Dad had the mumps and missed D-Day. At the time, I’m guessing he was disappointed. After all, as the only son in his family (his little brother was born while he was in World War II), and because his father was disabled, he could have had a deferment. But he enlisted anyway, taking with him patriotic fervor, shooting skills honed by hunting since childhood in the foothills of Appalachia, and the sense of invincibility that only the young have.
Now, he looks back and says he knows he would have died on Omaha Beach. That he feels sad for all the men who died, although he feels confident that fighting in World War II to rid the world of Nazism was a just and worthy cause. Dad in Germany, April 1945 As it was, he arrived on Omaha Beach and caught up with his unit a month later, just after it took St. Lo back from the Nazis, and put his skills to use as a BAR-man. BAR stood for Browning Automatic Rifle. The life expectancy of a BAR-man on the front lines was 3 minutes.
But Dad made it through more than a year of intense fighting. I cherish a copy of one of the few photos taken of him during World War II, on his 21st birthday, just before the war ended on the European front. He’s standing next to an ox somewhere near the Elbe River in Germany. Dad looks strong and handsome.
During that year, he fought in the battles for Vire and Brest, France, and on into Germany. He was declared missing in action after it appeared to his commanding officer that he’d been blown up, but later rejoined his unit. Wesley, one of his best friends and assistant gunner--like a brother to him--died next to him in battle. Later, in the battle for Brest, Dad was wounded, only realizing that he’d been hit after he helped another soldier to the medic, and that his side was profusely bleeding from mortar shell shrapnel.
For decades, Dad didn’t talk much about his war experiences. It was only when our daughters asked their grandpa about his experiences because of a school history project that he started opening up. Carefully editing the stories for young granddaughters’ ears. Talking a little more openly with me and my husband.
At the end of September 2011, I had the honor of accompanying Dad on a trip back to France to visit some of the sites he recalled from 69 years ago --Omaha Beach, St. Lo, Vire. We also visited Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial at St. James, France, where Dad’s friend Wesley was buried.
Dad observed places that only bore vague resemblances to his memories, contemplated lost comrades and the passage of time, studied the stone memorials at various sites to the 29th/116th.
When French citizens--some just a little younger than Dad, some younger than me--thanked him for his service (after seeing his Purple Heart hat), he quietly asked me why they were making such a big deal out of meeting him. “I was just one soldier,” he said.
“But think about what you represent,” I replied.
And when a fellow traveler suggested that Omaha Beach should be sacred memorial ground, Dad looked at a young family--a mom, a dad, two toddler-aged children--playing on the peaceful shore, and then said, “No. This is what we fought for. Freedom and peace, so these kids can play.”
In honor of this Veterans’ Day, I say to my Dad--to all veterans--simply this.
NOTE: The original version of this Sanity Check appeared in the Dayton Daily News. Sanity Check: The Collection is available in print, as an e-book, and as an audio-book. Sanity Check: A Collection of Columns