Honoring her grandfather, Bob Hanson, a 95-year-old World War II veteran as he returned to the area he was stationed many years before; honoring the many brave individuals who fell during the war; and watching the many men and women who were honoring the several hundred veterans in Normandy to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of D-Day.
"It's hard to put into words what this experience was like. It was just, amazing," Tanya says.
This wasn't the first time Tanya has visited this region of France to experience a devastating slice of history—she has been once before and it was her grandfather's third visit. Each time is just as emotional as the others.
For this journey, Tanya, joined by her husband, Ray and second cousin, Sion, traced her grandfather's life at war—from being injured in an armored car to being released from a prisoner of war camp. Through the help of a historical organization, the 15th Calvary Historical Brittany Group, Bob was able to pinpoint the exact location of every landmark on his path.
Bob joined the United States Army on September 17, 1941—he was 23 years old. Already in shape from arranged fighting matches, his 160-pound frame was fit for war. He went overseas in March 1943 to serve in the European Theater with the 15th Calvary C-Troop.
On August 5, 1943, the armored car Bob was a gunner for was hit by a shell that burned him from head to toe and instantly killed the driver. How he got out of the car with his life is a miracle, as the car was burning and the ammunition inside was exploding around him. From his recollections, he was spotted by a local boy who took him to his house, 100-yards from where his car had been hit. There, Bob was stabilized until he could travel by horse and buggy to a hospital—15 hours away in St. Malo, a town in occupied France, a trip that is now a 20-minute car ride.
At St. Malo, his body was so badly burned that most of the staff said he wouldn't make it. Bob remembers hearing fighting around him and the American resistance ramping up. The hospital, led by German officers, was evacuated to the Isle of Jersey, the largest of the English Channel Islands and enemy territory. There, Bob remained as a POW until liberation on June 6, 1944—the start of the D-Day invasion. When he left the POW camp, he weighed only 85 pounds.
"He was a fighter, literally," Tanya says. "As a nurse, I think it's the reason he survived this ordeal—he was in good shape."
Bob was also honored on this trip with the French Legion of Honor medal. Tanya explained that when Bob received the medal, he didn't react the way she thought he would. After she hugged him, she asked him if he knew what this medal was for—he shook his head no. When she explained it was the highest medal an individual can get as a non-French citizen, he cried.
"Everywhere we went, people would embrace my grandfather and cry with him," Tanya said. "The war happened there. It affected their families and altered their lives, forever."
As they were viewing the home where the young boy took Bob before traveling to St. Malo Hospital, a woman from across the street inquired as to what they were doing.
When the family explained to the woman that they were retracing a soldier's steps, she started to cry. Tanya explained that the woman's her grandparents and parents had lived in the home, and that it had been destroyed days after Bob was taken from it. She told Tanya that her grandparents rebuilt it.
"She remembered her father throwing feed to their chicken's out of an American soldier's helmet. Her father had passed two years before and she had thrown out a lot of the items. She was convinced the helmet was my grandfathers and was upset that she couldn't give it to him," Tanya said.
Staff Sargent Bob Hanson was honorably discharged from the Army on February 1, 1946. At a healthy 95 years old, he lives alone in Bison, SD, where he was born. This hard working man has been a blacksmith, Deputy Sheriff, gunsmith, miner—you name it, he's probably done it, Tanya said.
He's also an American hero.
Top: Bob Hanson surrounded by his granddaughter, Tanya Arbach, nephew Sion and Tanya's Husband, Ray while attending the 70th Anniversary of D-Day.
Top right: Bob Hanson in 1944.
Middle: Bob Hanson on top of an armored car, much like the one he drove in 1944.
Bottom: Bob Hanson overlooking Omaha Beach. Commonly known as Omaha, the beach was one of the five sectors of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in D-Day invasion of Normandy. The other sectors were Gold, Juno, Sword and Utah Beach.