The trip of a lifetime
WORTHINGTON -- Cathy Buxengard had long dreamed of visiting Europe, but not to see the Eiffel Tower, drive the autobahn in Germany or ski the Alps in Switzerland.
She didn't need to take a gondola ride in Venice or tour the Louvre in Paris.
All she really wanted was to walk along Omaha Beach, feel the sand between her fingers and collect just a handful of the finely textured grains to bring back home with her to Worthington.
Sand from the Omaha Beach may not sound like much of a memento from a European vacation, but for Cathy and her husband, Bill, the small jar of red-tinged grains remind them of the sacrifices made by their parents, aunts, uncles, schoolteachers and so many others they have known from America's Greatest Generation.
Cathy's parents are both World War II veterans. Her dad was in the Army, her mom a Navy nurse. She had nine aunts and uncles who served in the war, and Bill had two uncles enlisted.
"When I was growing up, all my friends had a parent who was in the service," Cathy said. "I had teachers who served in the war, but they never said a word -- not one word when we were growing up."
In May 2010, Cathy and her mom, Jo Strube, participated in Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight's first flight to Washington, D.C. Strube was one of two female World War II veterans to make that flight, and Cathy, then a registered nurse, served as a guardian.
Around the time they were preparing for that flight, Cathy learned that her aunt, Agnes Strube, had landed on Omaha Beach two weeks after D-Day. Agnes served as a nurse in the 39th Field Hospital, and was assigned to the Ninth Air Force -- the same group Bill's uncle served in. He was a mechanic, working on fighter planes in Europe, and also landed on Omaha Beach.
"That kind of clinched it for us," Cathy said. "We wanted to go."
The Buxengards were in their car, on their way home from a hockey game, when Cathy heard an advertisement on the radio for a "World War II Memorial Tour of Europe" offered by Image Tours of Mankato.
She'd heard about similar trips offered from San Diego, Calif., and other parts of the country, but had been waiting for an opportunity a little closer to home.
"They offer this trip three times a year," Cathy said of the travel company.
"We decided right away we were going," added Bill. "Then I called my brother."
Though it took some coaxing from Bill's nieces and nephews, his brother and sister-in-law, Gary and Jan, of Spring Grove, finally agreed to go along.
They booked four tickets for the tour, a 16-day journey from Sept. 16-21 departing from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
"There were people from California, New York and Texas (on the tour)," Bill said of the 32-member group traveling together.
"There were four couples who had immediate family (serve in Europe) in World War II," added Cathy. "I figured it would be everyone from the Baby Boomers (generation), because most of the Baby Boomers had parents, aunts or uncles that were in the war, but there were a few younger than us and the rest were that generation in between the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation -- people that were in their 70s.
"We were supposed to practice walking like a whole month before we left so we were in shape," Cathy said. "There were people there in canes, but they got by -- they would sit and rest. Quite a few retired schoolteachers went."
The Buxengards and their fellow tourists departed Minnesota on Sept. 6 and had a brief layover at Chicago's O'Hare Airport before leaving on their direct flight to Frankfurt, Germany.
Over the course of the next two-plus weeks, they would travel the countryside, staying at inns in small villages throughout Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland.
"Most of the time we were off the beaten path," Cathy said. "The war didn't take place on the autobahn, it was in all these little villages."
From the time they landed in Germany until they boarded the plane to return home, the Buxengards and their travel companions relived the history of World War II. Their first stop was at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, also known as the site of the Nuremberg Trials.
"That courtroom is still being used," said Cathy of the site where Nazi leaders were tried for crimes against humanity. "We walked around and could sit on the benches. You just felt so much a part of history."
The day after, the tourists visited the rally grounds at Nuremberg, where Adolf Hitler was known to rouse his troops, and then traveled to Salzburg, Austria, to tour the first of many beautiful, historic churches included on their travel itinerary. Many of the churches they toured were built in the 1400s and 1500s.
"They did such a nice job blending the World War II history with a tour of Europe," Cathy said.
The visit to the Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden, a mountain retreat that doubled as Hitler's hideout, was memorable for the Buxengards because of the journey up the mountain.
"We had to get on a special bus with special brakes," explained Bill. "It was a steep climb -- and one lane."
"We got dropped off at the top and then went through a tunnel and down an elevator run by a U-boat motor to get to the actual Eagle's Nest," Cathy said. "The view was absolutely beautiful. Hitler was afraid of heights, but no wonder they chose that site for him."
By the time the group stopped at the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, Cathy said, "It really made you think about what that war was all about."
"They told us that after the war, they had to burn down all of the barracks because they were infested with lice, fleas, rats and mice," she said. "So, they built two replicas of the barracks they were in. We got to go through them."
"The gates are still up," added Bill of the perimeter of the camp.
At Herrlingen, Germany, the group visited Gen. Erwin Rommel's grave; and in St. Avold, France, they visited the Lorraine American Cemetery, where more than 10,000 American World War II soldiers are buried.
"We just started walking through the crosses and there was a Strube -- a Robert Strube," said Cathy. "I wondered if he was a relative."
Later, she would discover another headstone marked with the Strube name, this time in the German cemetery at Sandweiler, Luxembourg.
"It was relatives against relatives fighting," she said.
The Buxengards toured the Maginot Line, which was built along the French and German border between World War I and World War II. Built by the French, it was an underground fortress large enough to house not only soldiers but tanks, guns and even an infirmary.
"They ate down there and cooked down there," Cathy said.
"Then, every so often, there was a spiral staircase that went up to a turret gun," added Bill.
At Bastogne, they toured a museum and visited the many monuments dedicated to the American soldiers of World War II.
Facing the French
While the Buxengards said they were treated wonderfully throughout their journey -- the Europeans were thrilled to have American guests in their midst -- they were warned that the French people would not be as welcoming.
"Our tour guide said, 'You've heard the French don't like Americans. That's not true. The French don't like anyone.'"
"In Holland, we were told that all of the TV was in English because they wanted the people to learn English. In Germany, most of the people spoke English; and in France, hardly anyone spoke English," Cathy said. "But, I took two years of French in school."
"In restaurants, once they found out we spoke English, they found someone who spoke English to wait on us, but in France they didn't care. They were rude people."
While in France, the tourists visited the Muese Argonne, a World War I cemetery; stopped at Eisenhower's headquarters at Reims, saw the Eiffel Tower and cruised the Seine River.
At Paris, the Buxengards split from the group for a tour of the city in a rickshaw, while most of the other tourists visited the Louvre.
"We had four hours before we had to report to the river cruise," recalled Cathy. "We went all the way down to the Arc du Triumph in Paris."
Finally, the beaches
Throughout France, the Buxengards saw many monuments honoring the dead from World War I, and in nearly every village stood a piece of U.S. military equipment such as a tank or a cannon.
"There was damage from the war in every village," said Bill.
At about the midway point of their trip, the Buxengards finally arrived at the destination they'd planned their trip for -- the beaches of Normandy, France.
As they arrived, they saw the hedgerows that were used by the Germans as a place to hide as the American troops descended upon the beach.
"Those hedgerows were centuries-old and the root system was so big, deep and high that you just couldn't get through them," explained Cathy. "That's what held (the American troops) up."
"To see the ground with those hedgerows, you sort of realize what it must have been like to fight through all of that," said Bill.
"What they would have seen. No wonder they never talked about it," added Cathy.
The largest monument to the Allied Forces stands at Omaha Beach -- the primary landing beach after D-Day for soldiers headed toward Normandy. The beach also includes an American cemetery.
"When we walked in, they played 'Taps' and they played the American anthem and everybody cried -- even the men," Cathy said. The cemetery, home to more than 9,000 American troops, overlooks Omaha Beach. It is also where two sons of President Theodore Roosevelt are buried.
On the smaller Utah Beach stand memorials to nearly every group that landed there during the war.
As they neared Normandy, the group viewed the Atlantic Wall, also referred to as Hitler's Wall. It was surrounded by "huge craters" from American bombers, still evident after nearly 70 years.
Though the group was given plenty of time at each of the stops along the way, Cathy said she couldn't stay on Omaha Beach long enough. She just wanted to soak up the atmosphere, collect her sand and search for seashells.
The remainder of their journey included visits to Flanders Field, St. Mere Eglese, the National Liberation Museum, a river cruise of Amsterdam and a tour of a dairy farm that included a cheese factory and wooden shoe business.
The 12-hour return flight home included a brief layover in Newark, N.J.
For the Buxengards, the World War II Memorial Tour was certainly the trip of a lifetime.
"If you would go, you would love it. It's absolutely beautiful," said Bill, adding that the temperature in September was primarily in the 70s and 80s, and with the exception of a couple of overcast days, they were lucky enough to travel in sunshine.
In addition to doing a little walking in preparation for their trip, the Buxengards had also watched a lot of World War II movies and read about the war.
"I also watch the History Channel a lot and subscribe to the World War II history magazine," said Cathy.
As a retired nurse, Cathy said she also heard a lot of stories over the years from veterans who were willing to share their stories while staying in the hospital.
Their European tour included many meals and lodging in their ticket price. They stayed primarily in family-run inns, and dined on authentic European cuisine as often as possible.
"We tried to eat the way the locals eat," said Bill. "And, we never found any beer we didn't like. We had a good time."
"It was sure worth going," Cathy added. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.