134th Infantry Regiment
"All Hell Can't Stop Us"
Pfc. Horace Earl Van Houten
The following is a story written by Leslie Van Houten, Pfc. Horace (Bud) Van Houten's niece about her trip to Omaha Beach and the search for her Uncle's grave.
OUR VISIT TO UNCLE BUD
Our 2002 vacation planning began last fall when we rented a house in Provence for early October this year. We had a number of options but decided that our priority after Provence was to visit the World War II beaches in Normandy. Phil is a history buff and has concentrated his reading on the Civil War, Napoleon and World War II. I wanted to find Uncle Bud.
All of my life I heard Dad's stories about growing up in Nebraska, and his older brother, Bud, loomed large in those stories. In spite of Dad's tales, Uncle Bud was still only a name, a shadowy figure, a mystery, compared to my other aunts and uncles whom I had met. As a child I also had no comprehension of what it really meant that Uncle Bud had died in the Normandy Invasion. As the years past and I learned about that invasion in large part from Phil, I began to wonder what it meant to be a young man from Nebraska who died some where in France.
As our travel planner, I had scheduled the day to visit the beaches and find Uncle Bud on our fourth day in France, September 28th, on our way from Honfluer on the Normandy coast to Mont St. Michel on the edge of Brittany. The weather was autumnal: cool, crisp and wet. We easily found Omaha Beach. It was clearly a tourist destination for our first sight was of a huge parking lot and bus park. However, on a weekday in late September, the lot was less than a third full.
We entered the beautiful grounds and headed straight for visitor's center. There a young Frenchman who spoke perfect English entered "Horace Earl Van Houten" into the computer; up popped 6 or 7 Van Houten's; only Uncle Bud was from Nebraska.
We traveled on to the Brittany seacoast, ate lobster that night and rose early the next morning. We had three goals: to visit Mont. Saint Michel, to find Uncle Bud and to arrive at our next destination, the Loire, before dark set in. As it happened, that day turned out to be one of the most memorable vacation days ever.
Mt. Saint Michel is an abbey fortress on an island off the coast of Brittany; it rises above the flat marshes like a fairy castle and seems to float in the air. Many say it is too touristy; others disagree, as it is the number 1 tourist destination in France. For us, it was magical. When we arrived at the cathedral at the very top of the abbey, the sunlight was pouring through the high windows; shafts of light transformed the old, cold stone and the most beautiful music filled the space and reverberated to every corner of the sanctuary. We had happened upon an a cappella performance by a choir of 6 men and 6 women singing the medieval mass of St. Michel the Archangel. We sat there as time slipped away and were transported by the music. We left the island behind us filled with the beauty of those moments and headed for St. James.
The Brittany cemetery is so like Omaha Beach and yet so very different. It too is in a beautiful park like setting with symmetrical rows of crosses and stars of David white against the green lawns. But it is not a tourist destination. The parking appeared to be two wide spots in the road and we were the only car there. In fact we appeared to be the only people there and we weren't even sure if we were parked in the right place. A man in a blue jacket was crossing the highway and we asked him where to park. He said in somewhat broken English that we could park there and motioned us to follow him to the "office." He was Jacques Adelee, the Superintendent of the Brittany American Cemetery.
We showed him the print out from Omaha Beach and he asked us if Private Van Houten were a relative. I said he was my uncle. He told us to wait and that he would escort us to his grave. Monsieur Adelee went to an adjacent room and emerged with a Polaroid, a small American flag, and two mysterious buckets.
We followed him through the cemetery, past the chapel, down tree lined paths, past rows and rows of crosses glistening in the midday sun. All was silent except for the song of the birds and the crunching of the gravel under our feat. Finally, Monsieur Adelee turned right and led us to Uncle Bud's grave. He then made known to us the contents of the two small buckets and their purpose.
He told us that he had sand in one of the buckets which he had brought from Omaha Beach; he knelt down and packed the sand into the letters carved into the Uncle Bud's marker, filling the recessed letters with the contrasting sand. He then took water from the other bucket and cleaned off the cross from top to bottom. Uncle Bud's name now stood out in clear relief. Monsieur Adelee solemnly placed the flag in front of Uncle Bud's grave and then he took a picture with his Polaroid. He turned to us and told us that he would meet us back in the office when we were finished. The flag he said was for me.
Phil and I stood there in the sunshine taking our photos and not breaking the silence with words. I told Uncle Bud who I was and why I was there and I updated him on the family history. It was utterly peaceful and utterly beautiful day.
We turned and walked back to the office. Monsieur Adelee was not there, but we saw a blue folder on the shelf in front of us. I opened it and found a white card with the Monsier Adelee's photo inside and Uncle Bud's name and location of this grave on the front. As we turned to leave, folder in hand, Monsieur. Adelee came in behind us, saying "Moment! Moment!" He had in his hand a copy of page from a book which must be a day by day diary of World War II which showed what happened in France, USSR and Italy on the day Uncle Bud died, July 16, 1945. He died in the battle of St. Lo as the Allied troops slowly and surely pushed back the German armies.
I had a number of impressions that will stay with me a very long time. First, I think the Brittany cemetery is a very special place and perhaps more emblematic of a monument to the fallen soldiers than is Omaha Beach which is by definition both a sacred spot and tourist attraction. Secondly, I was struck by how much Monsieur Adelee cared: his solemn ritual at the grave site, the sand he collected from Omaha Beach to fill in the letters carved into the cross, and the page he gave us from the book so we could begin to grasp what happened to Uncle Bud that day. And, finally, I have just begun to grasp how very different Uncle Bud's trip to France was from ours.
Thanks to Ms. Bertha Anderson, Pfc. Van Houten's sister, for providing this photograph and information.
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