The D-Day Experience – Saint-Côme-du-Mont, Normandy, France
Without a doubt one of the best military museums in the Normandy region. If you’re an airborne collector, the D-Day Experience is a must see.
On the evening of 5 June 1944, Lt. Col. Robert Lee “Bull” Wolverton, Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, gathered his men in an orchard adjacent to what is now Exeter airport, and said:
“Men, I am not a religious man and I don’t know your feelings in this matter, but I am going to ask you to pray with me for the success of the mission before us. And while we pray, let us get on our knees and not look down but up with faces raised to the sky so that we can see God and ask his blessing in what we are about to do.
“God almighty, in a few short hours we will be in battle with the enemy. We do not join battle afraid. We do not ask favors or indulgence but ask that, if You will, use us as Your instrument for the right and an aid in returning peace to the world.
“We do not know or seek what our fate will be. We ask only this, that if die we must, that we die as men would die, without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right.
“Oh Lord, protect our loved ones and be near us in the fire ahead and with us now as we pray to you.”
Then, his ‘stick’ of 15 paratroopers boarded a C-47 “Dakota”, nicknamed “Stoy Hora” for the flight to France. The invasion of Normandy had begun. But, within hours of that famous speech, Wolverton (aged 30) was dead. His feet had not even touched French soil. He was killed by ground fire around 00:30 hrs and left suspended by his parachute in an apple tree just north of Saint-Côme-du-Mont.
In 2015, Dead Man’s Corner Museum curators Emmanuel Allain and Michel De Trez, opened the next section of their museum in a large hangar just behind the original Dead Man’s Corner building. Previously called the D-Day Paratrooper Historical Center, the now renamed D-Day Experience encompasses both museums. Co-curator, Belgian collector, historian and owner of D-Day Publishing, Michel De Trez is well known in the collecting fraternity. He is the author of several collector reference books on WW2 US airborne equipment, assisting Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. This second exhibition space reflects those interests and looks at the campaign from the perspective of the US paratroopers.
The D-Day Experience Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Upon entering the museum, visitors are briefed by a 3D hologram of Lt. Col. Wolverton at an airfield in Exeter on the day before the invasion. They then board the “Stoy Hora”, a C-47 Dakota of the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group for the ‘flight’ across the English Channel to Drop Zone D, south of Vierville on the Cotentin (Cherbourg) Peninsula.
C-47, 8Y-S ‘Stoy Hora’ flight simulator that ‘transports’ visitors to the drop zones of the Cotentin Peninsula in the D-Day Experience. Photo: Julian Tennant
General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers from E Co. 502nd PIR, on the afternoon before D-Day. The paratrooper with the number 23 around his neck is Lt Wallace C. Strobel who was the jumpmaster for that aircraft number in the packet. U.S. Army photograph. No. SC 194399
Insignia detail on the jacket of 2nd Lt George N. Wirtanen. 304th Troop Carrier Sqn, 442nd Troop Carrier Group. Photo: Julian Tennant
Sgt. Joseph F. Gorenc from Sheboygen, Wisconsin, the assistant S3 of HQ/3, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division climbing aboard the lead transport aircraft C-47 Dakota 8Y-S “Stoy Hora” of the 440th Troop Carrier Group at RAF Exeter Airfield, Devon, UK on the night of 5/6th June 1944. Sgt. Gorenc was taken prisoner on June 8th at St. Côme-du-Mont and reported as MIA. He escaped from a Prison train on 20 July and he was in action again at ‘Operation Market Garden’. Photo: US Signal Corps.
Thompson sub-machinegun and copy of ‘Yank’ magazine featuring Sgt. Joseph F. Gorenc of HQ/3, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division climbing aboard the lead transport aircraft C-47 Dakota 8Y-S “Stoy Hora” of the 440th Troop Carrier Group at RAF Exeter Airfield, Devon, UK on the night of 5 June 1944. Photo: Julian Tennant
The seven minute ‘flight’ in the “Stoy Hora” is a great introduction to the exhibition space. Whilst, I am more of an ‘old-school’ kind of guy, more interested in examining original artifacts, the ride was a nice entry point which definitely appealed to the missus and the other visitors on board the simulator with us, particularly those with kids. The idea was born out of the Band of Brothers when Spielberg had transformed a real C-47 into a studio-space for the making of the series. The result is a high-tech simulator with 3D window screens, sound and amplified movements as the aircraft departs England for the bumpy ride, avoiding flak as it crosses into France to deposit its passengers into the exhibition space.
Unfortunately in real life, Lt. Colonel Wolverton did not survive his jump, he was killed by ground fire and left suspended by his parachute in an apple tree just north of Saint-Côme-du-Mont. The exhibition, however continues in his voice. He describes the men, their training, fears and (as all paratroopers would know, sense of immortality, giving a very human and somewhat sobering perspective to the exhibits.
Pfc. Jack N. “Hawkeye” Womer. HQ Co. 506 PIR. 101 Abn Div. A member of the ‘Filthy 13’, Jack landed in a swamp near St-Come-du-Mont and after extracting himself would end up fighting with the 501st PIR at Hell’s Corner. Photo: Julian Tennant.
Paratroopers Clarence C. Ware and Charles R. Plaudo from HQ Co. 506 PIR. 101 Abn Div, painting each other’s faces on the afternoon of June 5, 1944. This phot was printed in Stars and Stripes, and helped form the legend of “The Filthy Thirteen. US National Archives Accession Number: 111-SC-193551
Sleeve from the jacket worn by Pfc. Jack N. “Hawkeye” Womer, one of the legendary ‘filthy 13’ of HQ Co. 506 PIR. The sleeve is from the actual jacket he can be seen wearing in Carentan in the photo on the caption panel. He decided to keep the sleeve as a souvenir of his first combat experience. The signalling ‘cricket’ (no.2) also belonged to Womer, whilst the glove (no.3) belonged to another member of the ‘filthy 13, Pfc. John Agnew. Photo: Julian Tennant
An example of the exhibit captions, written in the voice of Lt. Col. Wolverton. This one featuring the Pathfinder brevet of Captain Frank L. Lillyman of I Co., 3rd Bn, 502nd PIR. Lillyman was the first American paratrooper to hit French soil. Photo: Julian Tennant
US Airborne Pathfinder qualification badge. Photo: Julian Tennant
The layout of the museum is superb, captions are bilingual (French/English), making it easy to navigate with good contextualisation of the content. For decades prior to the opening of Dead Man’s Corner Museum and the D-Day Experience, Michel de Trez had been travelling to the USA, interviewing and cultivating relationships with US Airborne veterans. This long-term engagement with the subjects of the museum has resulted in exhibits that are both unique and personal. Visitors can view objects and also discover the identities of the soldiers that used them. Unsurprisingly there are several items attributed to Dick Winters and his ‘Band of Brothers’ of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, but also several other unique pieces such as a leather jacket worn by General Eisenhower, items from Pfc. Jack N. “Hawkeye” Womer, one of the legendary “Filthy 13” and a jacket worn by 1st Lt. Wallace C. Strobel who featured in the famous pre-invasion press photo talking to Ike just prior to boarding the aircraft.
Nose of a Waco CG-4A of the 434th Troop Carrier Group piloted by Lt. Col. Michael C. Murphy as part of a 52 glider flight serial named “Chicago” which carried the only 101st Airborne Division glider troops to enter the battle via glider on the morning of 6 June 1944. Photo: Julian Tennant
Detail of a Waco CG-4A glider that has been stripped of it’s canvas skin to reveal the support struts, control cables and cargo of the glider. Photo: Julian Tennant
US 101st Abn Division paratrooper and C-47 Dakota transport crew member. Photo: Julian Tennant
M42 paratrooper jacket of Maj. Richard D. “Dick” Winters, CO of the 2nd Battalion, 506 PIR. Photo: Julian Tennant
Jacket of Maj. Richard D. “Dick” Winters, CO of the 2nd Battalion, 506 PIR. Photo: Julian Tennant
Display featuring objects belonging to Francis L. Sampson, the 501st PIR’s “Parachuting Padre”. Photo: Julian Tennant
Various uniform and personal items belonging to paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division at the D-Day Experience museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Exhibit detail at the D-Day Experience Museum, Normandy, France. Photo: Julian Tennant
American paratrooper James Flanagan (2nd Platoon, C Co, 1-502nd PIR), among the first to make successful landings on the continent, holds a Nazi flag captured in a village assault. Marmion Farm at Ravenoville, Utah Beach, France. 6 June 1944. Source: US-Army history images
The selection of exhibit material supported by good informative (and at times blunt) explanations makes this a really engaging museum for collectors. If your interest is airborne militaria, I suggest setting aside at least half a day to visit both exhibitions on the site. If you have a car, the museum’s Historical Trail map outlines a 40km circuit featuring 13 key sites in the battle for Carentan and takes about 3 hours to cover. When combined with the time spent at the museum, this is a good one day itinerary for the area. But, regardless, if you are planning to visit Normandy, the D-Day Experience should be high on your agenda, it is, in my opinion, the outstanding museum that I visited on my trip, surpassing even the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which was another ‘must see’ and will be covered in the near future.
2 Vierge de l’Amont
50500 Carentan les Marais
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2 Village de l'Amont, 50500 Carentan les Marais, France
6 thoughts on “The D-Day Experience – Saint-Côme-du-Mont, Normandy, France”
What about the Overlord Museum in St Laurent? DMC and Overlord are the best in Normandy in my opinion. One co run by a Belgian, the other scene built by a Belgian. However mythical places like Ste Mère Eglise and Pegasus Bridge are, I think the museums there are dated and unable to compete in quality with the former two. My humble opinion.
Michel De Trez’s Museum looks amazing. I hope to return there as I was there in 2014.
Michel published a book about and made an action figure of my father, Doc McILvoy, who was the Regimental Surgeon for the 82nd/505th. It was amazing then and seems spectacular now. I have read that it is the best WWII museum in the world.