He was born in Bergenfield, New Jersey. The dare-devil of the family, always carrying his catcher’s mitt, at Bergenfield High, with a young man’s hopes of making it into the Major Baseball Leagues in the USA.
He now lies, in one of the, tear-inducing, white ranks of the dead, in St. James American Military Cemetery in Normandy.
To stand outside the chapel, and stare down the slope, at the endless field of white stones, is a sobering, and disturbing, experience. These men, and they are mostly men, were the sons, brothers and fathers, of that generation that had survived the Great Depression. Men with European names, from every State of the Union, with roots in many countries of Europe.
In Plot P, Row W, Grave 15, lies George E. Hendrickson.
These places of remembrance cannot fail to move. They never fail to remind us of the real effects of war, on ordinary people, on ordinary families. But they are places of tranquility, places to remember, places to be thankful that there were some who would put their lives on the line, for a principle. And everyone can connect with similar experiences in their own family.
Ten kilometres away, at Huisnes-sur-Mer, is the resting place for an equal number of German sons, fathers and brothers. The survivors of their post-Great War Depression. This place is different. It is dark, secretive and claustrophobic. But the emotions are the same. The names are the same, their places of birth different, their place of death the same. To put their sacrifice into perspective, you must climb two flights of steps, to be greeted by the mighty freedom of the skyline of the Bay of Mont St. Michel, dominated by the ‘Mont’ itself. Out of the darkness into the light.
Both of these places are shrines designed to foster remembrance and show, vividly, the real outcomes of war. The dead. A massive collective statement. There are other cemeteries, both Allied and German, in Northern France, and, six hours east, further reminders of the horrors of ‘industrial killing’, with the dead of a previous European War.
But, in many of the rural villages of Brittany and Normandy are quieter, more discreet memorials. Generally simple, granite, plaques on walls, or modest ‘stones’ in small, well-kept gardens, these are the memorials of the civilians, the ‘collateral damage’.
Here, in the small village of Montanel, on Number 27, in the main street, a memorial stone for Pierre Barats, Édouard Goude and Georges Joanas, ‘Morts pour la France, 3 Août 1944’. Deported? Executed? On this spot?
Here, on the exterior wall of the ‘Bar Le Pacific’, on the Rue de la Caserne, in Fougères, a plaque to the memory of Guy Bellis, arrested here, shot in Rennes in June 1944.
Here, in a small park, on the old railway, near Boucey, a small stone to Victor Patin and Jean Genin ‘ Fusillées par l’armée Allemande. 31 Juillet 1944’. Executed here by the railway?
Here, on the War Memorial in Broualan. ‘Aux Resistants, victimes de la Milice. 7 Juillet 1944. Lambert Jean Adjutant, Jean Lebois, Helene Lebois, Joseph Hue, Rene Capitain’. This one is related to the menhir at St. Remy.
These are not major, village, War Memorials, and you cannot avoid the thought that atrocities could have occurred on the very spot upon which you are standing. They are small reminders of huge loss, and there is always the feeling that they may become, like that picture on the dining room wall, that one that’s been there forever, that they may become, virtually invisible in time.
One such, granite, monument stands, in a shaded, wooded, glade, just off the Bazouges-la-Perouse to St. Remy du Plains road in Brittany. It is well signposted. The three metre, granite, obelisk and its surrounding garden, with its neat, tricouleur-coloured gates, is beautifully kept. The lane on which the memorial stands is quiet and, opposite the garden, stands a rundown, wattle and daub, barn. A witness to horror.
On the memorial is the name of George E. Hendrickson.
This area is bristling with history, be it, the Vikings, the Normans, the Hundred Years War, Anne of Brittany, the Revolution or the Second World War. But each has its own peculiar difficulties when researching. Lack of documentary evidence. Documents written in an unfamiliar tongue. Difficulties in finding the location of documents. Similarly, with history that happened a mere seventy years ago, within living memory, there are still difficulties.
The incident began on Thursday 6th.July, in the town of Cuguen, near Combourg. The Mairie had been informed that there was a suspicious car, containing arms, parked outside the farm of M. Marcel Plouyon, at Petit Mesnil. It was decided to investigate the report.
On the way to investigate the car, near the cemetery, the man sent to investigate met two other ‘ people’ who had been sent, and they stood chatting for a while. A man wearing a red scarf passed by them. They were suspicious. He was followed for 50 metres, then turned down a track. The pursuers feared that following further could be dangerous, and went into the house of M. Joseph Costard.
Several minutes later, the car in question drove past, heading towards the village. The number was noted ‘6528GV3’. The men returned to the village but the car had gone. After making enquiries, it seemed that the vehicle was associated with the Resistance, and contained four Maquisards from Savoie. Interestingly, in March 1944, the Milice had instituted an assault on the Maquis in Haute Savoie, Limousin and Brittany, so this could have been a reason for their presence so far from home. Allegedly, they wanted to make contact with comrades, in the neighbouring village of Broualan. The authorities were doubtful that they had come all that way, just to strike a blow for ‘freedom’, but local German sympathisers were put on alert.
In Cuguen, the next day, Friday, 7th. July, at 6a.m. , an armed man was spotted on the road from Bonnemain. At first it appeared that he could be a railway worker, en route to work. With a gun? But, soon men started arriving, in threes and fours, from various directions, and knocking on doors. They were asking questions, in a menacing tone of voice. A witness said that three of these men entered the house where he lived, in the middle of the village. He said that they had the air of bandits. The leader seemed a very ‘shady’ character, with rolled up sleeves, carrying a machine gun, as were his two, more stocky, colleagues. The big one began asking questions.
How many rooms do you have?
Is anyone hiding in your house?
Nobody. Look around if you want.
Where are the 70 men who escaped?
We’ve seen nothing, heard nothing.
Of course! That’s what everyone says. Seventy men pass, without noise, and nobody sees or hears them. You are all the same!
Then they left.
Another group arrested M. Louis Guelet, a cattle merchant, and his assistant, both from Dol de Bretagne, who happened to be crossing town in their wagon. Some people fled, but the Milice who chased them, soon gave up. They, then,arrested Mathurin Baudour and Jean Bourgeault. The four were placed against the wall of the Cafe/Epicerie at 1, Rue des Trois Croix, M. Buffet’s establishment. It is no longer a Bar, just a house, but does command the Place. They were guarded by a Militiaman, with a machine gun. Not far away, in front of M. Buffet’s house, stood the car 6528GV3. The suspicious car.
Shortly after, three large buses, packed with Milice, and some cars, arrived in Cuguen, from the direction of Broualan, and parked on the end of the left turn on the road towardsTrans-Le-Forêt, the main road through Cuguen. Some Milice got out, some stayed to guard the civilians who were in the buses. After a short rest, they put M. Guelet in a bus, freed the other three and set off towards Trans.
The Milice had been set up by the Vichy Government, in January 1943, to strengthen Hitler’s ‘war against terror’, or, more accurately, against the French Resistance. They were commanded by Joseph Darnand, the Vichy Minister of the Interior. It had about 30 000 members. The group that were involved in this action were probably the Bezen Perrot, a Breton Nationalist/Separatist group, named after a priest killed by the ‘communist’resistance. A group who saw the chance of German support for a Breton break from France. They were titled Der Bretonische Waffenverband der SS, by the Germans and were, basically, a unit of the German Security Service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SS). They wore German uniforms, and were based at Colombier Barracks in Rennes.
When they had left, everyone was asking, what had gone on, why this ‘sweep’? In Broualan at midnight and at Cuguen at 6a.m. with differing scales of brutality. Was it because of the mass escape of prisoners, or the suspected arrival of Resistance fighters from Haute Savoie? A sinister rumour started to circulate. There was talk of deaths, woundings and fires, at nearby Broualan, only five kilometres away. It is surprising that the sound of this assault on Broualan was not heard in Cuguen. Then, in the afternoon, an ambulance drove through town, heading towards the hospital at Combourg. Perhaps it was carrying wounded and injured.
The truth eventually came out. A little after midnight that day, the 7th., about 150 Milice, some in German uniforms, armed with revolvers, machine guns and rifles, attacked the Resistance in the area of Broualan. The action lasted several hours. The farms at La Lopiniere were searched and the inhabitants arrested. One of them was an American airman who had been captured, and then escaped, whilst en route to a POW camp in Rennes. He had escaped, perhaps as one of the seventy, and made contact with the Resistance.
The Milice then made their way to the centre of the village. The Place d’Eglise looks exactly the same today, as it did seventy years ago, there’s only my parked car, to put the scene in the twenty first century. It is absolutely timeless.
About 4a.m. Jean Lebois, who had fed the American, before he was moved, was beaten, and killed, along with his sister, Helene. Mme. Bigue, a woman heavily pregnant, was grievously wounded, and died a fortnight later.
Joseph Hue, on leaving his home, was beaten and died several days later.
The ‘bandits’ broke into the home of M. Hubert, the local carpenter, and found, in his workshop, his brother-in-law Adjutant Jean Lambert. Both were beaten. They were put into cars and taken back to La Lopiniere where M.Lenormand and M. Rene Captain were arrested and tortured. The farm of M.Lenormand , and that of Widow Legrand, were looted and burned. It was at La Lopiniere that the unfortunate George Hendrickson was found. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Perhaps this is why no sounds were carried to nearby Cuguen, the victims were beaten, rather than shot. Was this attack so cold-blooded and calculated, to ensure that there was no noise, to raise the alarm in neighbouring communities?
Some Maquis prisoners, M.Lenormand, M. Bigue, M.Lambert, M. Hubert and M. Capitain were bundled into cars, and taken back towards Broualan. It is interesting, that on the War Memorial in Broualan, the names ‘Hubert’ and ‘Lambert’ figure as victims of the First World War, as well. Two patriotic French families. Before arriving in the village, Capitain succumbed to the beating he had received, and was left to die at the roadside. Lambert was also in a poor state.
After a short stop, back at Broualan, they returned to Cuguen, to continue their searches. Eventually they moved off towards Trans. En route, at the farm of Maison Neuve, they arrested another three men. They then set off, by the Forest of Villecartier, and through Bazouges, towards Rennes. It does seem odd that the Milice did not pick the isolated forest as the scene for the execution. There are few houses, the trees provide cover and there would be little traffic. The bodies would be difficult to find. A perfect clandestine execution chamber. So, perhaps, the story of the allied aircraft, near St. Remy, could be true.
The convoy was moving between Bazouges and St.Remy when, perhaps, planes, presumably, Allied, flew overhead. The road is very exposed, one of those ‘hilltop steeple – to hilltop steeple’ type of roads so common in Brittany. There was a general panic, and a feeling that the buses were overloaded. The convoy pulled over. Twenty men were taken off the transports. Some, those who had been tortured the most that morning, could not get out. They remainder trooped across a field of oats, in single file, into the disused Touchasse quarry. The field, today, has been ploughed, ready to be sown with next year’s grain crop. Little has changed here in seventy years. They were interrogated by the Milice, their commander identified as a ‘Monsieur Paul’,and eight men were singled out. One of whom was George Hendrickson. The rest were taken back to the transports. The agonised cries told that the selected men were being tortured. They were made to kneel on the lip of the quarry, and then, there were salvoes of machine-gun fire, their bodies falling into the pit. This was followed by scattered shots, as the ‘coup de grace’ was delivered. The executioners, satisfied with their work, returned to the buses, and the convoy carried on.
That afternoon the remainder of the prisoners were interned, in the Asylum, at St. Meen-Le-Grand. The three men arrested near Trans were released. It was these men, stopping at St. Remy, on their way home, who described what had happened in the quarry.
The full horror came when the bodies were found. The outcry of grief and indignation was huge. Disapproval of the acts of the perpetrators, unanimous. The mutilated corpses were taken to the Girls’School where an identification was carried out by two, female, Milice Liaison Officers. Six bodies were identified as Maurice Couriol, Joseph Lemonnier, René Hucet, Jean Lambert, Amand Pasquet and Michel Renault. One French body was, and still is, unidentified. There’s a sadness in that, he must have been a local man, someone must have missed him. He couldn’t have been another American, could he? The eighth body, was the known,unidentified, American. The American had no ‘ID’ , but carried a white, woman’s, glove embroidered with the name ‘Mary B. Abshire’ and a printed number on his arm,’H-7411′.
The heart-rending scenes, when the families viewed their loved ones’ bodies, can only be imagined. The next day they were interred in the local cemetery. Today only one remains. The others were taken eventually by their families or the American authorities. The monument was raised, in the quarry, in 1945.
The story does not end there. The prisoners retained at St. Meen were continually tortured. Hubert, Bigue, Lenormand and Guelet were made to suffer. They were stood against a wall, with their arms outstretched, a bottle of water in each hand, for six hours. They were forbidden to lower their arms, and, if they did, would be prodded by the bayonet of a Milice guard. They endured countless interrogations and were regularly maltreated. Guelet was eventually released. St. Meen was bombed and the remaining men moved to Ermenonville, then to the Chateau d’Apigne, where they lay, in cellars, on concrete floors, barefoot and in their underwear. They were continuously beaten. Lenormand was released on the 27th. July, Hubert and Bigue on the 1st. August. They arrived back in Broualan on the eve of liberation
The American soldier was not identified until September 2005. The body was of a tall man, with brown hair and blue eyes, and, as described, he carried a single, white, glove embroidered with the name ‘Mary B. Abshire’ and bore a mark on his arm, ‘H-7411’. No trace of Mary B. Abshire was ever found, but the letter was ‘H’ for Hendrickson and ‘7411’ was the last four digit sequence of his service number, ‘1307411’. He was 2nd. Lieutenant George E. Hendrickson, US Army, 505th. Parachute Infantry, 82nd. Airborne Division. The mystery was solved. His body was interred at St. James, and his name added to the St. Remy Memorial, ‘Eleve à la mémoire de huit patriotes tortures et fusillées ici par la Milice. Le 7 Juillet 1944.’ Hendrickson was honoured with the conferring of the word ‘patriot’. The one name which could not be added, was that of the unknown body named, on the memorial only as ‘1 inconnu’.
The Memorial Garden is a stark reminder of the closeness of, what we consider to be ‘history’, but, locally, is folk memory of the most personal kind. The pit, into which the bodies fell, is still there, adjacent to the monument. It is better described as a dell now, a more sylvan adjective. One can’t help but look in, and imagine the chaotic, noisy, pre-bloodbath, scene, nearly seventy years ago. There isn’t the huge visual impact, that can be felt, for example, at the ruined village of Oradour sur Glane, near Limoges. This is simpler. But it’s that simplicity which gives it greater power. There is, definitely, that air which pervades a place where evil has happened. It is strange. Is it because you, actually, know that something has happened there, and it’s that knowledge which effects you? Or is there really an, undying, spirit of evil? Something that never leaves the place, no matter how it changes. A feeling of imminent, and past, dread. The presence of ghosts. But are they the ghosts of the wronged or the unquiet, foul, spirits of the returning Milice, unable to free themselves from the scene of their crime?
I’ve never been to any of the sites of the Holocaust, but reports, invariably, talk about the absence of birds! The overbearing silence. I have been to Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. The, depicted, deeds did not happen there, but the presented imagery, and the constructed horror, give rise to similar feelings. There, though, no-one can fail to be moved by a simple child’s shoe, signifying the number of children who were killed, or the family names on the piles of suitcases, packed by people who could not foresee their destination.
The quarry of St. Remy, Carriere Touchasse, has been reclaimed by Nature. It had been in 1944 as well. They crossed a field of oats, it was July, into the former quarry, pushing through gorse and brambles. It is still a quiet place, (as is the eerie ruin of the village of Oradour). No longer a quarry, but a glade. The lane is quite overgrown, leading only into fields. The Milice must have been local people, who knew where they were going. Knew of the seclusion. The barn, which witnessed this atrocity, is dilapidated, but still there. Imagination places the interrogations in that barn, though witnesses do not. Pain behind that shattered door. Imagination is important in places like this. Silence aids that imagination, these events did not take place in a black and white, silent, Movietone, film, as our memories sometimes depict, they were loud, they were violent and they happened here, in colour, beneath one’s feet.
To drive the route of this murderous convoy, today, is easy, and takes a surprisingly short time. The main sites are all still there to be seen. The Mairie in Cuguen, from where the search for the car began, M Buffet’s cafe still exists as a private house, La Lopiniere, where George Hendrickson was discovered, Maison Neuve and, of course, the quarry.
My knowledge of this story has been gleaned from three main sources, but, out there, must be either actual, contemporary, memories or memories held by the people of the next generation. Is there still a human remembrance of the names on the plaques, in Montanel, Fougeres, Boucey, Broualan and St. Remy? How really difficult, and painful, it must be, to recall murderous events carried out by Frenchman upon Frenchman, or worse, Breton upon Breton. Is there such a thing as selective amnesia?
So, are the facts of events such as this, allowed to disappear into the mists of time, for their memorials to serve the purposes of the survivors, rather than the actual true stories be told? I would be surprised if French, local history enthusiasts hadn’t, already, uncovered a host of information, I just haven’t found it. Yet.