Teacher retraces father's steps in World War II

July 07, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

The chill waters of the English Channel lapped over "Butch" Maisel's combat boots as he stood on the Normandy beach, imagining the hellish scene 48 years ago when his father stormed ashore in the D-Day invasion, June 6, 1944.

Wearing a World War II infantry uniform, "Butch," more formally Frederick C. Maisel III of Randallstown, was fulfilling his father's dream of more than 40 years -- to retrace the 16 days from Utah Beach to a place near La Glacerie village where German shrapnel wounds in the arm and foot ended the war for his father.

After the war, Bud Maisel had a long career as a respected teacher and coach at McDonogh School. He died June 5, 1986, one day before the 42nd anniversary of the D-Day landing.

"He always wanted to go back but he never got the chance, so I did it for him. I wanted to visit the places he told me so much about," said Butch Maisel, 38-year-old history teacher at Boys' .. Latin School.

Although Mr. Maisel's weeklong odyssey in Europe was a sentimental journey, his students will benefit from it in the fall. The Ford Foundation Teaching Fellowship awarded him a $1,600 grant to use his trip, from June 12 to June 19, as the basis for a World War II history program on the Normandy invasion in his class.

"History can be as personal as you want to make it. That's my philosophy," Mr. Maisel said. "Sometimes I take photographs of Civil War soldiers or other objects to class to relate them to people who used them."

Mr. Maisel said he had four principal objectives in Normandy: Utah Beach, where his father landed; Germain, where he won the Silver Star; Ste. Mere Eglise, the village made famous by the landing of American paratroopers who were relieved by the 4th Division; and, the place where Captain Maisel was wounded.

"When I got to France everything was still there, the buzz-bomb launching pad, the bunkers and the machine-gun nests, the barbed wire, where they captured the German 88 and, farther on, even the barn that was used as an aid station when he was wounded," Mr. Maisel said.

French farmers used the German buildings for years, he said. "They were too tough to be demolished. Now they're national monuments and they can't be destroyed."

Mr. Maisel's first stop was Utah Beach. On his uniform he wore the silver captain's bars and infantry crossed rifles his father wore on D-Day.

"The hair went up on the back of my neck as I stood there, as close as I could come to where he actually came ashore," he said. "A Frenchman approached as I was standing in the surf on Utah Beach with my father's picture in my hand. I think he realized from the uniform that I wasn't just another American tourist."

They talked briefly, then Mr. Maisel produced an explanation of his mission written by Boys' Latin French teacher Terry Howell.

"That was invaluable," he said. "And, with the uniform and the maps I carried, it was easy to find what I was looking for. People went out of their way to be friendly."

The Frenchman escorted him to Ste. Marie du Mont, the first village liberated by his father's division, and to the area near where his father led the capture of the German artillery battery at Germain, Mr. Maisel said.

The deputy mayor gave him a medallion making Captain Maisel an honorary citizen of Ste. Marie du Mont, posthumously. The pewter disc, engraved with a scene of American soldiers landing at Utah Beach, is now with his father's other decorations.

"That was the high spot of my trip," Mr. Maisel said about receiving the medallion.

But, he said, there were other, even more emotional moments, such as when he found the place where his father won the Silver Star.

"I actually walked down the road toward where the Germans were hiding," Mr. Maisel said. "The Americans killed 50 Germans and captured 80 and three 88mm guns."

A few days later, he found the stone barn where his father was treated for wounds in his left arm and right foot.

"It was still right there, just as he described it," said Mr. Maisel.

For 30 years, Mr. Maisel said, his father had told him war stories: The invasion preparations in England; the channel crossing; the D-Day landing itself and the fierce fighting in the hedgerows and lanes of the Norman villages.

As a history teacher with a particular interest in military history, Mr. Maisel has studied wars and campaigns and has participated in War of 1812 and World War I re-enactments.

"But I didn't really get into this until after dad died in 1986," he said. "In the last year and a half I really started going nutso about it."

Mr. Maisel approached his trip as a historian. He said that, fortunately, his father was "a pack rat" who saved every document he could about his military service. Those papers formed the basis for the research.

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