Oklahoma National Guard Honors Fallen WWII Citizen Soldiers: Epinal France
By Sgt Anthony Jones
Members of the Oklahoma National Guard recently traveled to Epinal, France, to learn about the history of the 45th Infantry Division in World War II and honor the Citizen-Soldiers who gave their lives to liberate Epinal from Nazi occupation more than 70 years ago.
The Oklahomans joined French citizens and 45th Infantry Division veterans in paying homage to the Thunderbirds who died while fighting to liberate Northeastern France in 1944. In honor of the more than 400 Thunderbird Soldiers who laid down their lives to liberate France, a new memorial designed and funded by the 45th Infantry Division Association was dedicated.
“One of the most important things we can do today is remember the sacrifices of the Thunderbirds who gave their all to free France and Europe from oppression,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Thompson, adjutant general for Oklahoma. “By walking in their footsteps, today’s Soldiers learn about the hardships their predecessors endured. They learn that no matter how terrible the conditions, how hard the fight is, that they protect freedom-loving people around the globe and that those people will be eternally grateful someone stood up and helped them in their darkest hours.”
Work on the monument began in 2017 and culminated with a dedication ceremony along the banks of the Mosell River in Epinal on Sept. 25, 2021. It is inscribed in both English and French with the words “Dedicated to the Soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division Thunderbirds who fought on this sacred soil to free those from the clutches of tyranny and in everlasting memory of those who gave their lives in defense of freedom.”
Lt. Col. Shane Riley, deputy commander of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, attended the dedication ceremony and said, “Most everyone in the area recognizes the 45th patch, and the local school children are taught individual stories of the Americans who gave their lives to liberate local villages,” Riley said. “The 1st French Infantry Regiment participated in a commemorative ceremony with the Oklahoma contingent. Both the provincial governor and mayor of Epinal were present to express their gratitude to us as ‘descendants of the Thunderbirds.’ It was one of the greatest honors of my career to be able to represent the 45th and the lineage of the Thunderbirds there in a place where so many gave so much.”
The Oklahomans met one of the few surviving resistance fighters, Marcel Demangen while visiting Epinal. Demangen was the youngest resistance fighter in his party that fought alongside a company from the 45th’s 180th Infantry Regiment before being encircled and captured by a German regiment. Demangen was the only resistance fighter to escape capture that day.
“He took us to the spot where he linked up with members of the 180th Infantry and told the story of the battle between the 45th and a Nazi SS regiment,” Riley said. “It was amazing to get to stand on the very spot and hear the recounting of the battle from an eyewitness some 77 years later. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one that made us all proud to wear the patch.”
After making their fourth amphibious landing of the war, the Thunderbirds fought northward through France, and it was at Epinal, they faced off with a fierce Nazi resistance, Riley said.
“The Moselle River was a significant feature of the German defense and a hard-earned success for the Division,” Riley said. “Hitler threw everything he had at the 45th because the next valley over held the Rhine River and was populated by ethnic Germans. In the minds of the Nazi leadership, this was a last stand to protect their rightful national boundary.”
While in Epinal, the Oklahoma National Guard delegation also visited the Epinal American Cemetery, where more than 5,000 American Soldiers who died fighting nearby are laid to rest, including 408 members of the 45th.