American memories in Quartier Mangin

[Quartier Mangin is now the name of the old AFB. Mangin is the name of a celeb French General during WWI.]

On Wednesday, eight  Americans visited the old Couvron base that now had become the Quartier Mangin. A place they knew forty years ago. They were here on September  11, 2002. Simple coincidence for these eight Americans, to be on the military base of Quartier Mangin on this date.

"Their travel had been planned for two years", Bernard Croza, their guide, member of the Laon French-American Association, explains. Of course, they gathered in the church of Mons-en-Laonnois in the afternoon for a time of prayer, but on Wednesday morning the emotion was elsewhere. Each of them had come on the military base like a kind of pilgrim, to discover again a place they had known forty years ago.

From 1952 to 1967, they were living with their parents on the NATO bases in France, Couvron was one of these bases. At this era, the families were either on the base or in Cité Marquette (G.R.H.) in Laon.

It is with the opportunity of an alumni reunion of the Verdun American High School, who was gathering as boarders the children of Americans on French bases, that they found themselves back. Now, they are living in Florida, Massachusetts, Louisiana or Texas. They visited in the base with Michel Delozanne, retired squadron chief, and Daniel Buret, president of the association.

 A page of history

First a little lost because of the changes in the aspect of the base, the overseas visitors quickly found back their marks.

Before touring the base which was their, the group has been welcomed by Colonel Betsch and Commandant Malard who presented them the Honor Room of the 1st Navy Artillery Regiment.

Between battles stories and memories brought back from the four corners of the world, the attention of some of them was on a photo of the "Big Bertha" site in Crepy. "I used to go and play there when I was young" one of them remembers.

The end of the morning has been dedicated to the visit of the base itself. From the control tower to the old chapel, passing by the parachute shop and the hospital, they stopped by all the buildings of the era.

"My brother was born here" Lentz says, whose father was Colonel in Couvron.

"The American presence is an important page of the Laon area history. And this visit perpetuates the French-American friendship", Bernard Croza adds.

Camera in hand, they immortalized their visit in Quartier Mangin before to go back to the Uncle Sam's country.

[Above article was taken from the Newspaper "L'Union" of Laon, September 13th 2002. Translated by Bernard Croza ]

LAON REVISITED     By Craig  Lentz

As you probably know by now, the reunion trip to Verdun by several former students from Verdun American High School went off as planned, in spite of an early hiccup by the pilots' strike at Air France. There were about 50 of us in the group of 90, the rest being spouses and relatives. Many of us had not been back to Verdun for 40 years, so our memories of it were soon to be shaken. 

After Verdun, many of us scattered to return to our old home bases. A few of us returned to Laon, also for the first time in 40 years. Our little group included Fax Koontz, Cathy Wallis, Barbara McDonald-Burt, and Ken Childs. Including spouses, we were a party of eight. Allow me to pass along some thoughts to those who have not yet done the trip. 

Let me first tell you how lucky the Laon returnees were. Quite simply, we had a Bernard Croza. Nobody else did. Ex-students from other bases wound were winging it most of the time, while Bernard had volunteered to arrange a few things for us. Bernard even drove over to Verdun, to give a few people without a car a ride "home." On the way, he had arranged a tour of a great little champagne vintner, in Verzay, a little town east of Reims. We then stopped in Reims, to again visit that beautiful cathedral where French monarchs were crowned for centuries. (My father always said that the Reims cathedral was France, and France was the Reims cathedral.) 

On the drive over, Bernard even put up with Ken and I trying to locate that little roadside cafe where we stopped every Sunday afternoon on the way back to school to have a jambone and a Coke. To our surprise, we actually found it, had lunch--this time with a beer--and took a couple of pictures. Alas, we must report that the hole in the floor in the WC has now been replaced by modern fixtures.

We arrived at Laon late in the afternoon via the new toll road, which certainly made the 130 km trip from Verdun a lot quicker. Bernard had made a reservation for all of us that evening at a nice little restaurant up in the old town, about a block from the cathedral. We arrived at the top of the hill at sunset, just as the late afternoon light was showing off the glory of the Western front of the cathedral. A great photo opportunity that was not passed up. Bernard and his wife, Suzanne, were our guests for dinner, along with a few small gifts.

Perhaps you and others have had the chance to return to Laon since the 60's. Not surprisingly, I found the old town to be much the same. It is hard to significantly change a ancient medieval city in only 40 years. The addition of the light rail system to the top of the plateau was, of course, new. However, if one preferred, they could still take those stairs to the top. The biggest change was in the streets. Narrow and winding still, they appeared to be much more crowded and noisy with the coming of the herd of automobiles. I recall those same streets as being quiet and largely devoid of cars, but well traveled by every type of motorized bike available, from the little Solex to the Vespa. 

The lower town has changed, mostly because it has grown outward. The area on the "backside" of the hill has lots of apartment buildings, and several motel/hotels. The road from the family housing area into town was rather open and lonesome, but now has been built-up almost its entire length. The train station is there, and I thought I recognized that favorite pizza place of ours on the other side of the street down there. 

The next morning the weather was again perfect, and Bernard had arranged with the military (now the 1st Marine Artillery regiment of the French marines) to allow us on the old base. We went immediately to the CO's office, and were received in their Honor Room by their adjutant, Commandant Malard. The regiment itself was in the field on maneuvers. We were joined by Daniel Buret, the current president of the Franco-American Association, and Michel Delozanne. One of them, I believe it was the latter, worked on the base from 1957 to 1967, and was responsible for all the civilian employees. He even recalled some of our last names. 

We next departed by car for a tour of the facility, along with an invitation to take as many photos as we wanted. This is where the visit got a little surreal. There are trees. Lots of them. The runways are now quiet, but the old control tower still stands, and is just down the old tarmac from the new building where we were received. The parachute shed is there, and stands alone, looking a little exposed without any of the

As for the rest of the base, I would say that only about half of the buildings are still standing. The streets and grounds are in great condition, even those large ditches on either side of the road. The old brick headquarters building is painted gray now, and doesn't look the same size it was when I was there, although I know it hasn't shrunk. The base school is still standing, converted into an office building. The old asphalt play yard out back is gone, as is the driveway where the school buses used to pull in. The PX still stands, complete with the bars on many of the windows. The small annex building where our parents bought their stateside scotch, and we bought our model trains, is gone.  The base hospital still stands, and part of it is still used as an infirmary. 

Ken Childs spotted the base laundry where his mother worked for a while, and tried hard to take a good picture of it for her. It is now a stable, and he was glad that the horses cooperated and stood aside. 

I was personally glad to see the gymnasium, and it still looks like it is used. The nice softball field were the base team always played has given way to some tennis courts. Also disappeared is the baseball field and the Little League field. The football field where the Laon Rangers had so much success is now a nice soccer field. 

The long entrance road leading in from the main gate would be familiar to anybody that returned, particularly those several large warehouses on either side of it. It still eventually winds around to the back gate leading to Couvron, which has been permanently closed. The large family trailer park is gone completely, but one can still make out the driveways and streets. 

The original chapel in that small Quonset hut is gone, as are almost all of the enlisted men's barracks, the BOQ, the NCO club, and the officers club. Ditto the base theatre, which was a popular thing to do Sunday afternoon as I recall.

We hung around the front gate for a few photos, including a large sign that showed a nice plan view of the existing buildings. Seems funny to see a plan of Laon AB without anything that looks like a runway. Following in French tradition, military bases are named after the closest town, so Laon AB is now the Quartier Mangin at Couvron.

We departed the front gate, took a right then another left, and were in the middle of Crepy. Aside from several nice new houses leading into town, it looks about the same. We stopped at the new memorial the Association erected in appreciation of the former US military base. It is in the little park where previous memorials have been erected to the local citizens who gave their lives in the two great wars of this past century. Daniel and Michel had even placed the flags of the two countries on the new memorial, and it was a very genuine gesture.

As the noon hour approached, Bernard had one special event left for us. Namely, a visit to his home in Mons-en-Laonnois where the eight of us were hosted by Suzanne and him for a nice long French country midday meal. An aperitif called the Blue Bird (sound familiar?) was followed by a French bread, a casserole, beets and carrots from the garden, and finished off by assorted frommages, a green salad, and chocolate cake. It should also be said that we imbibed a little white and red vin along the way......

Several in the group headed for the train station to catch the late afternoon train to Paris. I dragged my patient wife to more stop---GRH, now officially called Cite Marquette. Anybody that lived there would be thrilled to see it now. Those old cream-colored housing units with red doors and window trim, built two to four to a row, have truly been transformed. After we all left, they must have been sold to a developer of sorts, who increased them in size by adding garages on either end, rooms here and there, and lots of gates and hedges. Family privacy is perhaps the best way to describe the place now. The hedges are 6 feet or higher, and trees have appeared where there were none before. Baseball fields have turned into soccer fields, with the usual collection of kids on them. The streets are clean and well kept, just like the homes. 

In general, it could be said that the old haunts are still there, with a few changes. I was glad to see everything in such good condition, and in the right hands to keep it that way. The many new cars are, no doubt, the result of the continued wealth that has come France's way as part of the European community. While I didn't see, nor smell, the familiar "honey buckets" anymore, I am sure that the sugar beet harvest is better than ever with the switch to chemical fertilizers. The cars are just another indication of the times. When most of us lived there, World War II had been through there a mere 15 years beforehand, and life was often not so easy for a lot of our old local neighbors. Now, another 40 years has passed and Laon is looking great.

Finally, as I said when I started this note, we owe a lot to Bernard and his wife. We are fortunate that we--in particular, among a lot of other old US military communities--are able to bridge the gap of all these years with the help of someone who enjoys seeing us return to our roots in a little rural part of La Belle France.