Map data: Google, Digital Globe, IGN France
In June of 1945, Thomas Meehan arrived at Camp Twenty Grand, named after the once-popular American cigarette. One of many so-called "cigarette camps," Twenty Grand served as a staging area for troops entering and leaving Europe.
"There were nine or ten cigarette camps, all centered near the Le Havre area," Tom shares. The camps were named after cigarettes mostly for security reasons, helping to avoid revealing the exact location of the camps should anyone eavesdrop on any radio traffic.
Though only there for a short time, Tom's weeks at Twenty Grand were among his most memorable. More than sixty years later, his grandson Matthew Meehan would buy property in France not forty miles from Twenty Grand's former location.
It would be seven more years, however, before Matt made that connection and began retracing his grandfather's footsteps.
Thomas Meehan was drafted into the United States Army in 1942 as part of its fledgling Air Corps. After two and a half years in flight school, Tom was transferred to the infantry following heavy losses of Allied troops during the Battle of the Bulge.
Tom's convoy left New York City in February of 1945. "We were under fire the whole way," Tom shares. Three weeks later, his unit arrived in France and joined the rest of V Corps in Germany.
"The Nazis were on the run, more or less," Tom reveals. "We ended up right outside of Berlin. Roosevelt said we couldn't go into Berlin, so we went south instead, joined up with Patton and crossed that bridge at Remagen."
From Remagen, Tom's unit traveled east. "That was written up in the history books that that was the coldest ride, and it sure was -- all the way into Czechoslovakia."
In Czechoslovakia Tom's unit encountered the Pilsen Line and were again turned back through an agreement with the Soviet Union. The war in Europe winding down, his unit slowly made its way back towards France. "It was quite an experience: thousands of prisoners and stuff like that," Tom says. "That's what we dealt with. We had to set up little governments in the towns that were overrun, and then we'd move on to the next town. It kept us busy."
After a months long trek throughout Europe, Tom's unit finished their journey at Twenty Grand, near Hénouville, France.
"Before I even lived in France, I had a fascination with it," Matt explains. "And I think that fascination came from listening to stories of France from my grandfather."
Seven years after purchasing property in France, Matt explored some of the local architecture near his residence on the other side of Rouen.
"So here I was, years later, at a monastery sightseeing," Matt says. "At the monastery, they had a placard on the hilltop with a picture of the view labeling what villages we were seeing in the distance."
One landmark in particular tickled the edge of Matt's memory. "I remembered my grandfather mentioning Hénouville, France. So I picked up my phone and called him to see if it rang a bell."
Tom immediately went to work guiding Matt around the area. "He was at the Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville abbey in Duclair, France," Tom says. "I had mentioned Camp Twenty Grand to him before, and he wanted to find it. So I put him on the road right along the Seine river from Duclair to Hénouville, and I got him to the intersection at La Fontaine."
"He said, 'Oh, I'll guide you on Google Earth!'" Matt laughs. "I said, "You'll do what?"
Tom had recently started using a computer and fallen in love with it. He has a Facebook page and is on it daily, and he had begun playing around with Google Earth. "He asked me to jump into my car and see if I could find his camp site with him guiding me," Matt says.
Tom zoomed down to Google's Street View and guided his grandson through a little village past a chateau, sharing stories along the way. "He told me the owners of that chateau were very nice and made the soldiers tea. He'd sit on their back porch by the river."
Soon Matt reached a spot very close to the former location of Camp Twenty Grand. When Tom got him there, there were so many trees, he got lost. Matt returned to the closest intersection and sent a picture from his phone showing his car and where he was parked.
"I was on Google Earth and he was in the same exact place," Tom reveals. "He was just facing the wrong direction. So I turned him around and was able to guide him along the 86 -- which was just around the corner from where he was parked -- to the camp."
Matt walked to the point his grandfather described, snapped a picture and sent it to him. "He was really emotional on the phone. He said the picture I sent him was the exact view he had every morning waking up at Camp Twenty Grand."
"I almost fell out of my chair at the computer!" Tom laughs. "I was really so shocked. When I saw the picture I said, 'Boy you're right on it!'"
Tom then guided his grandson to a row of trees where he had carved his name into them (along with thousands of other soldiers) and searched for his. "We carved our initials in our trees, which got to be a big thing there," Tom explains. "The camp had 20,000 troops who had nothing to do. So they carved their names on the trees. "
"It's this long line of trees," Matt says. "The names are about thirty feet in the air."
"When Matt arrived the trees had grown so high that you could not see the names," Tom shares. "They were right down at the belt level when I carved in my initials and my hometown."
Soon after carving his name into that tree, Tom would depart Twenty Grand to return to the United States. "That was the only time I was in France. I never had the chance to go back." He pauses. "I would have like to have gone back."
A spry 92, Tom is still very active in his house near Atlanta, making it a point to mow his own lawn when he's not updating his Facebook. Though he may not be able to return to France, Matt is determined to include others in his family in his grandfather's legacy. "My father is coming down with me to France this Memorial Day," Matt confides. "I'm going to take my father to retrace my grandfather's footsteps himself and go to the same spot."
For Matt and his family, this journey is one that will be shared for many years to come. "For me to be able to retrace the footsteps of my grandfather, while speaking with my grandfather, that was pretty awesome. And that's a part of our family history that we'll be able to pass down for generations."