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Introduction

In February 2011 my wife and I and about sixty other people attended the 90th birthday celebration at the Taunton Deane golf club in Creech Heathfield of former American GI Frank Berniaz – the long time companion of the late Eileen Webb.

Frank Berniaz, courtesy Eric Chown 2011

Frank Berniaz, courtesy Eric Chown 2011

He is a quiet man, always supportive of Eileen.  Their friendship strengthened after both lost their spouses.

Frank, surrounded by his family, stood up and gave a thank-you speech and told us about his life and how he came to be living in Creech Heathfield. It was an enthralling and entertaining story.

In April I had just taken over the publicity role of the Creech St Michael website and met Frank again at the unveiling of a plaque in memory of Eileen, who had done so much for Creech St Michael and the running of the village hall.

I approached Frank and said that his story deserved to be shared with us all.  He did say that his granddaughter was also writing his history but I did not see any problems as I am sure our two styles would compliment each other.

I have written five chapters about the life of Frank Berniaz and hope you enjoy his story.

 

Chapter 1 Early Days

In true romantic fashion Frank’s parents – father Austrian, mother Italian met on board a ship bound for America, like so many of Europe’s ‘huddled masses’, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

They married and settled in Brooklyn, New York and started a family – Frank being the eldest son.  As Frank tells it life was not easy, this was depression time in America – his mother died when he was just twelve. Leaving school at 14 he found work where he could, often as a green-groceries boy, delivering vegetables around the neighbourhood.

He joined the National Guard (the equivalent of our Territorial Army) as a teenager in 1940 as the phoney war in Europe had come to its crashing climax, with the knowledge that they could be mobilised at any time.

Joining up

He was enlisted in the 187 Field Artillery (FA) Battalion and was trained in telephone communications.  Doing his basic training in Vermont, Virginia and Tennessee.  All this for a boy who had not been outside New York before.

America, after Pearl Harbor, joined in the fight and the unit was then sent to Fort Dix and Fort Kilmer to prepare for shipment overseas.

As the compiled history of the battalion tells it the unit sailed from Pier 90 North River, New York on the 21st October 1943 on the H M Troopship ‘Scythia’ (an old Cunard liner) for a 13 day voyage arriving in Avonmouth after an uneventful crossing.  Frank say he was seasick so he did not consider it uneventful.

Frank’s first impression of the UK was enhanced by being greeted on the quayside by ladies of the Salvation Army serving coffee and donuts.  He has been a staunch supporter of the work they do ever since.

The battalion took a train to Williton and then marched to a camp at St Audries.  The camp was a hive of activities as they prepared for war.  Frank had a job on the switch board in the camp (what we would call a ‘cushy number’) and he got talking to Marjorie Farmer the switch board girl at the Post Office in Williton.  They quickly became friends (like father, like son) arranging the first date at the Egremont Hotel in Williton.  Romance blossomed and they talked of getting married in June 1944.

Montgomery, Eisenhower and the allies had other plans.

 

Chapter 2 D-Day

By the end of May 1944 in the camp, vehicles and guns had been waterproofed and on June 1st the unit moved to a marshalling area North of Falmouth as part of what was to become the biggest amphibious assault the world had ever known, “Operation Overlord”.

Frank in 1946

Frank in 1946

After a false start, delayed for a day by bad weather, Frank and his buddies in the battalion crossed the channel in an LST (Landing Ship Tank, see below) and I will use his own written description of the scene as they reached the coast off Normandy.

“Before landing at Normandy we took aboard a lot of casualties – but with the air power overhead, I had never seen so many planes, it was very spectacular; bombers, fighters . . also naval escort ships were firing into the land.  But we were delayed (in landing) by one day because of all the casualties on shore etc.”

The compiled history dryly writes “. . the original plans  [to beach at D Day plus 1 at the third tide plus four hours] had been changed materially due to unexpectedly strong German resistance at the beaches.

“On landing from USS LST 388 onto Omaha, Easy, Green beach one of the 155 mm howitzers towing tractors hit a mine and was destroyed, with four soldiers injured. Not a good start – the guns had to be quickly de-waterproofed where ever space could be found.”

The European Tour

The story of the 187 FA battalion consists of a long series of MOVE – SETUP – FIRE – REST – MOVE – SETUP – FIRE missions in support of the infantries advance as they weaved their way across France, Belgium and Germany.  With Frank’s team and others feverishly keeping all the gun batteries in touch by telephone.  Not a cushy number any more!

 

Landing Ship Tank 388

Landing Ship Tank 388, 12th June 1944

During the often rapid movements of the battalion one lighter memory that Frank wrote of was De Gaulle’s “Liberation of Paris” in his own words;

“The weather before the parade was very wet but we had to look ‘smart’ for the parade, we washed our uniforms and my pants (trousers) were still wet going through Paris.  We had lots of flowers showered upon us as we went through.”

The distances covered by the 187 FA battalion is best illustrated again using Frank’s words

“As you can see from the maps (Compiled Battalion History) we did quite a bit of travelling supporting different infantry divisions.  We had our own share of enemy artillery shelling (very scary when you are in trenches or a foxhole).   And we had our share of casualties”

The history lists 87 stopping places on the map either as engagements or for rest from the 8 June 1944 to 6 May 1945. A military campaign of 300 plus days.

 

Chapter 3 The Ardennes Forest

One of the most challenging battles for the American Army is written here.

“Again we had a rough time in December.  Freezing cold and in the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ which lasted for about two weeks.  I think I grew a beard over the period, we hardly had hot water for coffee – let alone shaving”

In a few words Frank has described the trauma during one of the most decisive battles that the American army was involved in at a very personal and human level.

Earlier I mentioned that Frank had planned to get married in June 1944, somehow in the chaos that was the battlefield his request to get married filtered down the chain of command. He writes;

“On February 23rd 1945 I had special leave to get married (the wedding should have been in June 1944). We only had simnel cake and my wife carried freesias.  I returned 15th March.  I don’t think the war missed me.  Anyway I rejoined the battery again with a lot of ribbing about getting married”

Looking at the date he left “Somewhere in Europe” (the maps suggest inside Germany), travelling by train across the low countries crossing the channel and on to Williton.

The marriage took place 1st March 1945 in the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in Minehead

The marriage took place 1st March 1945 in the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in Minehead (click to enlarge)

 

Wedding Register Entry.

Wedding Register Entry. Copy from the "Liber Matrimoniorum" is by kind permission of Parish Deacon, Rev. Vincent Woods MA. (click to enlarge)

Five days furlough getting back to his unit on the 15th of March – a total of 20 days, a week of travelling each way, this alone must have been a test of endurance.

Later in a scene straight out of Monty Python, Corporal Berniaz (as he then was) writes;

“During April some time (I didn’t keep a diary) while me and my three man crew were laying land lines from Battery ‘C’ to HQ Battery a German Luftwaffe Colonel and his, approximately 8, staff surrendered to me and my crew where we disarmed them.  This is where I got the swords, bayonets etc.  The rest of my crew had Lugers (pistols) and other souvenirs from the prisoners.  This is not mentioned in the history (the battalion movements from 1943 to 1945) but thats where they came from.”

I wonder if the colonel had figured that surrendering to signalmen would be better than front line troops who might have been less forgiving.

 

Chapter 4 V E Day and After

At the end of hostilities his unit became part of the occupying forces.  Frank re-enlisted in the USAF (Air Force) to stay in Europe with his family. He talks of the requisitioned house he lived in while the real owners were employed as gardener and housekeeper, who supplied them with fresh vegetables – a real treat.  A friendship naturally developed, Frank and his wife Marjorie were that kind of people.  After the war the German family came to visit them at home in Williton.

Frank is a first generation American and in a perhaps a wistful final sentence he regretted that while he was in Europe so long he was never able to visit Austria or Italy. Did he want to visit his parents ancestral homes?  At the time he never wondered whether any of his relatives had been on the other side.

Frank has his medals (received on the 40th Anniversary of D-Day) proudly framed for all to see, he wears them on Memorial Day. They are pictured below – not sure as to the whereabouts of the sword!

Good Conduct Medal

Good Conduct Medal

American Defense Medal

American Defense Medal

American Theater Medal

American Theater Medal

European Theater Medal

European Theater Medal

Victory Medal

Victory Medal

Occupation Medal

Occupation Medal

The two small devices attached to the ribbon on the European Theater medal represent so much to all the men of the US Army that wear them.

The small bronze Arrowhead shows the holder took part in the Normandy landings.

The five pointed silver star indicate the recipient took part in all five major American campaigns in Europe; ‘Normandy’, ‘Northern France’, ‘Rhineland’, ‘Ardennes’, ‘Central Europe’.

Frank’s final discharge certificate reads in part:

 

Frank Berniaz Discharge Certificate

Frank Berniaz Discharge Certificate, Courtesy Eric Chown

Frank like so many service men has moved the memories of their experiences to the back of his mind and marked “Do not Open”.  He has no desire to visit the Normandy beaches.

 

Chapter 5 Somerset Life

After his demobilisation the family moved to the states but as a country girl Marjorie found it difficult to adjust to city life.  They returned a few years later settling back in Williton.

Frank got work in the Water Board (later Wessex Water). He worked with Bill Webb, Eileen’s husband and the two families formed a strong friendship. On the deaths of Bill and Marjorie, Frank and Eileen naturally called on one another for emotional support.

The companionship continued for over twenty years until the sad death of Eileen in late 2010.

Frank has moved from Creech Heathfield to his home in Williton close to his daughter Bonnie. Coming full circle from his arrival as a young man all those years ago.

Both houses have happy memories for him and although he is frail and not in the best of health he still has a twinkle in his eye and the soft American drawl.  All his friends in Creech St Michael and Creech Heathfield will miss him, and his bakery skills very much.

“Truly he must be the last gentleman GI in Somerset.”

 

Eric Chown Author of Article

Eric Chown Author of Article

Footnote
At the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial there are over 9000 US American War Dead buried here. The remains of approximately 14,000 others originally buried in this region were returned ‘home’ at the request of their next of kin.

Source documents for this article include a copy of the history of the movements of Frank’s outfit. The original is held along with all documents on D-Day in the Caen Normandy Memorial, Caen, France.  Images and badges of rank are not for reproduction without permission of the relevant authorities.  Medal and personal photographs used by kind permission of Frank.

Documents, conversations and written notes from Frank.

Internet access for the Normandy landings, Cunard Shipping together with UK and US military and naval history of various kinds.

Author E R J Chown BSc (Hons) © 2011