3 World War II survivors hold students spellbound

June 12, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

While U.S. paratrooper James Monaghan was in England eating steak for what might be his last meal, teen-agers Michelle Flescher and Michelle Rogers were surviving on rutabagas and artichokes in Nazi-occupied France in 1944.

The Germans had commandeered most of their food, their homes and their belongings. The two girls often saw death in their villages. Soon, the 20-year-old U.S. paratrooper would, too.

Mr. Monaghan was one of the thousands of Americans and Allies to descend on France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. It was then that he came upon "the first dead person I'd ever seen -- a German soldier."

The three survivors -- Mr. Monaghan of Bel Air, Mrs. Rogers of Edgewood and Mrs. Flescher of Northwest Baltimore -- met last week on the 50th anniversary of the World War II milestone to share their memories with students in the French classes at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air.

"The idea of war is beyond their comprehension," French teacher Barbara Johnson, who organized the panel discussion, said of the students. "They have never been under siege."

The 275 students listened intently as the visitors told their stories.

Mr. Monaghan, 70, a former Bel Air police chief who retired in 1985, said he enlisted in the Army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and spent the first 13 weeks of his training being taught "how to kill people." He graphically described how, preparing for the D-Day invasion, he and 15 men climbed into a C-47 plane. "I thought we'd never get off the ground," he said. In the air, stormy weather caused the plane to bounce all over the place.

"Before I knew it, the green light came on, and we were out the door," said Mr. Monaghan about his parachute jump.

Then he was alone on the ground. "I thought, 'Now what do I do?' "

After he found a buddy, the two men rescued another paratrooper from a tree and tried to quiet a crying soldier as they made their way to the Normandy peninsula. "It's a good thing the Germans didn't realize how messed up it was," Mr. Monaghan said. Mr. Monaghan reached his destination but was hit by a mortar shell. He was flown back to England, where he recovered, and several months later he was back in action in Europe.

"I would say, 'God bless America,' " said Mrs. Rogers, looking at Mr. Monaghan and picking up the next thread of the D-Day story. "We were so happy to know the American soldiers were arriving."

She was an 11-year-old French schoolgirl when the Germans approached her country's border. "We would go to school with gas masks and learn how to use them," she told the Wright students.

Mrs. Rogers remembered German planes dropping bombs. "A lot of people got killed," she said. "We managed to get away."

"German occupation wasn't easy," she recalled. "They would take our food. They would take the men of the village."

It wasn't unusual for Germans to search the French people's homes. "They had guns with bayonets, hitting everything to find if someone was hiding. If yes, the whole family was taken away and killed."

Mrs. Rogers, now 65, spoke simply -- at times shakily -- about the war years of long ago. "I will always be grateful to all the people who participated [in D-Day]," she said.

Mrs. Flescher told of being an 18-year-old American citizen in Europe with her mother when they found themselves trapped by events. On D-Day, she was on a train to Paris. She carried false identification.

"There was an undercurrent of joy on the train, but we couldn't show it because we were showing Germans our identity cards," she said.

She thanks members of the French Resistance for her safety. "They supported the Allies in an immense way," she said, explaining how they helped her and her mother.

Before the Normandy invasion, the Germans wanted a list of all Americans in the country, "like Schindler's list," she said.

Mrs. Flescher and a group of other Americans were rounded up and sent to a little hotel in a mountain village. The proprietor, who was with the Resistance, managed to spirit the teen-ager and her mother away to a farm, where they were given new identities as French citizens. She also was given an escape dress and "made to look like a country girl."

Fifty years later, Mrs. Flescher, 68, still has that floral print dress, her identity card and a photo album of her and her family in France. She also has the memories of what happened when Resistance fighters were caught.

"The Germans would hang them on a lamppost on the corner of the street. . . . They would get a crowd to watch the person die, and hold the crowd at bayonet point."

When Mrs. Flescher returned to the United States after the war, "I was 21. I had one trunk, $100 and nothing else."

Now, she said, talking to the high school students "has made me delve back into feelings and what made me what I am today. It did something to my personality."

She paused and turned to Mr. Monaghan. "And great thanks to you, Mr. Monaghan," she said.

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