GAYS MILLS - Herbert Franklin Helgerson (we called him Dad) was living in Gays Mills, when he joined the U.S. Army on February 6, 1943. His World War II decorations included the Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal, the European-African Middle Eastern Service Medal with Five Battle Stars, the Distinguished Unit Citation, the Presidential Unit Citation, a Letter of Commendation and Four Overseas Bars. But Dad's most memorable and proudest moment was when his Division helped build the first flotation bridge across the Rhine River in Remagen, Germany.
To honor our Dad, from September 7, 2019 to September 21, six members of the family – including three children and one grandchild -- followed Dad’s route across France, Belgium and Germany. Our journey started in Paris where Dad's unit gathered prior to departing for Omaha beach two weeks after D-Day. We hoped that Dad had walked down some of the same streets of Paris that we walked. As we glimpsed the Eiffel Tower for the first time, we couldn't help but wonder what that farm boy from Gays Mills thought the first time he laid eyes on it.
Our next steps took us to Caen, France, which is home to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery at Normandy. We spent the day between Omaha Beach and the cemetery and toured both museums. It was incredibly emotional and informative. We happened to be at the Normandy cemetery on September 11 and observed the American flags were at half-staff. The guide informed us that the American flags are always at half-staff.
Next stop was Malmedy, Belgium, where Dad fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. Belgium was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its liberation from Germany and American flags were everywhere! If we mentioned to a waiter, hotel worker or store clerk that our Dad fought in the Battle of the Bulge we always received a big "thank you!"
As we drove through the beautiful country side of France and Belgium, we noted that the scenery could have been anywhere in Wisconsin. We wondered aloud if it was comforting to the troops - especially those from the Midwest - to look out their windows and see ‘home.’
The epicenter of our trip to honor Dad: Remagen, Germany, a beautiful city on the Rhine River. After visiting the Peace Museum, we walked to the approximate area where the first bridge across the Rhine was built by Dad's Division - the 291st Engineers Combat Battalion. There is a book and a movie, ‘First Across the Rhine’ about the important battle. Dad is mentioned in the book for coming under fire as he operated his bulldozer to clear the area.
Dad was stationed in various cities in Germany until he shipped out in October 1945. We visited Frankfurt and Heidelberg before spending the last four days in Munich. From Munich, we took day trips to the Munich City Center, Salzburg and Dachau.
As we waited at the Munich Airport for our trip home, we all felt that Dad had walked every step with us during our amazing trip.Patti Helgerson Boller, Mark Boller, Joe Helgerson, Sue Kettner Helgerson, Maureen Helgerson Bauer and son, Jacob Bauer. Our brother, Jim Helgerson (also a veteran) was not able to make this trip, but he was with us every step of the way as we walked Dad’s walk.