Tag Archives: France

Combat Artists’ View of the D-Day Invasion

Sea Wall at Utah Beach by U.S. Navy combat artist Mitchell F. Jamieson

If you can’t make it to France to observe the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, you can see it through the eyes of combat artists who were there in an exhibit at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, MO.

Seventy years ago, on 6 June 1944, the Western Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy in northern France, opening a second front against Nazi Germany. General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the massive operation a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies had gained a foot-hold in Normandy, but at an unbelievable cost; more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded. Yet, their efforts opened the way for more than 100,000 soldiers to land and begin the march across Europe to defeat Hitler.

D-Day has been the topic of countless books (See my post on what to read before visiting the Normandy beaches) and movies including The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. It was also the subject of a little-known group of artists, the U.S. Navy combat artists. The paintings of three of them—Mitchell Jamieson, Alexander Russo, and Dwight Shepler—are on display in an exhibit at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, entitled “D-Day Normandy: Operation Overlord.” The paintings are on loan from the Naval History and Heritage Command.

During the war, newsreels and photos dominated coverage of Unknown-4events, but the generals wanted artists to interpret the war, which is quite different from straight-up photography. Painters can vividly depict subjects beyond the range of of the camera lens such as action at night, in foul weather, or action widely scattered over the sea or in the air. They could also omit the confidential technical details a camera might reveal, thus making many interesting subjects unavailable for publication. So, select soldiers from all branches of the military carried pencils, paints, and sable brushes into battle along with their rifles and fought furiously to communicate the experience of war to the public. “I was scared most of the time,” said combat artist Edward Reep in a PBS documentary (and book), They Drew Fire. “But I always put myself in a position where I could be part of the fighting. That was my job.”

The paintings in the National Churchill Museum portray everything from the horrors of the initial landing in which American soldiers literally fought an uphill battle, to the GIs building an artificial harbor on the beach, to the capture of German soldiers. It’s a lasting record of how soldiers lived and died during the invasion, all on exhibit in Fulton.

Why Fulton, Missouri, you may wonder. In 1946 Winston Churchill  left-image-museumdelivered one of the most significant speeches of his long  career at Westminster College in Fulton. (President Harry Truman, a Missouri native, joined him on the platform.) That address, formally entitled, “The Sinews of Peace,” but best known for Churchill’s pronouncement that “an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent,” marked the beginning of the Cold War.

In the 1960s Westminster College set out to mark what would be the 20th anniversary of Churchill’s visit and to really make something of its connection to the event. The college settled on the the idea of moving a Christopher Wren designed Church from London. St. Mary the Virgin Aldermanbury, had stood in London since 1677 but was badly damaged during the London Blitz and narrowly escaped demolition. Instead, Westminster College moved the church stone-by-stone to its campus and rebuilt it to Wren’s original specifications.

The National Churchill Museum resides beneath the church. Its displays were recently rebuilt to incorporate the use of technology to better bring to life the story of Winston Churchill and his world. It features permanent and changing exhibits, along with a variety of related activities and was recognized by the United States Congress as America’s permanent tribute to Churchill. So, while former soldiers, private citizens, and dignitaries from Europe and and the U.S. will visit the Normandy beaches and battlefields to mark the anniversary this summer, those who can’t make it to France can see the invasion through the eyes of the combat artists, smack in the middle of the Midwest. The  exhibit runs until July 20.

Eating and Wearing Stinky Cheese in France

At the outdoor market in Honfleur, where I purchased the Livarot cheese. Its scent perfumed me and my car for the rest of the day.

Livarot is one of the oldest types of cheese in France and it smells like it—like its been hanging around gaining strength since the 1600s. A specialty of the Normandy region, Livarot is a soft “washed rind” cheese which means it is typically bathed in a wash of salted water which helps break down the curd from the outside, influencing the texture, aroma and flavor of the entire cheese. The “bath” does absolutely nothing to cure the smell.

It may be an urban legend, but I’ve since read that Livarot is banned on public transportation in France. Its earthy aroma  has been described by some as reminiscent of feces or “barnyard.”  I would never have ordered something with that description, but it first came to me on a cheese plate in a restaurant in Honfleur, in Normandy, a small slice, apparently exposed to the air long enough to diminish its signature odor. And it was great.

Good enough to make me want to purchase some at the market the next morning, in the process of packing up a few goodies for our lunch that day— a little french bread, sausage and a bit of the cider for which the region is also famous, and which smells much better than the cheese.


Melons at the market
Melons at the market

I packed our picnic into my backpack, which stayed locked in our small closed car until lunch time, imparting a zesty Livarot odor to our car, a smell somewhere between stinky feet and a gym bag full of recently used hockey gear.

We were able to eat our picnic in the open air and again the taste of the Livarot seemed wonderfully unrelated to the smell. We couldn’t eat all the cheese, so frugal as I am, I wrapped up the leftover cheese and returned it to my backpack for later consumption.


In his wonderful book French Lessons: Adventures in Knife, Fork and Unknown-3Corkscrew, Peter Mayle devotes a whole chapter to the Livarot cheese fair in the town of Livarot, and in particular, the cheese eating competition. The rules: a time limit of 15 minutes during which contestants must eat their way through two whole cheeses, each weighing about two pounds. “Livarot,” he says, “is not a modest cheese. It announces itself to the nose long before it is anywhere near you mouth, with a piercing, almost astringent aroma.”

That may have been the reason why that evening when we checked into our hotel, I noticed that the hotel clerk and other people in the lobby appeared to move away from me or avert their faces. “Madam!”  I realized that I was wearing the Livarot-filled backpack and exuding that aroma wherever I went. Formidable!

Have you ever had a food-related travel incident?  Please tell us.

Vincent Van Gogh in St. Remy, France

At St. Paul de Mausole near St. Remy, France, you can see exactly what Vincent Van Gogh saw and painted.
At St. Paul de Mausole near St. Remy, France, you can see exactly what Vincent Van Gogh saw and painted.

The gnarled olive trees, irises, lavender, and bright sunshine…Entering the Monastery of St. Paul de Mausole  in St. Remy de Provence in southern France you have a feeling that you’ve seen this place before.  That’s because you have.

Van Gogh's room is reproduced at the asylum in St. Remy, France, where he lives and painted over 100 paintings.
Van Gogh’s room is reproduced at the asylum in St. Remy, France, where he lived for a year and painted over 100 paintings.

This is the “maison de sante,” not far from Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh went to rest and recover his mental health in 1889, not long after the famous incident when he cut off his ear.  He stayed here roughly one year and during that time he painted anything and everything in his surroundings–143 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings including two of his most famous masterpieces, Irises and The Starry Night. The fabulous thing about visiting St. Paul de Mausole is that photos of the paintings and and information about them appear where they were painted.  So for example, a photo of “Les Oliviers,” which is now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is posted right in front of those olive trees.  You feel a little chill when you see exactly what he saw and how he interpreted it.

The imposed regimen of asylum life gave Van Gogh a bit of stability: “I feel happier here with my work than I could be outside. By staying here a good long time, I shall have learned regular habits and in the long run the result will be more order in my life.”

You’ll enjoy your trip more if you read up about Vincent.  Irving Stone’s fiction classic Unknown-3Lust for Life provides a general knowledge of his story.  But scholars continually interpret both his art and the health problems that may have been at the source of his mental illness.  Most recently, Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith offers a very readable portrait of Van Gogh and puts forth the idea that rather than committing suicide, Van Gogh was murdered. Traveling with kids?  They’ll want to read  van Gogh and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anhold.Unknown-4

What to Read Before You Tour the D-Day Beaches in Normandy

Literary Travel Isn’t Just for Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways–a guest post from Scott Smith, Edina, MN.

First things first:  I’m a guy.  I work hard during the week, bleed Maize and Blue sports, track the Wild and Vikes with interest, fire up the grill on weekends and tip back a beer or three in the process.  Give me ESPN, a fishing rod, a deck of cards and some Blanton’s, and I’m happy as a clam.  I’m not a complete Neanderthal – I do enjoy a good novel now and then, and I love to travel – but I’ve assiduously avoided this “lit trip” phenomenon up to now, largely out of fear of getting my man card revoked.

I’m also a huge WWII history buff, particularly with regard to the D-Day invasion and its

"Les Braves," a  nine-meter tall stainless steel sculpture by Anilore Ban rises from the sand at Omaha Beach near St. Laurent-sur-Mer, France. It honors all those men who landed here to liberate France. The sculpture has 3 elements: 1) Wings of Hope, 2) Rise, Freedom!, and 3) Wings of Fraternity.
“Les Braves,” a nine-meter tall stainless steel sculpture by Anilore Ban rises from the sand at Omaha Beach near St. Laurent-sur-Mer, France. It honors all those men who landed there to liberate France. The sculpture has 3 elements: 1) Wings of Hope, 2) Rise, Freedom!, and 3) Wings of Fraternity.

aftermath, and I’ve read just about everything I can muster on the topic.  Among my favorites, I’ve nearly broken the spine on Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day; my copy of Anthony Cave Brown’s A Bodyguard of Lies is lovingly dog-eared; and, Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross holds the current place of honor on the dresser next to my side of the bed.  From my readings, I can name every landing sector in Normandy, the combat units that landed in each, and when.  I know that “Hobart’s Funnies” is not an Australian comedy club and that the Falaise Gap is not a dental imperfection.

Go to Omaha Beach today, as Terri and I did a few weeks ago, and for the uninformed tourist it’s almost impossible to visualize what happened there nearly 70 years ago.  Sure, the ruins of a few German gun emplacements are still there, and a couple of memorials (the one on the beach outside of St. Laurent is particularly striking) remind you of the historical importance of where you stand.  Otherwise, the eyes see a gorgeous stretch of white sand, turquoise water just beyond it, children splashing in the surf, and lush green bluffs overlooking the seashore, like some Impressionist painting.

But I saw, and experienced, something entirely different.  I saw exactly where the 116th

The American Cemetery, Normandy, France
The American Cemetery, Normandy, France

Regiment’s Company A, National Guarders from Bedford, Virginia, came ashore at 6:30 am on D-Day morning – just a couple hundred yards below the gun emplacement at Vierville that’s now a National Guard memorial – and instantly comprehended why that unit suffered over 90 percent casualties in the space of 10 minutes.  I looked on the bluffs and the draws above Omaha and witnessed vicariously the extraordinary leadership of young infantrymen who understood that the original assault plan was doomed and improvised their way to success.  I visualized the beach obstacles, the barbed wire, the shingle – all gone today – and marveled at the bravery of those who swam and crawled ashore that day.  And standing in the American cemetery in the bluffs outside of Colleville, amid row after row of crosses and Stars of David, I saw the selflessness of and the sacrifices made by the “Greatest Generation” in a whole new light.

And so I’m forced to confess.  The umbilical between reading and travel isn’t necessarily reserved for book clubs and gals on getaways – it’s there for us XY types too.  Maybe it’s a jaunt to Key West, to take in a little fishing with Hemingway’s Santiago.  Perhaps it’s that trip to a Wyoming dude ranch with Larry McMurtry in hand.  Or it’s a Dodgers game after reading The Boys of Summer. Your call.  Like I experienced in Normandy, what you read may give special meaning to what you see.  That’s a good thing.  And I promise you won’t lose your man card in the process.

From Terri:  In addition to Scott’s list of books, I’d add Jeff Shaara’s The Steel Wave, about the D-Day Invasion, which is part his World War II trilogy.  It’s a good read, easy to digest.