you look up at those bluffs and see the German gun positions that could sweep up and down the beach, you really can’t fully grasp it.”

He paused. “All of the students commented that it was something very powerful emotionally — even spiritually — standing there on that beach.”

Rows of Crosses and Stars

In visits to cemeteries and memorials, students were able to consider how different countries and different cultures memorialize their dead. In the Normandy American cemetery, “every cross or Star of David is carefully cared for, and the individual is recognized,” said Andrew. “Every single one is immaculately kept, and there are several feet between each grave.”

Laura Fuller delivers her oral report on 1st Lt. William S. Gaillard Jr., Clemson Class of 1940.

Laura Fuller delivers her oral report on 1st Lt. William S. Gaillard Jr., Clemson Class of 1940.

And each grave of an American soldier faces back toward America.

In the equally pristine British cemeteries, graves of soldiers faced each other, and each was etched with the soldier’s unit insignia or symbol, as well as a personal message determined by the family. Flowers are planted beneath each marker.

In the German cemetery, students found a much more sober atmosphere focused on the tragedy of war and the importance of peace. Gravestones were flat on the ground, “and no German soldier is buried alone,” said Andrew. “Every grave has at least two, maybe three or more German soldiers in it.” The students found that interesting, Andrew said. They understood the logic in it, “but in the same way they recognized that from an American point of view, it seemed almost disrespectful for every soldier not to have his own grave.”

As they visited the American cemeteries, the students stood at the gravestones and shared information about the lives of the alumni they had been assigned. They rubbed sand from Omaha Beach onto the names on the markers, both cleaning them and marking them as recently visited. Seeing the rows and rows of crosses and stars and recognizing the names etched into the marble had a profound affect. “I was just hoping to give a good presentation for a good grade,” said Gaffney, who presented at Normandy Cemetery. “Then the reality hit as I entered the grounds that these were all people who all had families and lives before coming here.”

The visit to the cemetery in Ardennes was particularly poignant. The students were the only people there when the cemetery officially closed at 4:30 in the afternoon. They stood at attention for the playing of Taps, and then two of the Clemson students were allowed to be the ones to lower the American flag, fold it and officially present it back to the superintendent.

“It was an unforgettable experience for all of us,” said Andrew.

A Compelling Connection

The group’s guide through Belgium was Henri Mignon, a retired Belgian army officer, who had been 9 years old during the Battle of the Bulge. According to Andrew, “He offered a wealth of information and insight about the battle, including what it was like for the civilians who lived through it. And despite everything they suffered, their gratitude to the Americans.”

Traveling through Belgium, the group saw signs that despite the decades since the war, the locals still remembered. Passing through Port au Bessin, they saw a house flying British and American flags from the windows of the top floor. Another house sported a running banner with the French, British and American flags tied together.

The students were particularly moved by Mignon’s personalized tour of Bastogne and the nearby Mardasson Memorial, a monument honoring the memory of American soldiers wounded or killed during the Battle of the Bulge that was built just after the war.

At the Mardasson Memorial, Mignon took the group into the underground crypt, with a mosaic honoring Jewish, Catholic and Protestant soldiers. He explained that the jars on the floor behind the gate contained actual soil from each of the countries involved. It was in the crypt that Mignon began sharing his personal experience of living through the war.

“He talked about how one day they were all sent home from school and shortly after, his house was taken over by Germans,” Martin wrote in her reflection paper. “The Germans took all the beds, forcing the family to sleep on the floor. They had taken the food, the water from the well and destroyed all the religious items in the house. He told us how his father was killed by a shell outside their home, and how an American during the offensive counterattack came and liberated them,” after double checking to make sure there were no Germans in the house.

Mignon led them through the site of the Malmedy Massacre, where 84 Americans were killed by their German captors rather than being taken as prisoners of war. The names of the soldiers are on the walls of the memorial. “Names,” wrote Martin, “give a place and an event a personal quality that one can’t ignore.”

“My feelings,” wrote Gaffney, “have changed because of my seeing it off paper and in person.”

The trip had become more than just a class. “In some respect we are here to earn credit,” wrote Martin, “but more than that, we are here to remember those that come before us and honor those that sacrificed it all.”

Andrew’s prediction had come true. Seeing the sites of the battles they had studied, and walking on those very beaches where the blood of American soldiers flowed had turned the history of their books into a flesh-and-blood reality. Researching specific Clemson alumni with whom they shared common experiences and history created an even more compelling connection.

Martin reflected on the trip in her paper. “There are no words for how these things hit you when you see it for yourself. Such experiences give names, faces, and stories to tales of sacrifice and bravery.

“To stand where they stood, to see the places they saw, to research one who was there,” she wrote, “preserves the memory of these events in ways that no book or printed text can.”

9 replies
  1. Kip Daly says:

    I sincerely doubt, after a moving experience such as this trip, you will ever see one of these sincere educated young men or women kneel down during the playing of our national anthem. I believe with all of the courage of those that came before us, they will carry forward with the same courage that this country so desperately needs now. God bless them now and forever.

    Reply
    • Arthur K. Daly Jr. says:

      I find it very gratifying that the students from Clemson have that much interest in the history of the second
      World War. I would also like to compliment them on their sincere interest in the sacrifices that were made
      that gives them the freedom to make this trip possible. I would also like to compliment Patrick and the rest
      of the students on giving their time and vacation to pay tribute to the falling members of our armed forces.

      Reply
  2. Lee Maiden says:

    I am sincerely proud of the Clemson students who took this trip and honored our ancestors who gave their lives in WWII. By remembering and passing on what they learned and felt being there, they help grow and strengthen what our country is about – courage, love and freedom. This wonderful article brought tears to my eyes, and a warmth to my heart. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Sally S Fuller, MD says:

    To Professor Andrew,
    If you ever repeat this trip, would you consider having staff participate in your trip and lectures as well? My father, a D Day survivor, never talked about the war; as I got into middle age, I wondered often what he went through, how many bodies he stepped overas he survived that day.

    Reply
    • Rod Andrew says:

      Dr. Fuller, I have had a number of faculty, staff, and members of the community express interest in this trip. I would love to take such a group over there, but the decision to do so is one that would have to be made in conjunction with the Study Abroad office and is not entirely in my hands. Thank you for this message and thanks, by extension, to your father.

      Reply
  4. Susan Bennett says:

    My son is a current Clemson student (Secondary Education/History major) and is interested in this trip. Can you give us the dates of upcoming trips? Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Steve Parks says:

    My family and I lived in Brussels during 1995 – 2000, and my eldest child and daughter, Kate Parks Schaefer, is a 2009 Clemson graduate. Living in Brussels allowed us to take many trips around the European continent during our time, but everyone one of us agreed our trip to Normandy Beach and its surrounds was our most profound. Every American should visit this area during their lifetime; I can guarantee you will never forget what our fathers, mothers and grandparents went through for us. It is indeed incredibly compelling. My wife and son also visited the trenches of Ipre, where WW1 was fought. A journey of a lifetime!

    Reply
  6. Rhonda antonetti says:

    My husband and I traveled there for the 70th anniversary of the invasion. I too stood at the grave of William S. Gaillard, Jr. When I got home, I showed some of the pictures to some people at work. One lady, whom I didn’t know very well, asked me about the name on the marker. Turns out, I had shown the marker of William Gaillard, Jr. to the mother of William Gaillard IV. He is 5 years old. William Gaillard Jr did not have children so his brother named his first born William Gaillard II. He flew helicopters in Vietnam. William Gaillard III graduated from Clemson and they have 3 boys. We have all become close friends. I did find out that WSGJr, jump jacket and pants survived the war and that they are in the hands of a private collector in France. Laura Fuller, if you would like further information about this Clemson grad, you can email me. I have seen his Purple Heart, his small leather bound handbook from Clemson (1939) and all for of his TAPS yearbooks. So thankful that their spirit lives on. Go Tigers!

    Reply

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