VERDUN STUDENTS RETURN TO
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
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
First a little lost because of the changes in the
aspect of the base, the overseas visitors quickly found back their
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
[Above article was taken from
the Newspaper "L'Union" of Laon, September 13th 2002. Translated by
Bernard Croza ]
REVISITED By Craig
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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.