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The big bunker

June 19, 2015

Last night Penny and I watched a PBS special about the Nazi’s Atlantic Wall, the series of fortifications from Northern Norway to Spain. This subject is integral to my exploration of the life of my uncle Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr., Private First Class, Company E, 262nd Regiment, 66th Panther Infantry Division, US Army. Our uncle died in Europe in WW II about 4 years before I was born, yet his life has been a guide for me. I learned from him how to face adversity, such as how to live through Vietnam when all the young men in our country were subject to being drafted into the armed forces. I came of age in 1967. I managed to avoid Vietnam by joining the military and sort of navigating past it.
I had always wondered exactly what happened to my maternal uncle. Bit by bit his life has unfolded for me and I have felt like I have traveled through time. I’ve traveled back before my own birth when my grandparents were old, back to their youth, then ahead when grandma gave birth to Carl at home in Kalispell in 1923. Grandma always mistrusted doctors. She thought they didn’t know anything, and perhaps she was right about some doctors, the ones she encountered at the start of her 80-year life. I don’t know if grandma had a midwife. History travels in circles. Here’s an example:
As a child my parents were members the university faculty at the University of Montana (although it was MSU back then). My father had been hired to teach journalism to the GIs back from World War II in 1946.
My parents had close friends from the university: the Browders, the Dugans, the Fiedlers. One of the Browder kids who was maybe 4 years older than I, Tommy, changed his name to Sebastian in the 1960s. His wife Dolly was the midwife who delivered my grandson Roland in Missoula just 7 years ago. Not quite 7, but almost. Penny and Clara were there from Billings. Not only was Mount Sentinel on fire but at the moment Roland was born a pink rabbit peddled by Todd and Susanna’s house on a bicycle. I don’t know how the rabbit figured in, but history spiraled around from my childhood friends to Roland’s birth.

Golden wedding anniversary in 1957 of Carl T. and Ellen Bonde in Kalispell

Golden wedding anniversary in 1957 of Carl T. and Ellen Bonde in Kalispell

My grandparents, Carl and Ellen Bonde, were old and silver-haired when I first met them as a child. I didn’t even know about their dead son Carl Jr. for a long time. They lived in an ornate old house on the edge of Kalispell and they were friends with some old Norwegians, several whom lived across 5th Avenue when it was a dirt road. The old Norwegians lived across the road from their property. A hayfield was between my grandparents and across the road from the Norwegians. A row of houses are there now, in place of the hayfield. Including my grandparents’ that had been moved somehow, down from the hill, right onto 5th where their mailbox used to be.

My grandparents lived atop a hill on the outskirts of Kalispell.  They had the longest, skinniest garage I have ever seen.

My grandparents lived atop a hill on the outskirts of Kalispell. They had the longest, skinniest garage I have ever seen.

Carl Bonde's army friends who survived the sinking of the troopship SS Leopoldville, and their spouses.  I am the youngster.

Carl Bonde’s army friends who survived the sinking of the troopship SS Leopoldville, and their spouses. I am the youngster.

Anyway, as a child, there was no television, just radios for entertainment. AM radio had National Broadcasting Company news and dramatic stories. Stories that my grandparent’s cat and I used to listen to.
On the edge of town with my grandparents I had no playmates. Just the cat, whenever I could get her to sit still and listen.
The Norwegian friends got their water from water wells. I just exaggerated. Nils got his from a well that he could pump right in his kitchen using a hand pump. I don’t know how the other old timers got their water. Compared to 2015, things looked pretty primitive in 1954, and my uncle Carl had been dead 10 years then. My grandparents eventually got old and died. My mother died from cancer at 64 years old in 1976. The stuff from there is gone, mostly. Probably in antique stores now.
Then about 15 years ago I discovered what had happened to uncle Carl. You see, up to then, nobody in our family knew very much. Just some vague information that he had been declared missing in action, then killed in action in the English Channel near the coast of France.
Here’s what I learned.
The famous D-Day invasion happened June 6, 1944, when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy. My uncle’s army outfit was stateside then, in Alabama, finishing a year of infantry training. By that November, the 66th Army Division was shipped to Dorchester, England, where they were stationed for further training.
The allies had apparently defeated the Nazis. Well, almost. Except Hitler would not give up. Even though some of his minions tried to assassinate him, Hitler ordered a counter-attack in Belgium in the Ardennes Forest on December 16. This was the “Battle of the Bulge.” A week later Carl and the rest of the 66th Division were ordered on December 23 to drop everything. They did. On the barracks floors. Including turkeys and holiday preparations and other food. These were simply abandoned and the troops marched into the night. Well, to a train station some miles away from Camp Piddlehinton, where they had been billeted.
Christmas Eve morning, before dawn, the American troops arrived at the docks of Southampton where they were marched aboard a ship. Actually, there was confusion. Different troops, paratroopers, had been marched aboard ahead of the 66th, and they had to disembark before Carl and his fellow GIs could get aboard. Everyone had been awake, marching and struggling, all night and most felt exhausted.
I know all of this because several books have been written about the SS Leopoldville, the troopship that Carl and his buddies ended up on. I spoke to the author of one of them on the telephone. That was Allan Andrade.
I have also personally visited with several of those men who went aboard the Leopoldville In 2006, at a Company E reunion at Sarasota, Florida, and at Carl’s section leader’s home in Kearney, Nebraska. His name was Bill Moomey.
Doris and Bill Moomey, of Kearney, Nebraska.

Doris and Bill Moomey, of Kearney, Nebraska.

This was a tremendous time-loop for me, spending days on end with people who figured into my life long before I was born.
About three years ago I told my journalism professor, Nathaniel Blumberg, about my quest to learn about my uncle Carl. When I mentioned the S.S. Leopoldville Nathaniel said he remembered when it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, just 5 miles from the French port of Cherbourg.
Nathaniel said he was on the Channel himself, on an LST with his howitzer battery, Charley of 666.
Six years ago P. and our grandson Josiah went to Paris, France, where we took a train to St. Nazaire, a port city where the Nazis had an immense bunker that we explored.
We were lucky to have Josiah because I misread the information at the Gare d’Nord in Paris, where we were supposed to catch the train. I wondered why we seemed to have the train all to ourselves when we had assigned seats. Then the time for departure came and went, so we found the ticket office with an English speaker and were able to obtain a partial refund and new tickets. She told us we could do that just once. Josiah further helped us change trains for St. Nazaire at another city. He did his best with French and he wasn’t yet in high school. He was also diplomatic. “Grandpa, I think we’d better go over here,” he said.
We had hotel reservations at St. Nazaire, and I came up with the best plan on the Saturday when we seemed to be the only ones out and about. Lost.
Because the city had been bombed nearly flat in 1944 by the Allies, who had been unable to damage the submarine bunker (with its concrete roof that was nearly 30 feet thick) the streets and sidewalks were wide for a French town. Also, the buildings were new. As was the beauty parlor where I barged in to speak with a line of women, all of them except one, sitting under hairdryers. I asked, “Ou est L’otel Aquino? We want to go there,” I added in English.
The beautician asked “a pied?” I stared. She made a walking motion with her fingers. “Oui,” I said.
One of the patrons then told me in English to walk back to the train station and get a cab because the hotel was too far away for walking.
What I didn’t know was that St. Nazaire is near a famous beach, where Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was filmed. A beach called La Baule. We saw several people on horseback galloping along the beach when a taxi driver with a GPS took us to the “Grand Blockhaus.” One of the American GIs who served with my uncle Carl told me that he left his army uniform there.

Le Grand Blockhaus
The “Blockhaus” was a German bunker of unusual size, or GBUS, if we were mimicking a scene in “The Princess Bride.”
Incidentally, the taxi driver took us by La Baule, sort of against our will, beautiful as it was. He spoke some English, but he did not understand me when I said that our generation “grew up in the shadow of WW II.” He grew up in the shadow too! He was also born in 1949.
From a distance the bunker was painted to look like a French villa. The reality was quite different. Although it was painted to scale, the entire concrete bunker had hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of concrete. Its 3-meter thick walls had chamfered corners to resist chipping by artillery fire. It had 5 levels, and was more than 100 feet high, perhaps 200 feet wide. Massive, the 21 people who lived and worked within slept below the ground level. Even if the bunker had sustained a direct hit from a huge gun its occupants would survive. The air was cleaned by what looked like a gigantic gas mask canister. The entrance, a massive steel door like one in a bank vault, was guarded by special windows that allowed the occupants to spray machine gun fire.
Best of all, we found Wally Merza’s army uniform on display. Another of Carl’s army buddies, Randy Bradham, was friends with the man who had developed the “Grand Blockhaus” into a museum, and was joyful that Penny, Josiah, and I were there.
Here’s the strange part. After we left the bunker-turned-museum, the three of us walked down to a sandy cove so that we could check out the crustaceans and salty water, rocks and barnacles. At the farthest point I decided I’d look back at a bather, a man who looked lobster-red. I ran the telescopic lens out to its farthest and snapped his picture. Then I enlarged the image another 20 or so times. He was taking a picture of me!

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