A D-Day Collection Comes Full Circle
Fresh from his eighteenth birthday, Franz Gockel was one of thousands of German soldiers defending the Atlantic Wall on the watershed morning of 6 June 1944. He served as a machine gunner with the 352nd Infantry Division in Widerstandsnest, or Resistance Nest, number 62. That morning, Gockel was wearing his hobnail boots, the type that accounted for the ominous rhythm of marching German troops heading through the cities of Europe they had already taken or soon would.
Gockel received these boots–now held in our collection–during basic training in Holland in 1943. The hobnails, however, have all been worn off. Gockel was wounded in the hand while retiring from his position on Omaha Beach. He was captured by American forces in Northern France soon after recovering from his wound. As a prisoner of war he aided in offloading supplies in Cherbourg. Upon his release from custody, Gockel walked all the way to his home in Germany in those very boots, wearing down the hobnails in the process. In 2004, he gifted the boots and his soldbuch, or individual pay record, to the Museum. His is one of several oral history accounts from the German perspective in the holdings of the museum’s Research Department.
Patrick J. Hughes
Eight years after Gockel’s donation, the collections staff here at the museum was reminded how small the world really is. We were contacted by the family of Joint Assault Signal Company (JASCO) lineman Patrick J. Hughes, who landed at Colleville-sur-Mer on D-Day. He landed ahead of the main invasion force to lay lines for ship to shore communications. On that day, Hughes came across and picked up a German bible and kept it as a souvenir of his overseas service.
The collecting of German items as souvenirs was common practice for GI’s. The bible that Hughes picked up, however, bears special significance as relates to our collection. The inside cover of the bible reveals handwritten information about the very same Franz Gockel, his military service, and the names of family members and their birth dates and locations, and even pictures of his sweethearts. Nearly seventy years after D-Day, the bible and boots are reunited.
What may have otherwise been viewed as a wartime souvenir representing a faceless and vanquished enemy, now represents the human side of the enemy: an eighteen-year-old boy as scared of the incoming invasion as the American boys headed for the bloodied beach that morning. Hughes’ daughter generously donated the bible and other items from her father’s service to the Museum earlier this year.
This post by Curator Meg Roussel