The Mountain Times

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In the footsteps of history

In the footsteps of history
By Stephen Seitz
PAWLET - The appreciation of history takes many forms.
Beyond books, beyond films, even beyond re-enactments, it is something to visit the places where history was made, to stand in the footsteps of those who changed the fate of the world.
It was in that spirit that Pawlet resident and disabled Army veteran Steve Leach took the Band of Brothers tour earlier this year, in which participants retraced the steps of the U.S. Army as it swept across Europe from the Normandy invasion on D-Day 1944 through the end of the war the following year.
"This was the trip of a lifetime," Leach said. "It was something I always wanted to do, while I could still move."
"Band of Brothers" refers to the history of Easy Company (2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, better known as the Screaming Eagles) by Stephen Ambrose, later adapted to a miniseries first shown on HBO. The tour followed Easy Company's trail from training in Georgia all the way to Hitler's Bavarian aerie at Berchtesgaden in the Alps.
"I've seen the series so many times, I feel like I'm part of the family," Leach said.
The trip served to sharpen Leach's appreciation for historic preservation. A stable which housed American officers in England had been allowed to fall into ruin, but somehow the historic society of Taccoa, Ga., where Easy Company's soldiers trained, found out, and had the stable taken down board by board and reassembled for display in the company museum.
Leach said such things are priceless.
"Once you lose it," he said, "you can't get it back."
Leach said he also experienced a greater sense of how difficult the D-Day attack had to have been: the Allies' task was to scale steep, sheer, and very well defended, 500-foot cliffs to attack the German outposts. But sometimes history can deal a surprise hand.
"Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., landed in the wrong place, off by about 700 yards," Leach said. "Rather than try again, he told his men, 'They'll have to find us,' and attacked. It turned out to be one of the weakest defended points on the beach. They only had to go up a rise no steeper than my backyard."
The Omaha Beach site has been well preserved, Leach said: "The concrete bunkers are still there."
For every triumph, there is a setback; on the tour this meant some stops marking Operation Market Garden. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery wanted to strike from the Netherlands to the north and cross the River Rhine into Germany. This entailed sending in the largest airborne force thus far in the war, whose job it was to secure the bridges and open a straight path. But at Arnhem, the Allies met unexpectedly strong resistance and were ultimately forced into retreat. The story is known these days by the title of Cornelius' Ryan's book, "A Bridge Too Far."
On the scene, said Leach, you got to see just how close the Allies had come.
"They were just four miles away and they didn't make it," Leach said.
There were other highlights, and some horror: the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, and on to the Eagle's Nest, as Hitler called his Bavarian headquarters. Other members of his cabinet had residences in the area.
Minister of Armaments Albert Speer's residence "is still there," Leach said, "but they tore Hitler's place down and paved it over."
Leach said he would never forget the experience.
"This was absolutely the trip of a lifetime," he said. "I couldn't be more grateful to that generation and for what they did."
As it happens, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Details for this year's tour can be found at www.stephenambrosetours.com.