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News from the Oklahoma National Guard

NEWS | Oct. 27, 2021

Oklahoma National Guard honors fallen WWII Citizen-Soldiers

By Anthony Jones Oklahoma National Guard

Members of the Oklahoma National Guard recently traveled to Epinal, France to learn about the history of the 45th Infantry Division in World War II and to honor the Citizen-Soldiers who gave their lives to liberate Epinal from Nazi occupation more than 70 years ago.

The Oklahomans joined French citizens and 45th Infantry Division veterans in paying homage to the Thunderbirds who died while fighting to liberate Northeastern France in 1944. In honor of the more than 400 Thunderbird Soldiers who laid down their lives to liberate France, a new memorial designed and funded by the 45th Infantry Division Association was dedicated.

"One of the most important things we can do today is remember the sacrifices of the Thunderbirds who gave their all to free France and Europe from oppression," said Maj. Gen. Michael Thompson, adjutant general for Oklahoma. "By walking in their footsteps, today's Soldiers learn about the hardships their predecessors endured. They learn that no matter how terrible the conditions, how hard the fight is, that they protect freedom-loving people around the globe and that those people will be eternally grateful someone stood up and helped them in their darkest hours."

Work on the monument began in 2017 and culminated with a dedication ceremony along the banks of the Mosell River in Epinal, on Sept. 25, 2021. It bears the iconic yellow and red Thunderbird worn by generations of Oklahoma National Guard members and is inscribed in both English and French with the words “Dedicated to the Soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division Thunderbirds who fought on this sacred soil to free those from the clutches of tyranny and in everlasting memory of those who gave their lives in defense of freedom.”

Lt. Col. Shane Riley, deputy commander of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, attended the dedication ceremony and said he was struck by the kindness and gratitude French citizens showed the Oklahoma National Guard members.

“Most everyone in the area recognizes the 45th patch, and the local school children are taught individual stories of the Americans who gave their lives to liberate local villages,” Riley said. “The 1st French Infantry Regiment participated in a commemorative ceremony with the Oklahoma contingent, and both the provincial governor and mayor of Epinal were present to express their gratitude to us as 'descendants of the Thunderbirds'. It was one of the greatest honors of my career to be able to represent the 45th and the lineage of the Thunderbirds there in a place where so many gave so much.”

By the War’s end, the 45th Infantry Division had spent 511 days in combat and nine Thunderbirds were presented with the Medal of Honor for their actions to liberate Europe. However, they were not alone on the battlefields of France. They were joined by many French resistance fighters who bravely continued to fight against German occupation and helped guide and fight alongside the allied forces driving the German army out of France.

The Oklahomans were able to meet one of the few surviving resistance fighters, Marcel Demangen, while visiting Epinal. Demangen was the youngest resistance fighter in his party that fought alongside a company from the 45th’s 180th Infantry Regiment before being encircled and captured by a German regiment. Demangen was the only resistance fighter to escape capture that day.

“He took us to the spot where he linked up with members of the 180th Infantry and told the story of the battle between the 45th and a Nazi SS regiment,” Riley said. “It was amazing to get to stand on the very spot and hear the recounting of the battle from an eye witness some 77 years later. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and one that made us all proud to wear the patch.”

The 45th Infantry Division was one of the most famous combat divisions in Europe. The Division was made up of National Guard units from Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona and first fought in Sicily and Mainland Italy before being chosen for the invasion of Southern France.

After making their fourth amphibious landing of the war, the Thunderbirds fought northward through France and it was at Epinal that they faced off with a fierce Nazi resistance, Riley said.

“The Moselle River was a significant feature of the German defense, and a hard-earned success for the Division,” Riley said. “Hitler threw everything he had at the 45th because the next valley over held the Rhine River and was populated by ethnic Germans. In the minds of the Nazi leadership, this was a last stand to protect their rightful national boundary.”

While in Epinal, the Oklahoma National Guard delegation also visited the Epinal American Cemetery where more than 5,000 American Soldiers who died fighting nearby are laid to rest, including 408 members of the 45th.

“I think it would be near impossible for anyone who has served not to feel a sense of loss, of great respect, and of gratitude standing in the Epinal cemetery,” Riley said. “The countryside there in the foothills of the mountains is beautiful, and the grounds are cared for with meticulous detail.”

Riley said a volunteer group of French citizens place flags and flowers on the graves of their adopted Soldiers on days of remembrance and had prepared the cemetery for the Oklahomans’ visit.

“When we went to the cemetery, that group had placed 408 U.S. flags, one next to each fallen 45th Division Soldier’s grave,” Riley said. “The reverence and care that the French people showed for our fallen was an unbelievable testament to their gratitude and of their intent to pass on the lessons of the war to future generations.”
Video by Staff Sgt. Reece Heck
Oklahoma Guard conducts annual Mechanic of the Year competition
Oklahoma National Guard
Feb. 7, 2024 | 1:36
Oklahoma Army National Guardsmen gathered to test their mechanical skills at the third annual Mechanic of the Year competition held at the Combined Support Maintenance Shop in Norman, Oklahoma, Feb. 7, 2024. (Oklahoma National Guard video by Staff Sgt. Reece Heck)

CG Information:
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Rocky Anderson
President of the Mechanic of the Year Board