Liberty Trail Ride offers U.S. cyclists glimpses of World War II history

Pedaling up Rue Havin, Ron Rasch told fellow Liberty Trail riders of World War II’s devastation on this Norman town.

Rasch, the deputy foreign policy advisor for U.S. Army Europe, was among more than 60 Americans who took part in the three day ride that began June 1, passing through many towns and villages that withstood the horrors of war during the summer of 1944. Several riders were from the Stuttgart military community.

“This town was flattened during the war by Allied bombers,” Rasch told them, as they rode into the Place du General de Gaulle, to crowds of clapping French people. “And still, they are so grateful for the liberation that it brought them.” Of the 400 cyclists, more than 60 riders were Americans who serve with the U.S. military in Belgium, Germany and Italy.

Routes took the cyclists though the Cotentin Peninsula countryside, beautiful farmlands that were once the scene of brutal fighting. The ride began in Périers, a town that was liberated by 2nd Battalion, 359th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division, on July 27, 1944.

Each day the cyclists rode more than 70 miles, returning to the starting point where riders slept on cots in a local gym or in “gites” (holiday accommodations).

On the first leg, cyclists made their way down the long straight road from Périers to Saint Lo, the very line where in July 1944, U.S. and Allied troops launched Operation Cobra — the breakout from Normandy’s hedgerow country that led to the liberation of Paris.

While at Saint Lo, riders dismounted for a ceremony at a gate in the square, the only remnant of a prison where Germans kept 150 French citizens, some who were resistance fighters. On June 6 and 7, 1944, as U.S. and Allied troops moved inland from the D-Day beaches, Allied bombs destroyed the prison, killing everyone inside.

Officials laid wreaths as somber music played and church bells tolled in the distance. Frenchmen in military berets, some veterans of French conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria, stood with their unit flags. When “La Marseillaise” played, their soft baritone voices sang proudly as the crowd joined in.

Two Army lieutenant colonels, Chris Dillard, 42, of Kentucky, and Jeff Pannaman, 46, of Pennsylvania, were among the Stuttgart contingent. They took the TGV train to Paris from Stuttgart, where they serve with U.S. Africa Command.

Dillard and Pannaman rode bikes across the French capital to catch another train to Carentan. They then rode into Périers. The ride offered more than what the average tourist sees, Dillard said. “It’s an amazing experience,” he said.

The two were about to have even more adventures.

After the conclusion of the Liberty ride, on the return trip through Paris near the Gare de l’est (East Station), Pannaman heard a woman calling after a thief running with a bag in his hands.

Although Pannaman was carrying a 30-pound backpack and had cycled more than 275 miles during the previous three days, the Special Forces officer chased the man down on his bike, tackled him without unhooking from his pedals and held him until the French police arrived.

Modest about his efforts, Pannaman said he just did something when no one else appeared to move. “There was a person in distress, asking for assistance,” Pannaman said. “He was a bad guy. It just happened.”