Remembering D-Day

The toughest part about crossing the English Channel last night was 1) the air conditioning, and 2) the WiFi – NOT that they were ineffective, but that they were highly effective, and as a result I was either too cold or very distracted. This, in combination with the gentle ocean swells made things challenging at times, but I had promised myself (and my readers) that I would not complain, so every time I was tempted to think I was the least bit uncomfortable, I thought about D-Day.  What would it have been like to cross the channel in one of the boats invading Normandy? What would it have been like for my grandfather, a few weeks later, sailing with French troops? Pondering these questions helped me keep things in perspective.

D-Day was extra fresh in my mind yesterday because it turns out that Portsmouth, England (the location of my previously undisclosed location) has an excellent D-Day Museum, within walking distance of the train station. I couldn’t have planned a better use of my time in port!

D-Day Museum

D-Day Museum, Portsmouth, England

In addition, the museum houses the Overlord Embroidery, which has been dubbed the “modern version of the Bayeux Tapestry.”

Overland Tapestry

Overlord Embroidery, Panel #30, July 1944

The short film was powerful and moving, and the exhibits gave me a real sense of what day to day life must have been like for the Allies gathering in Portsmouth and Southampton. For example, here are some examples of dried goods. I wouldn’t have noticed them, except that I overheard the woman in front of me as she turned to her friend and said, “Dried eggs! I hated dried eggs! Do you remember those?”

Dried Goods

Dried Canned Goods & Wartime Recipes

The folks at the museum were very friendly, and I told them about my Monuments Girl Mission. I also showed them “The Monuments Men” movie shirt I was wearing, gave them my blog address, read aloud from my grandfather’s book “Survival,” and showed pictures from the NYC Film Premiere. I was pretty excited to find a captive audience.

Thinking all about D-Day inspired me to turn to my grandfather’s letters to see if I could figure out where he had shipped from. He didn’t include details, however, because of the censors.  According to the museum docents, it’s very likely that he sailed from Portsmouth since it was the naval base at that time.  Do any of my readers know from which port exactly a Liberty ship would have sailed?

Needless to say, my D-Day envisioning strategy worked, and I made it to St. Malo safely.



Missed the Boat

It was just two days since I had been in Southampton. When I had learned that a telephone call from the office of the American High Command had prepared the way for my arrival, I began to feel that I was part of a highly fluid, well-organized army which could adapt itself to unusual circumstances. This bubble of confidence burst when I learned that the ship on which I was supposed to make the channel crossing had already sailed. The transportation officer was out, but he had left word with his corporal to take me around and allow me to pick out any one of the Liberty ships then in port. Hoping I had made a good choice, I boarded one loaded with French troops from the Italian and African campaigns who had been sent to England for complete equipping with American supplies. I had an idea that I would like to land on French soil with French troops. (J. Rorimer, 3)

Not to worry! Although my grandfather missed the boat to France, I did not… At least not yet, since my ship sails tonight. I am taking an overnight ferry, and my accommodations include a “reclining chair” and a “sleep pack (i.e., pillow and blanket).” I am in for a 12-hour adventure, and I hope that the crossing will be smooth. If it isn’t smooth, however, I certainly won’t be able to complain, since I am traveling in peace time, I am on vacation, and I purposely chose to cross the English Channel by boat. Even the roughest ride cannot compare to the voyage undertaken by the troops bound for Normandy in summer 1944. Knowing this, I am certain that I will be just fine, as long as I make it to the dock on time!

Stay tuned… if I get WiFi on the ferry, I’ll post a picture. I’m wearing my “Monuments Men” movie T-shirt today!!!

Somewhere in England…

Somewhere in England

My grandfather wrote this letter to my grandmother from his initial staging point, “somewhere in England.”  His words describe London and Oxford as his “old stamping grounds,” and it makes me glad to know that in some way, I’ve already begun retracing footsteps, since London has been my home base for the last three weeks.  The day trip I took to Oxford surely counts too.

Tomorrow, I set sail from “somewhere in England.” I will be crossing the English Channel by ferry and landing in St. Malo.  At this point, sailing on a modern ferry is the closest reenactment I can manage.

My grandfather landed in Normandy on August 3, 1944.  I will be landing on July 29, 2014 – just a few days shy of exactly 70 years ago.


The Roberts Commission & Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives

My grandfather begins his book, “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War” with the following words:

Toward the end of 1942, American educators and museum personnel became increasingly alarmed about the fate of the art in the path of the War. William B. Dinsmoor, President of the Archaeological Institute of America, Sumner McKnight Crosby, President of the College Art Association, Francis Henry Taylor, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and David E. Finley, Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, proposed to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States the creation of a governmental commission. With the encouragement of the late President Roosevelt and his Secretaries of State and War, the Department of State announced on August 20th, 1943, the establishment of what was to become the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. It has been generally referred to as the Roberts Commission, as it was under the Chairmanship of the Honorable Owen J. Roberts, then a Justice of the United States Supreme Court (J. Rorimer, ix).

I remember my grandmother, Katherine Serrell Rorimer, or K.K. as I called her, telling me about the Roberts Commission and the MFA & A on one of my visits to her New York City apartment.  She was adamant that I understand what the abbreviation stood for, and I remember how she annunciated each word very clearly, sitting across from me at the dining room table. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, also known as “The Monuments Men,” was the group of allied forces who were directed to preserve monuments and other cultural objects during World War II in France, Germany, and Austria.

My grandfather makes no mention of how he decided to join the MFAA in his book, and I wish I could ask my grandmother now. At that time, they were newleyweds, having just married in 1942.

Matt Damon and George Clooney, gave us a glimpse as to how the conversation might have gone in the 2014 film, “Monuments Men,”playing the real-life characters of James J. Rorimer and George L. Stout, discussing the Roberts Commission over drinks at a bar.

On May 26, 1944, just a few days before D-Day, General Eisenhower issued a letter that became, “the key to all subsequent instructions concerning the preservation of historical monuments and cultural objects in Europe” (J. Rorimer, x).



And here is where my journey begins!

In a few days, I will set sail, crossing the English Channel and landing in Normandy, almost exactly 70 years to date when my grandfather landed on Utah Beach.

French Lessons

My father is a man of many languages. In grammar school, he began learning French in first grade and then added Latin. In high school, he continued French and Latin and added ancient Greek. In college, he studied German, Russian, and a little bit of Farsi.

As a child, instead of counting sheep, my father would put me to bed by reciting the Greek alphabet. Although I could only ever remember “Alpha, Beta, Gamma,” and “Zeta, Eta, Theta,” his love of languages left a lasting impression on me.

When it was time to select a foreign language in middle school, I studied Latin. In high school, I added German, and in college, I became a Russian major. Somehow, I made it all the way through a liberal arts education without ever studying a lick of French. But several months ago all of this changed.

I was reading my grandfather’s account of his experiences in World War II in his book, “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War.” The first two chapters take place in France – first Normandy, then Paris. As I mapped out places of interest, plotting points on a Google map, I was stunned by the fact that I didn’t even know how to pronounce place names. The only logical solution was to begin studying French – immediately!

On Craigslist, I found a fabulous tutor who took great interest in my mission to study French. She even went out and rented the film “Monuments Men” so that we could discuss the topic and create relevant dialogues. Now, after 6 weeks of studying, I can state my purpose for traveling:

C’est la première fois pour moi en France.
Je viens en France à cause de mon grand-père.
Il fait parti de Monuments Men.
Mon grand-père est venu en France à la fin de la deuxième guerre mondiale.
Ils ont retrouvé les oeuvres d’art volés par les Nazis.
Il a été représenté par Matt Damon dans le film The Monuments Men.
Je viens pour retracer les pas de mon grand-père.

While it was my father who inspired me to study Latin, German and Russian, it is my grandfather, a man I never met, who has inspired me to study French!

If you’d like to know the truth about my grandfather’s French skills, check out this interview with my Dad!

‘The Monuments Men’: Son of real-life member of the group shares his thoughts on the movie (Christian Science Monitor)

Welcome to my travel blog!

In exactly one month, I will be embarking on a 2-week mission to retrace the footsteps of my grandfather, Monuments Man, James J. Rorimer.

I was originally inspired to make this journey back in 2009 when Robert M. Edsel published his bestselling book “The Monuments Men.” Inside the front cover there was a map with a detailed route of my grandfather’s path during World War II. Everything was already mapped out! It was a trip begging to be taken! Then, in February 2014, with the release of the major motion picture and a heightened sense of awareness about the importance of this previously untold story, I decided that it was time to begin my own research project, as Monuments Girl!

The purpose of this trip is to learn about my family history and also to gain a deeper understanding of world history and what has been coined as, “the greatest treasure hunt on earth.” It is my hope that seeing and experiencing these places in person will make history come alive.

My primary sources will be Robert Edsel’s book “The Monuments Men,” Lynn Nicholas’ book “The Rape of Europa,” James J. Rorimer’s book “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War,” and wartime letters written by my grandfather.

Come, follow me! Let’s discover this story together!