A father’s footsteps: Houserville couple retrace WWII soldier’s journey through Europe

Ken and Nancy Fogleman took a trip retracing her father’s movements through Europe during World War II in September. Nancy’s father Henry “Tinker” Israel served in the Army as a light machine gunner during 1944-45. November 5, 2014
Ken and Nancy Fogleman took a trip retracing her father’s movements through Europe during World War II in September. Nancy’s father Henry “Tinker” Israel served in the Army as a light machine gunner during 1944-45. November 5, 2014 CDT photo

This fall, Nancy and Ken Fogleman took more than a trip of a lifetime.

They followed a journey from another life.

The Foglemans, of Houserville, retraced the route Nancy’s father, Henry “Tinker” Israel, took during World War II with the 357th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Division, the famous “Tough ’Ombres” unit. For three weeks, the couple crossed Europe from Utah Beach in Normandy, France, to a tiny Czech Republic town on the German border.

Their adventure stemmed from a startling find.

After Nancy Fogleman’s older sister, Barby Israel, died two years ago, a decorative box was found in Barby’s apartment in California. Stuffed inside were dozens of letters their soldier father wrote back to his home in Weatherly, near Hazleton in the Poconos.

Nancy Fogleman was moved.

Born after the war, she never knew about the letters. Here, finally in the light of day, was a window into her father’s experiences as a Company K light machine gunner.

No matter where he was, training stateside or fighting amid the Norman hedgerows or snowy Belgian forest, he sent his love to her mother, Peg, and sister, then reassured them he was fine. He even joked about his left hand being OK — meaning his winnings from rolling dice had continued.

More letters arrived from the rear lines than the front, but collectively they formed a paper trail of his part in defeating Nazi Germany.

They also inspired a book.

For a family reunion, Nancy Fogleman organized the letters chronologically by postmark, researched the 357th Regiment’s operations through combat reports and combined her father’s correspondence with historical accounts and scans of documents and wartime mementos found among the notes.

She gave copies to her older cousins’ families. But she received a gift as well.

While they studied maps of Europe one day in 2013, charting Israel’s path, her husband had an epiphany.

“It was about then that Ken looked at them and said, ‘You know, that would make a great trip if we followed that through,’ ” Nancy Fogleman said.

The idea just came to him.

“I knew it would be very meaningful to her, and me,” Ken Fogleman said. “I never met him. He died of black lung disease when he was 49. ... And it was very emotional at times.”

It didn’t take long for the tears to flow once they arrived in France in early September and started with the D-Day invasion beaches.

“Standing on Utah Beach and looking out at the serene ocean, it was extremely difficult to imagine the fear and horror my father must have experienced there,” Nancy Fogleman wrote after the trip.

“One could not stand on that beach even today and not cry for the memory of the brave men who landed there.”

June 7, 1944: I really wrote the letter dated May 4th on June 4th, one month later. That was bad. If you don’t hear from me for some time, don’t worry. I’ll be busy. I’ll be seeing you around Christmas.

Israel, a coal miner, entered the Army on Oct. 30, 1943, and France on June 8, 1944.

Utah Beach was still perilous two days after the initial assault from artillery barrages. Seventy years later, the Foglemans beheld a calm seaside spot, the landing far removed in time — but still remembered.

They stayed in a “gite,” a small vacation house on the property of a larger manor German officers lived in during the occupation. For one meal, they stopped by the nearby Le Roosevelt bar and restaurant.

When Nancy Fogleman mentioned her father had landed at the beach, excitement rippled through the place.

“The staff was thrilled to find out that I was the daughter of a veteran who landed at Utah and took me directly to a memorial wall filled with notes written by veterans, and family members of veterans, to write a note in honor of my father,” she recalled.

She signed her name and his, along with the date of his landing, atop wartime pin-up photos of American actresses.

Normandy’s gratitude, even after decades, impressed them.

“We found all these little towns, and almost every single town had a memorial, and the grass was mowed; there were flowers,” Nancy Fogleman said. “The French in Normandy, every little town has something.”

July 1, 1944: We were up on the front lines for 18 days and some of them sure were hot. It was Jerry that got hell, we sure gave it to them. We are back for a few days rest. I’ve slept 20 of the last 30 hours. It has been 11/2 months since I got a letter from you. One of these days I should get a big bag full.

July 6, 1944: I think this army is going to make me forget about camping. I have been sleeping out and eating C. and K. rations. I saw a little kid that was shot to hell.

While in Normandy, the Foglemans visited Omaha Beach and the Pointe du Hoc cliffs scaled by the U.S. Army Rangers to destroy coastal guns.

They also saw the famous church in Sainte-Mère-Église where an Army paratrooper was snagged on the spire. A dummy hangs today in remembrance.

Tinker Israel wasn’t at those places. He survived fierce fighting in tiny villages and anonymous pastures bordered by hedgerows, the 90th charged with cutting off the Cotentin peninsula and advancing toward Avranches on the coast.

Hill 122 was one stop, too small to be on maps.

The Foglemans found it — with a little help.

They overheard an American guide and asked for assistance. He agreed to help, meeting them later at the Dead Man’s Curve Museum and taking them through the countryside to a peaceful rise topped by the ruins of a small castle. Only a modest memorial gave any indication of the bloody struggle that had taken place.

But the guide wasn’t done.

From battle reports, the Foglemans knew that Israel’s company had fought somewhere along the nearby Seves River. At a loss, the guide and his French son-in-law consulted the locals.

Eventually, after many directions and a long search, the roads dwindled to a grassy lane.

“And then we had to finally stop and walk,” Nancy Fogleman said of the memorable experience. “It was in the middle of nowhere.”

Attached to a tree was a plaque. It was in French but Nancy Fogleman didn’t need a translation.

“I knew there had been a terrible battle here,” she said.

Aug. 17, 1944: It’s been almost 3 weeks since I last wrote. We sure have been on the go since this big push is on. I don’t think Jerry can take this much longer. One of these days he will have enough and it will be over. I hope that will be soon. I’m in (censored). This outfit sure is on the ball. We just got here about two hours ago and we are going to go to some other place tonight.

From Avranches to Le Mans to Alencon to Chambois, the 357th was on the move.

The brutal slog of hedgerow combat ended in the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, when the trapped German forces were annihilated. That began the surge to Paris.

The Foglemans received another thank you at a café near the Coudehard-Montormel Memorial, a museum dedicated to the Falaise victory.

They told the bartender about their trip, then found a sidewalk table.

“We were sitting out there drinking, and he came out there with a huge, metal American flag and put it behind us,” Nancy Fogleman said.

Nov. 4, 1944: ... So you said you think you can squeeze into your evening gown, well you sure have a date. We’re going to have more good old Saturday night times again when this is all over. I tell my buddies that if I were home now we would be having a good old card game. ...

Though the 357th skirted to the south of Paris, the Foglemans couldn’t resist seeing the City of Light and Versailles.

Afterward, they picked up Israel’s eastward trail: Chateau-Thierry, Reims, Metz. Along the way, they took time in Saint-Avold to pay their respects to the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial, the second largest American cemetery in France and the final resting place for 10,489 Americans killed during the push to Germany.

“My feeling was that this cemetery can’t be truly appreciated without standing in the middle of over 10,000 perfectly arranged crosses and thinking of the loved ones back home who lost all those young men,” Nancy Fogleman recalled. “Being the mother of two sons made it all too real and sorrowful.”

By the time her father reached Thionville in early November 1944, he didn’t write about crossing the swollen Moselle River in ferries under fire from Fort Koenigsmacker — a feat commended by none other than the Third Army’s commander, Gen. George Patton.

Nor did Israel mention attacking the French-built Maginot Line fortifications then held by the Germans on the river’s eastern side.

But his daughter, from her research, knew it all.

At the Hackenberg sector of the line near Veckring, France, the Foglemans toured an extensive underground complex. But Fort Koenigsmacker was harder to find.

The Koenigsmacker mayor’s office, mystified by the American couple’s wish, contacted a local English-speaking woman. She, in turn, tracked down a man and his son to serve as guides.

Into the locals’ car the Foglemans went, swapping apprehensive glances as roads turned to lanes and then just a path heading deep into the woods. Finally, a desolate ghost appeared.

“Here’s this fort that’s crumbling,” Nancy Fogleman said.

The day had one more secret to reveal.

Their guide mentioned a 90th Division monument across the Moselle. That was news to the Foglemans. A short drive later, they stood at the water’s edge before the tribute, about where Israel crossed.

“In the middle, etched in the stone like you would see on a tombstone, were three GIs wading through the water,” Nancy Fogleman said. “It was a beautiful monument.”

Nov. 24, 1944 (near Moselle River): We just got this one (Christmas) card and you know that it goes to my two sweethearts. We had a good turkey meal but from all the K’s I have been eating that good meal made me sick and I lost it all.

Her mother told her a story.

Her father, the tale went, once recalled – less than fondly — the Army’s version of a Thanksgiving dinner: everything piled in a small mess kit plate, with a scoop of ice cream on top.

Years later, her cousin shared that he and his brother could always get Uncle Tinker to bring up the meal by complaining about their food touching on plates.

Jan. 22, 1945 (in Bastogne, Belgium): I haven’t written for about two weeks because we’ve been on the go all the time. I can’t tell you more. It sure is cold and we were out in the weather for about ten days and it was tough. We’re back here for about a few days rest and then we’ll be on the go again.

Just like the 357th, the Foglemans briefly crossed into Germany before doubling back.

They spent a few days visiting a friend’s cousin in Merzig, not far from the border. In Israel’s case, the 90th Division was pulled northward to the Ardennes Forest into the Battle of the Bulge.

“I’m OK,” Israel wrote in his typically reassuring fashion in one of his few letters from the battle, but his daughter got a sense of what he endured from the Battle of the Bulge Museum in Diekirch, Luxembourg.

Several room-sized dioramas realistically depicted snow-covered foxholes and other deprivations.

“If you didn’t see the rest of the walls, it almost looked like you were there,” Nancy Fogleman said.

April 14, 1945: There is only about (a quarter) of our Co. here. The rest are up at the mine. Today they are carrying out the gold and each one of them weighs about 50 pounds. They say there is about 100 to 150 tons of it down in one hole ...

June 18, 1945 (Flossenburg concentration camp, Flossenburg, Germany): ... Peg, all you read about this concentration camp is true. Living here sure was hell on earth for the prisoners. But now they know how it is because since we got here about five days ago the army has sent over 5000 S.S. prisoners here and we sure give them hell day and night. They work about 15 hours a day and get two meals a day, but that’s too good for them because you should see all the bones of the people they killed. ...

After the Battle of the Bulge, the 357th raced across Germany: the Siegfried Line and its bunkers, the Rhine River, Mainz, Darmstadt, numerous small towns and villages.

By then, Israel had been the beneficiary of a transfer to a kitchen in the rear. But the war still held surprises.

At the Merkers salt mine near Bad Salzungen, highlighted in the recent film “The Monuments Men,” the 90th oversaw the removal of the entire Nazi gold supply and stolen art and currency. Donning hard hats, the Foglemans saw the mine for themselves.

“It just went on and on,” Nancy Fogleman said.

Near the Czech border, the 90th discovered horror: corpses stacked like wood and cremation ovens at the Flossenburg concentration camp. More than 1,100 inmates were liberated. The Foglemans inspected the somber barracks and towers, now preserved as a museum.

And they visited Vseruby, a Czech Republic border town, tiny but significant. Israel was there when news came on May 8, 1945, of Germany’s surrender.

It would be months before he returned home, but on that day, his war ended. His daughter will never forget standing in the town square, maybe near where he stood.

She could follow in his footsteps, but it was something else trying to put herself in the shoes of a tired, homesick soldier.

“I know from his letters that our soldiers were not celebrating like they were back home because they didn’t know where they’d be sent next and were afraid it might be just as bad as what they had already gone through.

“It was difficult to imagine what mixed feelings they must have had.”