Sergeant Curtis G. Culin III survived World War II but lost a leg. He became a salesman in New York, married and died in 1963, 1965 or 1981. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and mentioned in a speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961. On the Web, the only recent references are to a plaque in his hometown, Camden, New Jersey, erected in 1987 or 1992.
I looked Culin up after our vacation because he had become part of the story.
Our vacation started out as “a visit to France,” but by the time my husband and I had repeated our plans to several people, we realized our trip was a little unusual. We were not simply visiting France; our vacation had acquired a theme.
We had decided to look into one moment in history: D-Day, June 6, 1944. We weren’t born at that time, but it was an important era for our parents, especially Bob’s father, who fought in France later that year.
Once we recognized that our vacation had a theme, we acted on it deliberately. When a friend recommended a bed and breakfast outside of Caen, site of a major World War II museum, I jumped on it. I read a book about D-Day and my husband reviewed the ones he’d read previously and began another.
As I read, the story of the hedgerows in Normandy, known collectively in French as “le bocage,” became especially compelling, eventually leading me to Sergeant Culin.
For centuries farmers in Normandy used tall, dense rows of bushes and trees to demarcate pieces of land. This was “le bocage.” Seen from the air it looks like a crazy quilt.
In a major mistake of World War II, the Allies failed to anticipate the difficulty of breaking through the hedgerows after landing in Normandy. The hedgerows must have looked benign when spotted from airplanes before the invasion, but they were taller than expected because of deep ditches next to them, more dense than armor, and defended even below ground by centuries-old tangles of rocks and roots.
They were also close together, so that a military unit might have to break through a dozen hedgerows to travel less than a mile.
I imagined how terrifying it must have been to see only as far as the next hedge, behind which any number of enemies could be lurking. How vulnerable the men must have felt.
They turned to tanks, of course, but the hedgerows were too formidable even for them. The tanks failed to break through, and if they were to climb over, they risked exposing their vulnerable underbellies.
As I drove the small roads of Normandy, I studied the hedgerows, noting the variation in the tightness of their weave. Some looked totally impassible. When we got lost and I had to make a U-turn on a narrow French road, I got a good look at one of the ditches. I could see why many lives were lost in the hedgerows.
At a museum, I read that the American military conquered the hedgerows thanks to an invention by Curtis G. Culin III. A few weeks after D-Day, this 29-year-old sergeant in the U.S. Army devised a fork-like pushing mechanism that could be attached to the front of a tank so that it could blast through a hedgerow.
His invention, known as the “rhino,” was quickly installed on many tanks and became a source of American pride, especially since it was built using steel from abandoned German beach obstacles.
Traveling through “le bocage,” I discovered that a themed vacation, at least for me, is about trying to reach a level of sensation that I don’t reach when I consider a topic in a more cursory or more distant manner.
I brought home a series of powerful images, some of which I captured on camera, while others couldn’t be captured at all.
The hedgerows are the best example. One morning, I simply stopped the car and said to Bob I wanted to photograph hedgerows. I look at those photos now and all I see is tall, healthy greenery next to our grey rental car. The sense of them as a menacing obstacle isn’t in my photographs any more than the horror of D-Day is in the gentle waves off the beaches of Normandy.
Back home, I travel the internet trying to find out more about Sergeant Culin, but I encounter conflicting information not only about his life but also about the relative importance of his invention. Two writers even talk about the “myth” of the effectiveness of Culin’s rhino.
History remembers or forgets or disputes someone’s actions, and like so much else, that seems a matter of luck. My trip was designed to learn about history, but history is a difficult beast.
Nevertheless, I will remember what it felt like to be in Normandy and I will remember what I saw — especially the hedgerows.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at email@example.com. Her column appears Sundays.