THS grad talks about trip to Normandy

Published 5:06 pm Thursday, June 27, 2019

LANETT — Troup High Class of 2019 graduate Evelyn Johnson was the guest speaker at Thursday’s meeting of the West Point Rotary Club.

Johnson talked about a trip of a lifetime to the Normandy region of France and told the story of one of the many silent American heroes who lost their lives 75 years ago in the drive to save western democracy from fascism.

Johnson was one of 14 U.S. high school seniors chosen for inclusion in the June 2018 Albert H. Small Normandy Institute, which was headed up by George Washington University professor C. Thomas Long.

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Each student was asked to pick a soldier from a list of U.S. military personnel, all of whom had died in the Normandy campaign of June 1944. Out of hundreds of names of Georgia soldiers, Johnson chose Pvt. Garnie L. Grizzle, who had died in action on June 13, 1944, near St. Lo, France. His remains lie under one of the white marble crosses in the American cemetery. Though she didn’t know it at the time, she has a family connection to that soldier.

Each student on the trip was allowed to choose one of their high school teachers to accompany them. Johnson picked Troup High ninth grade history teacher Clinton DeMooney.

Each student was asked to research their silent hero’s background, make a presentation about him at the cemetery and to eulogize them while standing at their grave.

In her research, Johnson discovered that Pvt. Grizzle was the sixth of nine children born to Lewis and Rebecca Grizzle near the north Georgia mountain community of Blairsville. He spent his childhood in a place called Cooper’s Creek. There were few roads, no electricity and kids were educated in a one-room school house.

Times were tough in the late 1920s and worsened with the Depression of the 1930s.

“Children dropped out of school to help with the crops, every hand was needed to raise enough to put on the table and put to market,” Johnson wrote. “After dropping out of school, Grizzle was met with another tragedy, his mother Rebecca passed. Then it was up to his father and his siblings that remained in the house without the matriarch to balance the meals between the table and the market.”

In 1942, Grizzle was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the 2nd Division of the 23rd Infantry Regiment. Nicknamed “the Indian Heads,” his division prepared for an invasion of France, first in Northern Ireland and later in England. When it came to combat, the men were rookies but the commanding officers had seen action in World War I.

His unit landed on Omaha Beach the day after D-Day.

“It had not been cleaned up from the day before,” Johnson said.

“They had to go right through that carnage to be the point of the spear on a 20-mile march inland.”

Their assignment was to take Hill 192, about four miles east of St. Lo. This strategic position was held by elite German paratroopers who did not want to give it up. The Nazi defenders were battle-hardened veterans, and the young men confronting them were poorly equipped. Some of them had Springfield rifles dating to World War I. According to one veteran’s account, “We threw those Springfields into a heap when we were given M-1s.”

Pvt. Grizzle was killed as U.S. forces were retreating in defeat. Several weeks later, the 2nd Division of the 23rd Regiment would take that hill. St. Lo would soon fall, German forces would be annihilated in the Falaise Pocket and Paris liberated.

Johnson said it had been a chilling experience to stand on that same hill where Pvt. Grizzle had fallen. It had been uplifting to her to read about her silent hero to the full tour group in the atrium of the American cemetery. Standing by Pvt. Grizzle’s grave and looking at the many white crosses surrounding it in all directions was very moving for her.

“It was a very powerful, emotional thing to experience,” she said.

Dr. Long, the tour director, said that this is something every American should experience.

It’s something that brings home the reality that freedom isn’t free. It’s paid for by the sacrifices of such silent heroes as Pvt. Garnie Grizzle.

Sine returning home, Johnson has produced a documentary of her trip featuring comments by Long and the students who made the trip. She showed that video at the Thursday program. One of its most interesting features is the German cemetery in Normandy. While the Allied cemeteries have white marble crosses and easily seen as final resting places for heroes. It’s not the same at the German cemetery.

“Everything is dark,” Johnson said. “There are no names or dates on the headstones, and you are looking down on the graves. They don’t play taps there.”

The German cemetery is the largest one in Normandy. More than 20,000 soldiers are buried there.

The peak experience for Johnson was when she returned home and found about a family connection she has to Pvt. Grizzle. She was talking about the trip to one of her uncles and happened to mention that her silent hero was a man from north Georgia named Garnie Grizzle. That stunned the uncle, who had heard the name before. His dad, Ira Harkins, had grown up with him and had been his best friend. Amazingly, Ira Harkins is still living. He’s 103 and still remembers his good friend.

“You have got to come up here and talk to us,” the uncle told her.

She made that trip, and had the chance to speak to the elder Harkins, who told him of a strange dream he had that he never forgot. He dreamed that his good friend was in combat, with bullets flying all around. In that dream, he saw his friend being felled by enemy fire.

The dream took place on June 12, 1944, the day before Garnie Grizzle was killed on Hill 192. The family wouldn’t know of it for nine months later.

“I think it was fate,” Johnson said. “I picked him out of hundreds of names. There was no way I knew of this connection. There must be a higher power behind this. That makes the trip more meaningful for me.”

In July, Johnson’s documentary will be shown at the U.S. Army Infantry Museum in Columbus.

“We have to keep a sense of gratitude alive for what this generation did,” she said.

Johnson is attending Mercer University, majoring in history. Her long-term goal is to be a trauma surgeon for the U.S. Air Force or the Coast Guard.