November 5, 2001
Northshore veteran retraces his steps on D-Day battlefield
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
In pitch-black darkness, thousands of paratroopers spilled out of planes and glided toward hostile territory. Many of the airborne men were miles from their drop zones. They landed in fields, backyards or on rooftops. Some drowned trying to free themselves from marshy swamps, weighted down with weapons and ammunition. Others were shot while entangled in the limbs of trees. It was sometime after midnight, June 6, 1944. D-Day had arrived.
"Everyone knew exactly what we were supposed to do," recalls Bob Matthews, who was a 25-year old first lieutenant at the time. He and his battalion were dropped out of a C-47 over Normandy at 1:30 in the morning. Matthews doesn't have any memory of floating toward the ground. "When I jumped out of the airplane, the opening shock [of the parachute] knocked me out," he says. "I have no memories coming down." What he does remember is hearing gunfire upon landing. "My thought was to get as fast as I could into the trees."
His second thought was to gather his men together and move up to where the shooting was. "I could hear Germans shooting anti-aircraft weapons at airplanes in the sky," he says.
Then it was silent. "Battlefields are some of the quietest places because nobody wants to move or make any noise."
Having worked his way into the woods, Matthews took out a government-issued device called a cricket. He clicked it once. Click. One of his sergeants responded to his signal and clicked back. Click-click. "It took me awhile to gather some men together and get my guns," Matthews remembers.
Now a retired colonel who is Green Beret qualified, Matthews thinks back to that clear warm day years ago.
He remembers the "workmanlike" mood among his comrades as their plane left Britain and headed toward Normandy. He recalls spending the day in fire fights with about 30 other men. A cafe also comes to mind. It stood prominently in the line of fire, between him and the Germans.
His thoughts drift back to the time after that first day when he finally managed to get back with his own men.
"The battalion had gotten such a bad drop. We had a very bad drop," he explains. His next order was to find and identify dead bodies. One of the first bodies he found was one of his own men, a cannoneer.
"In July they sent us back to England. We had lost 40 percent of our men and some of our guns. We went back to get ready for our next operation which was in Holland."
Today, Bob Matthews is an active participant in the community. He sings in two Welsh choirs, moderates the Rose Memorial Garden Club and sits on the board of directors for the Northshore Senior Center. But even though his life is full, the memories of D-Day never leave him.
Last spring, the Alumni Association of the University of Washington scheduled a trip to Normandy. "I hadn't been back there in 57 years and I was curious and I wanted to go back," he says.
And he wanted to deal with his memories by retracing his steps, plus visiting the 35 graves (out of 80 killed) in his battalion who died there.
He flew to Paris, along with the alumni tour group, and stayed at Lesieux. His group rode a bus each day to see the sights: Mont St. Michel, Rouen and Caen.
"We visited Monet's farm," he says, holding up a photograph showing Monet's mirror-like pond full of lilies with a huge weeping willow draped over it.
"It was the most spectacular pond I've ever seen in my life." In addition, his tour group visited a cheese factory and a distillery. "And we also visited the Normandy beach area."
Matthews wanted to see Omaha Beach and visit the bluff that overlooks it, Pointe du Hoc. The bluff is maintained just as it was at the end of the war.
Concrete bunkers remain in a destroyed condition with shell holes and bomb craters.
"I had a free day at the end of the tour and here's where the coincidence comes in," says Matthews. He explains that his friend, John Hughes, had hosted a French exchange student years ago. Last May, Hughes traveled to France to visit his former guest, Yves Mosse.
Hughes mentioned to Mosse that Matthews planned a trip to Normandy.
Since Mosse had already scheduled a vacation at the time of Matthews' visit, he realized he wouldn't be able to meet him. But he could arrange to have a car and driver take Matthews around on a private tour.
And that is what he did. Says Matthews, "On the last day I was picked up at the Hotel at Lesieux and taken to the place where I landed on D-Day. That was right by a little town called Le Ham. That town was miles away from where I should have landed. There I started to try to find my way around my memories."
Matthews attempted to retrace the steps he took on D-Day. But it wasn't an easy thing to do.
The countryside had changed so remarkably," he says.
He explained that some of the farms are gone, and the trees have grown considerably since he was there. The railroad station had been torn down, with a recycling facility in its place.
But he was able to locate three places: the spot where the Germans shot at him.
"Five of them shot at me and all five missed me"; the cafe, which now towers two-stories high ; and the place where he had found his cannoneer.
His driver also took him to the American cemetery which is blanketed by thousands of white crosses. Only nine out of the 35 graves he had hoped to find still remained in the cemetery.
All the others had been moved to burial places in their respective hometowns.
Matthews did locate the grave of Pfc. Samuel Dereta from Pennsylvania. "He was the first of my men that was killed."
Of the men who fought on D-Day, he says, "They all knew what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. I had a great deal of respect for all of them."
After leaving the cemetery, Matthews wanted to take his driver to lunch. They cruised over to the Omaha Beach Golf Course, a 27-hole course above Omaha Beach.
It struck Matthews as odd that a tourist attraction with beautiful grounds and elegant dining would be built above the beach once known as "Bloody Omaha."
Veterans Day, Nov. 11, honors the men who fought on the beaches and countryside of Normandy in June 1944, as well as every war veteran who served America, ensuring continued freedom for all Americans.