By Dave Ongie, News Editor
As folks from around the world poured into the Normandy region of France during the first week of June to observe the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Johnson City businessman Jeff Campbell was among them.
Campbell met up with members of the Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop Living History Group in England to take part in the only battle reenactment staged during the official D-Day activities along the French coast. As the group prepared to depart from Portsmouth, England, to ferry their jeeps across the English Channel, Campbell was honored to meet a World War II veteran returning to Normandy.
“I met a veteran who had been on a minesweeper that was there just off Utah Beach, and ironically enough, he lives in Cleveland, Tennessee,” Campbell said last week as he recounted his trip during a phone interview.
That happy coincidence was the prelude to a humbling week for Campbell, who was tasked with reenacting the brave deeds of the American 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division that battled tooth-and-nail for days to silence the cannons at the Crisbecq Battery that had bedeviled the Allied forces since they got within view of the French coast.
It was the commander of the Crisbecq Battery who first spotted the Allied invasion fleet around 5 a.m. on the morning of June 6. After alerting the rest of the German forces along the Atlantic Coast, the heavily-fortified cannons at the Crisbecq Battery with a range of 17-21 miles started firing on U.S. cruisers, eventually sinking the USS Corry.
While the USS Texas and the USS Arkansas eventually bombarded the battery to the point that the cannons were no longer a threat to ships off the coast, the Crisbecq Battery was still capable of causing heavy losses on Omaha Beach and hindering the landing of material and reinforcements.
At one point early in the trip, Campbell and the other members of his group gathered on a quiet stretch of Utah Beach to hold their own remembrance service, and Campbell said he was humbled as he tried to imagine himself in the boots of the young men who poured out of the water and onto the exposed beach in an effort to gain a foothold in France. He marveled at their bravery as they stared down the barrels of the heavily fortified German forces and didn’t bat an eye.
“It truly is humbling when you see the actual battlefield, when you see the strength of the German defenses, when you go to Pointe du Hoc and those cliffs the Rangers had to climb straight up,” Campbell said. “When you see the expanse of beach they had to cross, especially when it’s at low tide, you can’t imagine what it would be like to be in that situation.”
Campbell also had a chance to visit the Normandy American Cemetery, where white crosses marking the graves of those who lost their lives during the invasion of Normandy seem to stretch on forever.
“You look and you see the PFCs (Private First Class), so many privates because that would have been the bulk of your landing force,” Campbell said. “When you think of a PFC, and you know how young those gentlemen were, you can’t even imagine that being what you did when you’re in your late teens and early 20s. You have to be in that landing craft and cross that beach. It’s just humbling.”
There were several observances on the beaches of Normandy and in the towns along the coast. Some of them included firing demonstrations and reenactors parachuting out of planes. But due to French laws, the only battle reenactment was the one Campbell and his group participated in at the Crisbecq Battery.
“The reason being, as I understand it, the French laws prohibit the wearing of the German uniforms or the symbols of the Nazi regime,” Campbell said. “The battery is privately owned. It is a commercial site; they went in and excavated, cleared out all the bunkers. They purchased the land and basically began clearing away the debris and then opened it up to the public.”
While that allowed reenactors to portray German soldiers, those reenactors were prohibited from wearing their uniforms off the property, or they would be in violation of French law. Campbell said his group participated in two reenactments each day.
The first one, which was staged at 2 p.m., recreated the infantry’s first push through the town of Saint-Marcouf towards the battery on the morning of June 7. That offensive was rebuffed by heavy fire from German 75mm flack guns. The second reenactment, which was staged each day at 5 p.m., recreated the offensive of June 8 that resulted in the infantry unit pushing onto the grounds of the battery. Running low on supplies and ammunition, the Germans eventually abandoned the Crisbecq Battery on the morning of June 11 as the Allies gained control of the region.
Due to the group’s hectic schedule, Campbell said he wasn’t able to see as many sites as he would have liked to, but he did enjoy his time in the coastal town of Saint-Marcouf – which included the beautiful Eglise Notre-Dame de Sainte-Marie-du-Mont Cathedral – and was overjoyed to see the reception World War II veterans received.
“They were giving the veterans the red-carpet treatment,” Campbell said. “Any time they either walked out or came out in a wheelchair, people flocked around them.”
Those interested in learning more about the Normandy invasion closer to home can do so during a D-Day event at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton on Labor Day weekend. A free event featuring presentations and displays about D-Day will be held on Aug. 31. Anyone interested in learning more about the event can contact Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org.