By Staff Sgt. Rick Scavetta, U.S. European CommandJune 12, 2012
SAINT LO, France (June 12, 2012) -- Pedaling the up Rue Havin, Ron Rasch told fellow Liberty Trail riders of World War II's devastation on this Norman town.
Rasch, the deputy political advisor at U.S. Army Europe, was among more than 60 Americans who took part in the three-day ride that began June 1, passing through many towns and villages that withstood the horrors of war during the summer of 1944.
"This town was flattened during the war by Allied bombers," Rasch told them, as they rode into the Place du General de Gaulle, to crowds of clapping French people. "And still, they are so grateful for the liberation that it brought them."
Riders dismounted for a ceremony at a gate in the square, the only remnant of a prison where Germans kept 150 French citizens, some who were resistance fighters. On June 6-7, as U.S. and allied troops moved inland from the D-Day beaches, allied bombs destroyed the prison, killing everyone inside.
Officials laid wreaths as somber music played and church bells tolled in the distance. French men in military berets, some veterans of French conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria, stood with their unit flags. When "La Marseillaise" played, their soft baritone voices sang proudly. And the crowds joined in.
"It's really moving, to hear people in another country sing their national anthem," said Navy Lt. Mike Dobling, 32, of Oxford Junction, Iowa.
Dobling, who works with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Vicenza, Italy, took part in the ride last year in Belgium. This year, he and three coworkers drove 14 hours to take part.
"It's something you'd never think you'd ride a bike through," Dobling said. "Just looking at the hedgerows and trying to imagine what it would be like to fight back in those days -- how much of an effort, how much of a sacrifice it took just to move 50 feet, from one hedgerow to the next."
More than 60 riders were Americans, many who serve with the U.S military in Belgium, Germany and Italy. Routes took riders' peloton though countryside Cotentin Peninsula, now beautiful farmlands that once were the scene of brutal fighting. Each day they rode more than 70 miles, ending each leg in Périers. Some riders stayed on cots in a local gym. Others stayed at "gites," local vacation sites.
The three-day ride began June 1 in Périers, where the 90th Infantry Division fought during World War II. On the first leg, cyclists made their way down the long straight road from Perrier to Saint Lo, the very line where in July 1944, U.S. and allied troops launched Operation Cobra -- the breakout from Normandy's hedgerow country that led to the liberation of Paris.
"You notice a lot plaques and memorials along the way," said Jason Hogie, a civilian plans specialist at Heidelberg, Germany-based U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg. "To think what it took for those Soldiers to do those tough missions, it gives one pause to think and reflect."
Hogie took part in the ride each summer for the past five years. The camaraderie keeps him coming back, he said.
"It's an opportunity to ride with people from many countries and commemorate the battles in the areas we ride through," Hogie said. "It's a good way to see history and relive a little bit of it."
Lt. Col. Chris Dillard, 42, of Kentucky, and Lt. Col. Jeff Pannaman, 46, of Pennsylvania, took the train to Paris from Stuttgart, Germany, where they serve with U.S. Africa Command. They rode bikes across the French capital to catch another train to Carentan. They then rode into Périers. The ride offered more than the average tourist sees, Dillard said.
"It's an amazing experience, "Dillard said.
After the ride, returning through Paris near the Gare de l'est, Pannaman heard a woman calling after a thief running with a bag in his hands. Although Pannaman carried a 30-pound pack and had cycled more than 275 miles during the previous three days, the Special Forces officer chased the man down on his bike, tackled him without unhooking from his pedals and held him for French police.
Modest about his efforts, Pannaman said he just did something when no one else appeared to move.
"There was a person in distress, asking for assistance," Pannaman said. "He was a bad guy. It just happened."