I held my young son's hand as we listened to the thunderous anti aircraft fire and to the roar of the low flying C-47's, at midnight on a darkened street in the small village of Sainte Mere Eglise. The rusted loudspeakers eerily screaming out their air raid sirens and broadcasting recorded World War II messages indicating that the Allied Forces had begun their long awaited invasion of the Normandy Coast of France. It was the 60th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2004. My two brothers, my wife, son, and I traveled back to Normandy for the 60th anniversary to honor my father and the men who fought so bravely and sacrificed so much for the future of the world. My father was a paratrooper during World War II.
Operation Overlord, the codename for the invasion of the northwestern coast of France, entailed the landing of nine divisions of sea and airborne troops along a swath of 50 miles of heavily defended German coastline. Consisting of Americans, British, Canadian, Polish, and Free French Forces under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, these brave men would gallantly breach Hitler's so called impregnable Atlantic Wall. The spearhead thrust of this great culmination of Allied strength would occur on June 6, 1944, the greatest invasion in history and a day forever remembered to the world as, D-Day.
June 4, 2004
We arrived in St. Mere Eglise in the late afternoon of the 4th of June 2004. The village was crowded with multitudes of tourists, vast numbers of WWII vehicles, military personnel from around the world, reenactors from many different countries, and the honored World War II veterans themselves; many accompanied by their families. It was simply overwhelming! A great sense of excitement filled the air on this historic and momentous occasion. We hooked up with a group of 101st Airborne reenactors, who then proceeded to give us a wild and bumpy ride on their WWII vintage American Jeeps. It felt all too real as we raced down the hedgerow lined and dusty gravel roads near the outskirts of this small and historic village.
We had been invited to a private viewing and the grand opening of historian Michel De Trez's, "The Greatest Generation Memorial Exhibit." Michel accomplished a wonderful airborne tribute in displaying his large and impressive collection of WWII military equipment, uniforms, documents, and war mementos. The museum also portrayed a mock up of a paratrooper, ready at the door of a C-47 for his jump into the darkness. Our friends Forrest Guth (E/506th) , Bob Piper (G/505th) , and many other veterans were busy signing autographs for their admirers. Located just outside the museum there was a military encampment with WWII vehicles, equipment, and manned foxholes with riflemen and machine gunners ready for war.
We had been invited to stay with a most gracious French family, Roger Delarocque, his lovely wife Colette, and their handsome son Jean Baptiste, in the beautiful country setting of Yvetot Bocage just northwest of St. Mere Eglise. The Normandy region of France is in itself a beautiful place to live. The homes and buildings of stone construction and the narrow unhurried streets give you a true sense of traveling back into another, less complicated time. Roger is a part time gendarme in St. Mere Eglise and a reserve in the French Forces. We spent many hours together touring and discussing the historic events that occurred in Normandy some sixty years prior and the terrible costs paid by many for the price of liberation. I asked Roger about his family history during the war and in a recent letter, Roger responds:
About my father and family, it is a long story . . . First of all, I would like to say that I feel very grateful for the US veterans, for they brought us our liberation and freedom.
In 1915, during WWI my grandfather was wounded by the Germans. He was later taken prisoner and spent four years in a stalag in Germany. Many other Frenchmen fought the war as well and many were killed or severely injured.
In 1942, when my father was eighteen years old, he was taken for the STO (Workers for Germany) and put to work in an ammunition factory in Dresden. He escaped and came back to Normandy, crossing Germany and occupied France. He was then hidden by an uncle in Colomby as a farmer for two years without the possibility to see his family in Cherbourg; the German and French police were looking for him all the while. My father joined in helping the US Army after the invasion in June of 1944. He was a member of the French Forces of the Interior and helped the US Army with supplies for six months before he came down with severe pneumonia during the winter of 1944.
1 would also like to mention that there were other members of my family that participated in the resistance from 1940, the Picot family: Jean, Gaston, and Julia. These names are well known at the 'Memorial of Peace' in Caen. They were the sister and brothers of my grandmother. I am quite proud of them because in the local stories their names are often on the frontline for actions against the Germans . . .
I was thinking tonight about your father and Easy Company. I want to say again, how I know what I owe to the veterans and your country for my liberty. You saw in coming here for the 60th that Normandy will never forget the past.
Thank you, America, for our liberation and freedom. Roger Delarocque
The French citizens of Normandy respect and remember the sacrifices Americans and the Allied countries made during this great endeavor and significant time in history we call World War II. It is a wonderful experience to see the reverence with which the people of Normandy treat visitors with military connections. American and Allied flags are boldly displayed on homes and businesses alike and their kindness is quite genuine and overwhelming. In some strange way, I felt a real closeness and connection to Normandy where my father as a young man had walked and fought long before.
June 5, 2004
The La Fiere Bridge and causeway were key strategic factors in the defense of St. Mere Eglise and an important pathway to the invasion beaches, a must hold at all costs for a successful D-Day invasion. We sat on this hallowed causeway in the cool shade of a large tree, while overlooking the green and expansive fields of the drop zone. We were at a location just west of St. Mere Eglise near the Merderet River. A historic and bloody battle took place here by units of the 82nd Airborne. Hundreds of Americans lost their lives defending, eventually seizing, then holding the strategic bridge and its causeway.
The determined and legendary stand made by Dolan's men of the 505th PIR, to repulse advancing German tanks and infantry, will always be remembered in the annals of military history. As well as his call to his men to fight on, "There is no better place to die!" Brave men such as Pathfinder Robert Murphy (A/505th) held the bridge for two hellish days at tremendous casualties until relieved by units of the 325th GIR and 507th PIR. The 325th GIR was designated to spearhead the attack across the La Fiere bridge and causeway. The carnage was horrendous, as German units concentrated heavy mortar, artillery, and machinegun fire on the advancing American troopers. Ultimately, Captain Rae's men of the 507th PIR fought through the maelstrom of death, seizing the west end of the causeway and thus opening a route for the American forces to cut off the Cotentin Peninsula.
As they were long ago, today the fields were not flooded, as we watched a lone C-47 with bright distinctive invasion stripes fly low over the DZ. The paratroopers on board were part of the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team. Several of the troopers on board are friends of mine, Vallejo Police Officers Terry Poyser and Gordon Moore. Terry had carried with him a special letter from the States. A kind and elderly woman named Helen had lost her fiancé on D-Day 60 years past. Her fiancé, Jack Simpson, was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and one of thousands who would perish on that horrific and historic day in Normandy. After Terry's jump at La Fiere, he would place her touching letter, to her long lost love, on the 'Wall of the Missing' at the American Cemetery at St. Laurent sur Mer near Omaha Beach. Terry added, "I felt quite blessed to be able to go to Normandy, to make the jump, and leave the letter for Pvt. Simpson, from his loved one. And for all the veterans I have had the pleasure to call friends, and for the ones I will meet in the future, it is to remember, honor, and to serve. That is why we do what we do."
Just before their honorary jump, Jake McNiece (HQ/506th) of The Filthy Thirteen fame, enjoyed applying the war paint to the faces of the young troopers, then shaving their heads with those intimidating Mohawk haircuts similar to the ones the Filthy Thirteen wore on D-Day. A year prior to Normandy, I had the privilege to meet Jake McNiece and his wartime buddy Andy Rasmussen (HQ/506th) at the 101st Airborne Reunion, held in Reno, Nevada. Andy reminisced to me of his incredible combat experiences while in Normandy and to this day carries a German bullet lodged near his spine!
Over 650 American paratroopers would jump this day at La Fiere. Waves of C-130's and massive C-17 aircrafts filled the sky with rows of bright parachutes, an impressive sight I will always remember! A spectacular air show would follow as French jet aircraft carefully flew their intricate maneuvers over the large and admiring crowds below.
We stopped at the beautiful 507th memorial in Ampreville, a young paratrooper carved out of stone. The monument was a special tribute to the brave men who fought and sacrificed so much in this great parachute regiment and for their heroic stands at Chef Du Pont, La Fiere, and Graines as well. Over 2000 men of the 507th jumped into the battle for Normandy, while just over 700 of them survived to see its final and decisive conclusion.
On our long walk back to our vehicle, I was introduced to the many Norman cows that were scattered over the lush green landscape of Normandy. I thought of my friend Bill True (F/506th) and how he landed near one of these large bovines during the early morning hours of D-Day. I can also confirm that none of these large and curious beasts spoke French! As we walked along the narrow roadways, I noticed that many of the Norman fences were lined across their base with strips of pierced steel matting, the joined segments once used as temporary landing airfields during WWII.
That evening we returned to St. Mere Eglise for the midnight celebrations. Thousands were present to witness this awesome and momentous event. As midnight arrived, the loudspeakers recreated the frightening sounds of war: air raid sirens, deafening explosions, antiaircraft fire, the thunderous roar of C-47's directly overhead. WWII invasion broadcasts followed, then finally a tremendous fireworks show and those glorious bagpipes whaling to the emotional tune of "Amazing Grace." An awesome and incredible event! At that very moment, though, I thought back 60 years into time, and of my father, and of the brave men, and of the hell of war they were about to enter.
June 6, 2004
With the limited time we had in Normandy, we wisely decided to stay away from the massive crowds at the many invasion beaches, but instead to tour as much as possible of Normandy and its WWII historical sites as possible. We first traveled to the village of Picauville for a dedication and memorial service to the men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne and Troop Carrier aircrews who were killed near this spot on D-Day and D plus one. At least three C-47's were shot down by German antiaircraft fire over the dark and deadly skies of Picauville. The paratroopers and aircrews would pay the ultimate sacrifice during their fiery crashes on the surrounding fields of honor. On this cool and bright morning in Normandy, a lone bugler gracefully played Taps. As the beautiful notes drifted across the lost and unseen C-47 crash sites, tears were quietly shed for those gallant American boys of D-Day.
We had the wonderful opportunity to tour a Frenchman's attic that he had turned into his own personal WWII museum. The attic was stuffed full with displayed uniforms and equipment, German and American rifles, machine guns, bazookas, paunzerfausts, helmets, parachutes, knifes, Nazi flags, medical equipment, dog tags, etc. In the Frenchman's garage, there was an American Jeep that had been fully restored to pristine condition. The young Frenchman showed us an American Medic's helmet that was dug up the previous day from the bottom of a dark foxhole; a large bullet hole had ripped glaringly through the back of the hero's helmet! In his backyard, we were shown the nosecone off of a bomber and two large C-47 engines that had been discovered recently in nearby fields. In his shed, the dusty cockpit of a Waco glider rested patiently inside for its next mission. The glider was forgotten and lost to decades of time as hedgerow growth relentlessly consumed its silent and broken wings.
We located General Pratt's monument at LZ "E" near Hiesville. Brigadier General Don F. Pratt, Assistant Division Commander of the 101st Airborne Division, was killed there along with his co-pilot when their Waco CG-4A glider overshot the landing zone and crashed into a tree on D-Day. General Pratt was the first American General to lose his life in the invasion of Normandy. Some unknown patriot had laid a colorful wreath of flowers at the base of General Pratt's monument on this 60th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy.
I took pictures of my son standing near the arched doorway and windows of the Marmion farm complex near Ravenoville. There are pictures of Forrest Guth, Walter Gordon, Floyd Talbert, John Eubanks and Francis Mellet, all men from my father's company, as well as units from the 502nd, displaying some of the first captured German flags there on D-Day. A group of French reenactors had set up camp behind the ancient stone buildings, honoring the brave warriors who had passed this way long before them.
We paid our respects at my father's D-Day Commanding Officer, 1st Lt. Thomas Meehan's monument in the village of Beuzeville au Plain. On June 6, 1944, the C-47 that Meehan and 16 other E-company paratroopers and 5 aircrew men were in was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire during the early hours of the invasion. A watch was retrieved at the crash site 45-years later, its hands remarkably and forever positioned at 01:12. The pilot of Stick #66, 1st Lt. Harold Capelluto is buried at the American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer.
I have done some research into my father's D-Day flight into Normandy and have found that 2nd Lt. Clifford Savercool was the pilot of my father's plane, Stick #69. (The complete USAAF number of the C-47 that flew my father into Normandy is 43-15319.) Richard Winters, the Commanding Officer of Easy-Company after Meehan's tragic death, was riding in plane Stick #67. Lt. Savercool, flying behind Capelluto's plane, witnessed Meehan's plane Stick #66 being hit by heavy flack with costly and devastating results.
In June of 2004, I received an informative e-mail from Bud Berry, who flew as a pilot with Troop Carrier during World War II. Mr. Berry wrote:
I was a pilot in the 91st squadron of the 439th Troop Carrier
Group. The 439th Group (4 Squadrons: 91st, 92nd,
On the Normandy mission I was flying as co-pilot to our squadron CO in the lead ship of the flight carrying E-Company. We carried the tail end of D-company in stick #64 in my plane. We were leading the third flight of the second serial. Stick #66 carrying E-company Headquarters Company was on our left wing and the rest of E-Company were in the other planes in our flight, plus the first ship in the next flight. Sitting in the right seat I could not see stick #66 on our left wing and I did not see him go down. Capelluto, the pilot of stick #66, was a friend of mine with whom I had flown a number of times. He occupied the bed next to mine in our Nissen hut at Upottery. I flew with him on a number of occasions as he was approved in the technique of the glider snatch as was I. My memory is that he wanted to enlist in the Army Air Corps but was too young and they would not take him so he went to Canada and enlisted in the RCAF. When the US entered the war after Pearl Harbor, he transferred to the Army Air Corps and was assigned to Troop Carrier.
Cliff Savercool and I were acquaintances only. He was in the squadron when I arrived in March of 1944 and by chance I never had the opportunity to fly with him. Paul Wachter, who flew overseas with me as my co-pilot, flew as co-pilot with Savercool in Normandy and for sometime thereafter. Savercool, whose first name was Clifford and was affectionately known in the squadron as "The Cool," was flying left wing in our Number 2 (right hand) element. He is now deceased as well as his co-pilot, Paul Wachter.
We spent many hours in the air practicing what we would be doing on D-Day. Just as the troopers were required to make practice jumps, we practiced night formation flying and navigation. Some of these practices were made with the same outfits that we were assigned to carry to Normandy. As a result it became ingrained within each one of us that the big night would be no different from all the practices. That was to be further emphasized in the final briefing that Col. Young gave us just prior to take-off. He said the following: "It's going to be about the same tonight as it was on the last big practice mission, except we'll fly a little different course. But it won't be so monotonous because we'll get to fly over some territory we haven't seen before. There may even be some little yellow lights flashing at us from the ground --- just ignore them --- they're not occults." We were confident that with proper conditions, we could put those troopers on the ground where they were supposed to be.
We knew we would be flying 500-700 feet above the ground with no armor plating and no self-sealing gas tanks but we were not alone, we had those troopers in the back that would be with us most of the way. This was both their lot and ours for this great operation which would be the beginning of the end for Hitler . . .
After the D-Day mission, there was a great feeling of sadness yet optimism as no one in the squadron had seen Capelluto's plane go down and the hope was that he was at an alternate airbase. But no reports were received and after a few days, Group Leadership appointed someone to come and pack up his personal possessions. We were then fully aware that he probably was lost. His grave was later found at a US Cemetery in Normandy and the tragic loss was confirmed . . .
Best regards - Bud Berry
That evening we returned to St. Mere Eglise for dinner with many WWII paratroopers and glidermen. Hanging from the steeple tower of the XIII century church, the replica of a 82nd Airborne Paratrooper named John Steele (F/505th), who on D-Day found himself dangling precariously above the brutal carnage and death below. Inside the ancient cathedral, are the magnificent stained-glass windows portraying Mary and the Christ-child, protected by American airborne paratroopers.
During the festive evening dinner in St. Mere Eglise, we sat with a Howard Huebner, my son's adopted grandfather for the evening, and his lovely wife Betty. Howard fought with C-Company, 3rd Battalion of the 507th PIR, which was attached to the 82nd Airborne for the Normandy campaign. Huebner was one of the brave men who made the epic charge across the La Fiere causeway. In a recent letter Howard reminisced:
The 507th was stationed in Nottingham, England. During the days leading up to D-Day, we would study the intricate sand tables that depicted the Normandy countryside. All the roads, fields, rivers, farmhouses, and villages were accurately displayed, as well as the landing beaches. At night, we slept in the base's large hangers. To stay busy, we played cards and had baseball and football games. Our morale was high and for most of us, we just wanted to get started on our mission to defeat the Germans and win the war in Europe.
While during the flight over the Channel for the invasion of Normandy, we talked, joked, laughed, and sang paratrooper songs. (A Hell of A Way to Die!) Once over the coastline of France, the seriousness and the fireworks began. We could hear the near misses and shrapnel hitting our plane; it was like a hailstorm! When we went over the drop-zone, I could see a plane burning on the ground and we were quite low. Our jumpmaster hollered to the pilot, "get this son-of-a-bitch up" so we could safely make our jump. When the green light came on, we were out the door in a matter of seconds! We must have jumped at about four hundred feet. My chute opened and I quickly hit the ground, cutting my chin open during the process. I landed in an open-field near a farmhouse that the Germans were using as a barracks. As I quickly cut myself out of my chute, I could hear the Germans hollering, "Muck-schnell toot sweet Americans!" as they started up their motorcycles and headed away from us toward the little town of Pouppeville. I landed about 200-feet from a flooded field and if I had landed in the water, I would have drowned because I can't swim!
Before daylight came we ran into a group of 506th and 501st paratroopers. Together we secured the little town of Pouppeville and took many German prisoners. At around noon, an American tank had come up from Utah Beach. We then marched the German prisoners off to Utah Beach, as we picked up our wounded and dead along the way.
We gave our friends the best seat in the house, right on the beach, enclosed in their own barbwire fencing. It was something to look out and see all the equipment coming ashore and the vast number of ships in the water. One German complained about being on the beach as the Germans were still shelling us at the time. He said to me, "We may be killed! " and so I said to him, "You so and so started this years ago and now you're going to get a be bellyful of it!" He was a German officer and I asked him where he learned his English. The German officer replied that he had attended college in New York! I can remember a truck coming up on the beach that was loaded with ammunition. A German 88 shell hit it, resulting in the loudest explosion I ever heard in my life! I stayed on Utah Beach that night and the next morning found and rejoined my unit, C-Company, 507th PIR as we headed for the La Fiere bridge and causeway.
The 505th PIR defended the bridge and causeway for two long and costly days. The big push to take and keep it open for the Americans to cross came as a result of the 325th GIR and the 507th PIR.. Thus the 505th was pulled back and the 325th and the 507th took over. The night before the attack on June 8th , about six of us from the 507th waded across the "swamp" as the French people called it. The fields were completely flooded by the Germans right up to the causeway. The water came up to the level of our chins and at times and I thought we were all going to drown. We finally made it up into German territory only to see what armament they had. We could hear the Germans talking on one side of the hedgerow while we were on the other.
The next morning our company commander Captain Robert Rae received orders from General Gavin the 82nd Airborne Commander, to take the bridge and causeway, after the 325th had suffered horrendous casualties in making the attempt. We had some cover for a few feet, a few knocked-out tanks, and then nothing at all but sure luck and the good Lord with us. It was running, yelling, and firing all the way! When you see your buddies lying there and you can't help them, you just had to push forward! We were trained to kill or be killed and that's what took us across the causeway, our training, guts, and determination! The La Fiere bridge and causeway cost about five hundred American casualties. When I think about the fight at La Fiere, it brings back some bad memories and horrible visions. The cost was terribly high.
During one of the ceremonies that we attended with Mr. Huebner, a kind and grateful citizen of Normandy presented Howard with an American M-3 trench knife. During World War II, as a young Norman boy, he found the lost Airborne knife on a field near his home. Howard was very moved by this gracious gift.
Howard Huebner is also featured in the outstanding movie documentary and touching tribute, D-DAY: Down to Earth - Return of the 507th.
Shirley "Shutters" Hartline was another trooper whom I had the pleasure to meet at the dinner at St. Mere Eglise on the evening of June 6, 2004. Mr. Hartline is a proud member of G-Company, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division for the Normandy campaign. Mr. Hartline recently sent this letter to me of his harrowing experience in Normandy during World War II.
We had been sequestered at Camp Williams, a marshalling area and airfield fifteen miles northeast of Exeter, England. The airfield was called Upottery, taking its name from nearby Devonshire. The days before June 5th were spent doing the usual training, being issued our equipment and rations, which we would need on landing and fighting in Normandy.
June 5th , 1944
We took part in studying maps of our landing-zone area and 'sand table' models. After lunch and toward evening, we watched as the paratroopers loaded up. It took the planes some time to form up after they had taken off. We then went to bed and tried to get some sleep, which was hard to do realizing that the planes that would soon return would be pulling us in the gliders to Normandy.
June 6th , 1944
The paratroopers had been dropped and were meeting stiff resistance. The order was received to commit the 325th GIR. The C-47's returned from their missions to Normandy, were checked over and cleared to tow us in. Many of the men in the regiment would be riding in the CG-4A Waco Gliders. These would carry thirteen-men, or a Jeep and four-man crew and two pilots . . . The other type of glider utilized for Normandy was the much larger glider, the British Horsa. The Horsa was made of plywood, carrying twenty-eight troops and two pilots. My company was assigned to the Horsas.
D + 1 June 7th, 1944
We were awakened at 2:30 AM and were given a quick breakfast. We returned to our tents and hastily secured our equipment and gear, then formed in our platoons and marched to Upottery airfield. Our glider was near the end of the formation, so we knew we would be some of the last to land. We had a pretty good wait, some of the conversation was about riding in 'flying coffins,' 'tow targets,' or ' flack hacks' as the gliders were so often called then.
As the C-47's began warming up, we were ordered to load the glider as everyone was assigned to a particular seat. Our platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Robert Maxwell, had the first seat on the right, just behind the pilots. My seat was the first seat on the left. The portion my seat was attached to was reinforced and could be lowered down to drive the Jeeps in for loading. There was also a wall between the pilots and cargo space.
We were airborne around 6:30 AM and it took some time to get into formation, as we headed towards France. Mostly P-38's and British Spitfires escorted us. The Luftwaffe never made an appearance and we could look down and see ships in every direction for as far as one could see.
After we passed over the Normandy coastline, I awakened Lt. Maxwell and told him that we were over land. Maxwell stood up and was standing in the doorway between the pilots. We flew about five or six miles inland to near Chef du Pont, where our landing zone was located. Little flack was encountered at that time. The larger field we were to land in was found to have been staked with large and deadly posts. This made it necessary for us to land in the smaller fields. Since we were in a glider near the end of the formation, we didn't have much choice of fields for landing.
The glider cut loose and we landed hard, but the field was slightly slanted downhill. The pilot put on full brakes and full flaps, but due to the grass being wet from the morning dew and recent rains, it seemed like we were gaining speed! The pilot was trying to steer the big Horsa glider between two large trees in the hedgerow, but our right wing caught the wing of another glider that had already hit the hedgerow.
Just before landing, I had tightened my seat belt as tight as I could, put the butt of my rifle diagonally across my body toward the front of my glider, hoping this would clear the partition between me and the pilot out of the way. After being violently ejected from what was left of the nose of the big glider upon collision, I was still holding it that way when I came to on the other side of the hedgerow. The pilot lying on the ground nearby was severely injured, but still alive, when I gave him a shot of morphine. The co-pilot and the first eight on the right side of the plane were killed. Lt. Maxwell, who was still standing in the doorway upon landing, was killed instantly by the tremendous impact of the collision.
Only 37 men out of the company of 128 were accounted for. After the landing we were ordered to assemble and passed through Chef-du-Pont but made no contact with the enemy for we had landed in the forward lines of the 4th Division. They had received light resistance on Utah Beach. That evening, we formed a bivouac in an apple orchard for supper.
I was bruised from the landing and probably had a concussion, for my nose started bleeding on the march to the orchard. I had the skin on my left hip broken in a fair size area and went to an Aid station to get it taken care of, but before I could see a medic, we were told to return to our Company. They told us to 'fix bayonets,' for we were to go on a night attack. We searched all night but did not make contact with the Germans.
On June 8th more of the men from the company joined us as we tried to get some rest. At 2300 hours, we were ordered to move out at midnight and move north, closer to Fresville.
On the 9th of June we were ordered to attack at 0400. The Battalion's objective was Le Ham. To get there we had to cross the La Fiere causeway. We were to their left to protect the left flank. We advanced up a hill to a hedgerow. There was a set of steps built to get over the hedgerow and we were ordered to go over them. I was the fourth or fifth man to cross the steps. On the other side, the hill sloped away as we were then exposed to the Germans in the next hedgerow. We turned to our right and ran for the hedgerow. I had only gone ten to fifteen feet when a mortar shell hit on a line between my comrade and me. I must have hit the ground before it had landed, got up and jumped into the crater while the smoke was still rising from it.
I made it to the end of the field, where there was an eight to ten-foot drop. I didn't hesitate to jump. My comrade who was ahead of me said, "How did you get here? I thought that shell got you! " We moved to the next field and advanced only a short way when machinegun fire, mortars and 88's came in on us in concentrated fire. Our company commander, Captain Irvin Bloom, was killed along with many of our comrades.
As I was pinned down by enemy fire, a mortar shell hit the top of a tree I was lying under. Hot shrapnel hit my right leg and foot. I took the sulfa pills supplied to us if hit and bandaged my wounds as we were under heavy barrage for three hours or more. When it finally eased up, I tried to make my way to the rear. I crawled back to the hedgerow until I came to a French farmhouse.
An elderly French couple motioned me into their house, which I didn't know whether any Germans were in or not. They assured me that there weren't any. The Frenchman was minus a leg from World War I and his brother had his hand amputated, also from the war. The elderly woman fixed me an egg with bread and gave me a glass of wine. I was then given a shot glass with a clear liquid in it, which I drank. I had a hard time getting my breath back for this was my first introduction to Calvados!
After dark, two soldiers from the 505th Paratroops helped me back to the field aid station. When I woke up the next morning and looked around; most of the wounded troops there were from my company.
At dusk the night of the 10th of June, we were loaded on six-by-six trucks. There were nine stretchers loaded on the seat level and nine across the sideboards on top. We had just arrived at the landing craft they were to load us on, to be taken to the hospital ship when all of the aides hit the ground! A German plane flew at low altitude along the line of landing crafts being loaded, but none were hit. The medics had given the pilot the name 'Bedcheck Charlie' because the plane made the pass over at the same time every night.
The next morning when we awoke, we found the LST we were on sitting on the sand waiting for the tide to come in. It was an hour or so before we were afloat and they took us out to board a Hospital Ship. We landed at Southampton, England, and were taken by train to the 55th General Hospital, Malvern on the Green, Wells. There were four General Hospitals in this area. When we were well enough, we visited some of our comrades in the other hospitals, one being 1st Sergeant Daniel L. Abner from Kentucky. He was later killed in Holland.
Having recovered, we were returned to the 325th Glider Infantry at Leicester, England to prepare for the next operation, which was the Holland invasion, Operation Market Garden.
The 325th Glider Infantry Regiment was awarded 'The Presidential Unit Citation' for the Normandy campaign. In my company, G-Company, after 31 consecutive days of combat without replacements, only one officer and five enlisted men were left. I thank the good Lord that I returned home alive.
After the wonderful and entertaining dinner at St. Mere Eglise, with WWII veterans, French citizens, and the airborne songs of the 82nd Airborne Choir, we talked with our most gracious friend, Henri-Jean Renaud. Mr. Renaud's father was the mayor of St. Mere Eglise during D-Day, 1944. During the 55th anniversary of D-Day, my two brothers Dan and Tim, had the great opportunity to visit Mr. Renaud at his home in St. Mere Eglise.
As a young French schoolboy on June 6th, 1944, Mr. Renaud recalled the "night of nights" when hundreds of paratroopers descended from the darkened skies onto their ancient village. Mr. Renaud described to my brothers the frightening events of D-Day; of paratroopers hanging lifelessly from the trees around the courtyard of the ancient church, the paratroopers shot dead by German soldiers before they could free themselves from their parachute harnesses. By daybreak, Renaud witnessed the American flag hanging over the city hall as the bitter fighting raged on nearby. There was a great feeling of joy about being liberated from five years of German occupation. The Renaud family have been extremely gracious and supportive of American veterans for the last 60-years.
Years after the war, Mr. Renaud would remember the long-ago C-47 crash site and would dig up and retrieve some of the remnants of this lost plane which was found before the construction of the Hotel Sainte-Mere. In his garden shed, Mr. Renaud showed my two brothers a damaged artifact, a C-47 wingtip of this ill-fated mission, a plane and its heroes sacrificed for freedom's cause.
June 7, 2004
We started off early with a private tour of the most elegant and historic castle, the Chateau de Servigny. Joining us for the day of sightseeing was a lovely American couple, Texans Chuck and Lisa Hodge. Owned by the original family for well over four hundred years, the XVIIth century castle was the site of the surrender of Cherbourg between the American General Lawton "Lightning Joe" Collins, VII Corps commander, and German General von Schlieben. The German general was ordered by Hitler to fight and defend Cherbourg to the last man. The Servigny Treaty was signed at the chateau on June 26, 1944, after 20,000 German soldiers surrendered to the American Army. Seventh Corps casualties were tremendous, though. During the brutal Cherbourg campaign, nearly 9,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing in action, and German losses were far greater.
The historic and elegant Chateau de Servigny is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful locations in all of Normandy! The owner's two large and playful Great-Danes kept us quite entertained as we walked the well-manicured grounds of the large estate, which was ringed by acres of lush green landscape and apple groves. Ancient carriage roads were clearly evident meandering through the distant trees and a remarkable pair of weathered glass greenhouses glistened in the morning sunlight. We were introduced to two American families staying at the historic chateau. They had also made the pilgrimage to Normandy to witness the 60th anniversary, to honor their fathers who had participated in the brutal Normandy campaign.
General Collins revisited Servigny and the Normandy battlefields in 1949, on the fifth anniversary of the D-Day invasion! Accompanying General Collins on that long-ago anniversary were his wife and young daughter.
The crowds in St. Marie du Mont were enormous where we met North Texan Janet Blair. Janet had been formally invited back to Normandy by the French reenactor group 'Union Jeep Vexin' for her World War II contribution. Janet's official escorts were her son Peter and his wife Paula. Janet was one of the famous "Donut Girls" of World War II.
We watched silently as Janet laid a wreath of flowers at the base of the World War I monument in the town's square. Sixty years to the very day, a group of young paratroopers posed for a picture in front of this same monument. They were some of the men from my father's company: Forrest Guth, Francis Mellet, David Morris, Daniel West, Floyd Talbert, and Campbell Smith. This famous photograph now graces the cover of the book Band of Brothers written by Stephen E. Ambrose.
Janet had disembarked from an LST onto Utah Beach on the 12th of August, 1944, as one of the American Red Cross Clubmobile Girls. Her partners and life-long friends on the Clubmobile named 'Dallas' were Diana Marvin and Peggy Bell. They belonged to group "K" which consisted of eight GMC 2.5-ton trucks. They quickly joined Patton's 3rd Army, XII Corps Rear. The recreational workers would play the popular big-band music of Glenn Miller and serve doughnuts, coffee, cigarettes, and other treats to the tired and battle-stressed men of war-torn Europe. Janet would travel with Patton's forces, and on many occasions very near the front lines, throughout France, Belgium, and Germany, finally returning home in October of 1945.
My family was invited to a special ceremony for Janet in the town's city hall, where speeches were made and food and drinks served. During the celebration, Janet quietly asked me if I wanted to know the first phrase she learned in French, taught to her by the young American GI's. After Janet's eloquent pronunciation of the French phrase, I asked her what it meant? She laughed and translated in English for me; "Do you want to go to bed with me?" The "Doughnut Girls" of World War II were undoubtedly some of the most popular women among the American soldiers in the European Theatre of Operations!
Upon arriving back to the states, Janet informed me that she had broken a rib from all the hugging and kissing she had received from the French people of Normandy. But she added, "It was well worth it, an experience of a life-time!"
Here below is Janet's wonderful tribute she so articulately spoke in French and then in English for us at St. Marie du Mont:
We are gathered here today to commemorate D-Day, the day the troops of the free world landed on French soil to liberate peoples who had been held captive by a vile ideology and under a reign of terror for five long years.
To all those who fought here: We thank you.
On June 6, 1944, D-Day, paratroopers from E-Company, 2/506th PIR led by Lt. Richard Winters, took out three German 105mm guns firing onto Utah Beach. Lt. Ronald Speirs along with troopers from D-Company bravely disabled the fourth and last remaining gun at the German battery. Mr. Charles de Vallavielle personally gave us the grand tour of the historic battle site near his home of Brecourt Manor and le Grand Chemin.
We cut across the green pastures to a line of trees to where the large German guns had been carefully concealed from Allied reconnaissance. A horse and its young colt nervously watched us from the distance. Jutting up over the treetops above the near horizon was the tall and domed-shaped church steeple of St. Mere du Mont, one of the main objectives of the 101st Airborne on D-Day. Mr. Vallavielle pointed out the locations where the large German guns had been positioned in long trenches, to fire onto Utah Beach. Also noted was the supposed tree where Carwood Lipton had dangerously perched himself in order to fire at the unsuspecting German troops. (In a recent phone call with Don Malarkey, one of the original E-Company men who helped take out the German guns on D-Day, Don recounted to me that in September 1984, he was the first E-Company member to revisit Brecourt Manor since the war's ending. Don Malarkey was also the only member of Easy to have in his photographic collection two precious wartime photographs of my father.)
As Mr. Vallavielle discussed the sequence of events during D-Day, we walked over to the Brecourt Manor complex, where in a pile of debris lay the rusting remnants of the large German artillery pieces exposed to decades of weathering. From a shed, Mr. Vallavielle produced a rusted 105mm shell casing that his son had dug up near the German batteries just weeks prior to our visit to Normandy. On the rock walls near the Manor's beautiful courtyard were the battle scars left from American mortar rounds that were fired at German infantry units positioned there.
Charles de Vallavielle explained to us in great emotion the story of how his father Michel de Vallavielle was wounded during the action at Brecourt Manor on June 6, 1944. Michel was only twenty-four years of age at the time. The family knew that the long-awaited invasion had finally come to the French people, as hundreds of C-47's roared overhead; distant firefights could be heard throughout the long night.
As paratroopers from Easy Company made their assault on the German battery, Charles's grandfather put the family in a room which had thick stone walls, where he felt all the family would be safe. Later that afternoon as different American units advanced on the Manor, the GI's sprayed machinegun fire through the windows, all the while the Vallavielle family frantically yelling, "Civilians, Frenchmen!" They were ordered by the Americans to come outside and join the German prisoners. One American soldier ordered Michel to walk to a different location in front of the Manor's entrance. As Michel walked away from the group, an American GI shot him in the back! The Vallavielle family was shocked; everyone was "screaming and crying," as young Michel lay severely wounded and bleeding profusely. The Americans, upon realizing their error of mistaken identity, evacuated Michel to a field hospital near Utah Beach. Michel was sent to England on the 10th of June for further medical treatments, not returning to Normandy or his family until February of the following year.
Mr. Vallavielle remarked that his father rarely spoke of the terrible incident that had occurred at Brecourt Manor on D-Day. It was very traumatic for the entire family to deal with. Michel de Vallavielle never held a grudge against the Americans though and as mayor of St. Marie du Mont, Michel established the Utah Beach Museum to honor the veterans of Normandy. Michel de Vallavielle died in 1991. His son Charles then took over the directorship and led the expansion efforts of the museum which thousands visit annually.
Driving to the small Norman village of Vierville, we came upon a large busload of German veterans and tourists, some whom had fought against the Americans in Normandy during World War II. We were at the home of Claude Goudard, who had invited 83-year-old American tank commander George Cox back to the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It was here that Mr. Goudard would reunite the very men who had fought against each other in a life and death struggle near his home in Vierville, Normandy, France.
George Cox landed on Utah Beach just before noon on June 6, 1944. As a Sherman Tank Commander with the 746th Tank Battalion, Cox's primary objective was to protect the 4th Infantry on Utah Beach. Cox's "bargelike" landing craft that carried the five tanks and four jeeps, was hit by a German 88mm artillery shell and was sunk just moments after Cox's Sherman Tank made its way into the dangerous waters of the Normandy beachhead. "We had water within two-inches from the top of the turret, as we towed a Jeep behind us towards the beachhead," recalled Cox.
After spending the night in an apple orchard near Utah Beach, Cox was ordered to help the 101st Airborne Division eliminate pockets of German resistance as they made their way through the dangerous Bocage countryside of Normandy. Cox can remember firing through the gaps in the thick hedgerows at German positions with great offensive and devastating results. With a Sherman tank crew of five and weighing in at 33 tons, the large 75mm gun would devastate German held positions and soldiers, as they would be blown "high into the air." Cox would sadly remark, "War is not a pleasant thing." Cox would utilize the tank's 30 caliber machinegun, "like a chain-saw" to open a hole through the hedgerows before firing a large round from the tank's main gun. This would prevent the shell from prematurely detonating.
Cox's tank rumbled to a stop in front of the Goudard's home just before noon on the 7th of June. The 1st Battalion of the 506th PIR had cleared Vierville earlier that morning, but as the battle advanced on, German troops filtered back around their flanks and repositioned themselves once again in the small village. As the 2nd Battalion of the 506th advanced into Vierville, they now had to deal with harassing fire from German paratroopers and as a result, Cox's tank was called up in support of the airborne units.
Seven-year-old Claude Goudard hid in his family's chicken coup as Cox's tank exchanged fire with German soldiers who were shooting from behind the Goudard's woodpile. Several German soldiers were hiding behind the next hedgerow. When Cox saw the German pointing a Panzerfaust at his tank, it was too late! The first round hit the Sherman tank and took out Cox's periscope, burning his face and eyelids with hot metal fragments buried deep into his scalp, left eye, hands and arms. Partially blinded, he reached down for another periscope as the second round violently shook his tank. The third round killed his gunner and best friend, Arlin Wilson. (Arlin's twin brother, Martin, was also killed in the ETO. Both their bodies were eventually returned to Apple Springs, Texas for burial in 1949.) The fourth and fifth Panzerfaust rounds knocked the remaining men of his tank crew unconscious. With no response from his men and believing all were dead, Cox jumped out of his tank and blindly staggered down the road. An American paratrooper put a rifle to his face and questioned if he was from the smoking tank. Cox replied that he was indeed from the tank, so the paratrooper quickly put him into a ditch for his own safety during the battle for Vierville.
When the fighting succumbed, well over 100 German soldiers were captured or surrendered to the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne. Countless other German soldiers were killed or wounded during the battle. With no stretchers left available and his eyes swollen shut now, Cox hooked his thumb through a medic's belt loop and was walked carefully back to a field hospital on Utah Beach. Sent back to England for medical treatments, Cox would regain his eyesight within a week. And on July 28th, he would once again rejoin his outfit at St. Lo where he was given a new Sherman Tank. George Cox along with the 746th Tank Battalion would eventually fight through France, Belgium (The Battle of the Bulge), and into Germany (via the Remagon Bridge) itself. George thankfully returned home to his wife and young child in November of 1945.
It was an odd feeling to shake the hands of German paratroopers whom at one time fought against George Cox and my father in this same area of Normandy during World War II. I had no idea what they were speaking to me in German, for I don't speak their native tongue, but the tears running down one German's cheek said it all. It was truly an emotional meeting for all of us that day in Vierville, a day of healing and of forgiveness.
While visiting Vierville on June 7th, 2004, I thought about one paratrooper who was killed in this small village on that same date 60 years past. His name was Benjamin J. "Bud" Stoney, part Native American Indian and one time E-Company, 2/506 member. According to Bill "Wild Bill" Guarnere, E/506th, Stoney was transferred from E/506th to HQ/2/506th sometime before D-Day. Guarnere would comment, "Bud was a great trooper and the nicest guy you'd ever meet."
A letter written by a Charlie McCallister, HQ/2/506th (now deceased), to Bill Guarnere in 1990 describes in some detail the tragic death of Benjamin Stoney.
I remember Sgt. Stoney very well and I was with him when he was killed in Normandy. Stoney had been promoted from corporal to sergeant sometime before Normandy, so I remember him as "Sergeant Stoney. " First, let me say that I joined the 506th as a teenager. I had just turned 19 and Stoney was the "older man." He must have been 23 or 24. He was a physical specimen and a handsome fellow. I believe he was part Indian. Anyway, I idolized him. He was an aggressive soldier, but he was soft spoken and was always kind to me. He was known as a truly "nice guy." Stoney was killed at the small village of Vierville. This village is located on the road to Carentan. We were in a column of mostly 2nd Battalion, 506th troopers under the command of Colonel Robert Strayer. The column crossed a "T" intersection where a German machine gun cut the column, and the rear portion of the column could not join the ones up front. The machine gun was positioned very close to the intersection and could shoot anything that tried to cross. There was a stone fence that made a right angle on the corner from which the rear part of the column approached the "T" intersection. Stoney, myself, and a couple of other troopers took cover behind the corner of the fence while we tried to figure out what to do about the Kraut machine gun which was holding everything up. I don't remember Stoney saying anything. He tossed a grenade from the cover of the stone fence in the direction of the gun and then charged the gun with his Thompson sub-machine gun blazing. It didn't work. The German machine gun, as we would now say, "blew him away." We were up against the German 6th Parachute Regiment, which was very battle wise and well disciplined . . .
In a recent phone call with Robert L. Williams, HQ/2/506th, he relates, "Stoney had jumped into Normandy just ahead of me from Stick #48. Stoney was the fourth trooper out the door of our C-47, I was fifth. Stoney took a burst of machine-gun fire in the face at Vierville; he never knew what hit him. The battle lasted for a few hours around his body. We captured 125 German prisoners, 125 dead. The battalion had six wounded, one dead: Sergeant Stoney."
From David K. Webster's Parachute Infantry, he so eloquently writes about Benjamin Stoney: "Stoney was our only casualty (in Vierville), Stoney, the quiet, stocky Indian from S-2. But every village had a Stoney -- or two Stoneys -- or many more, because that is how wars are finally fought and won, not by rich factories and the coddled Air Force, but by the infantry, who take the ground and kill the enemy, and the infantry is Stoneys."
A lunar landscape of deep, gaping craters with strategic and commanding views of both Omaha and Utah beaches best describes this hard-fought-over point of land that prominently extends out into the English Channel. Intensive Allied bombing devastated Point du Hoc before D-Day. This was the Allies' attempt to soften up the big German guns positioned there to guard against an invasion from the sea. World War II veterans slowly walked the meandering trails around the deep wounds, while some rested on a carpet of green grass that now covers this fractured landscape. Many of the large gun emplacements and their underground bunkers lie in ruins, their broken remnants a testament to Hitler's legacy of failed dreams of conquest and world domination.
During the ferry crossing between Portsmouth, England and Cherbourg, France, my two brothers met two very friendly Americans, 17-year-old Wilton and his gracious mother, Marcia Sample. Adventurous and inquisitive souls, they would spend two weeks in Normandy touring the various WWII battlefields. (Even spending a cold and frigid night in their rented car at St. Mere Eglise.) On June 6th, 2004, Wilton would meet the brave Rangers who had scaled the sheer cliffs of Point du Hoc, all while under withering German machinegun fire on D-Day. One Ranger, Len Lommel, would graciously sign Wilton's WWII era map of Normandy. Ranger Lommel would also be given credit for help in finding and destroying the five big German cannons behind Point du Hoc. The big guns were found hidden in an apple orchard. After taking control of Point du Hoc, Rudder's Rangers would tenaciously hold this key position for several days, even after repeated German counter attacks, until finally relieved by American forces. The Rangers would suffer nearly seventy percent causalities in taking and holding the cliffs and German fortifications of Point du Hoc.
At Utah Beach, we met the men of the Return to Normandy Association, comprised of proud members of the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. The Return to Normandy Association was founded in 1993 to reenact the historic paratrooper landings behind German lines for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, which occurred in 1994. That year, forty-one of its members, including Richard Falvey, made the jump. For the 60th anniversary only six members, all now in their eighties, would successfully make the historic reenactment. Falvey remarked, "We jump in Normandy to honor our fallen friends and brothers of World War II."
On June 7th, 2004, six of the RTN association members, Carl Beck (501st PIR), Richard Case (502nd PIR), Bill Coleman (HQ/REGT/506th PIR), Howard Greenberg (541st/11th Airborne Division/Pacific Theater), Tom Morrison (321st Glider F.A. Battalion), and Bill Priest (506th PIR) made the 60th anniversary jump once again near St. Mere Eglise. Falvey did not make the jump due to a dislocated left shoulder that occurred on a qualifying jump a month prior to the Normandy anniversary, however he was physically able to set up the wind indicators on the drop zone for his fellow paratroopers. Richard Mandich (HQ/REGT/506th PIR), President of the Return to Normandy Association, unfortunately could not participate in the anniversary jump.
During the pre-dawn hours of the 6th of June, 1944, radio operator Richard "Red" Falvey, Stick #49, witnessed two C-47's explode over the dark skies of Normandy. Deadly German anti-aircraft fire brought down the two planes with many of the paratroopers and aircrews aboard being killed. Falvey commented about the horrific incident, "Lord, just give me a chance to survive this! I was the second paratrooper out the door of my C-47, right behind Captain Clarence Hester, our battalion S-3." (Clarence Hester was at one time an E/506th Company officer. I attended Clarence Hester's memorial service in January of 2001, meeting Pathfinder Richard Wright and Bill Maynard for the first time, both former members of E/506th.) Falvey and Hester landed hard and some distant miles off target, near the small village of Foucarville. Both men assembled quickly with another trooper from their C-47, Otto Sykes.
A letter dated May 3, 1994 sent by Clarence Hester to Richard Falvey describes some of the incidences that occurred on the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944.
I have enclosed an excerpt from Night Drop. Basically it is accurate, but I had someone else put up the lights when Nixon (Lt. Lewis Nixon, Battalion S-2) did not come back in forty minutes. He left at 2:00 A.M. and came back at 5:00 A.M. By that time, I had given up on him and started to move out.
When Nixon finally returned, he informed me we were moving out towards the beach which would be bombed at 6:00 A.M. So I swore at him and asked him why he took so long. He told me he knocked on the first door and as he spoke fluent French, he was invited in and a bottle of wine was dug up from the floor and he was offered a drink. He told me he took it, as he didn't want to be rude, then they proceeded to finish it and talked!
We had gotten 240 men together by 6:00 A.M. and proceeded down the road towards our objective. As we were such a large body, our progress was slowed by five firefights along the way. The longest delay was caused by the artillery emplacement that Winters with "E" Company took out after getting tanks from the beach.
The 4th Division moved in without any resistance at Utah Beach. So we completed our mission by mass confusion. I hope this will help.
Good luck and have fun in Normandy.
Falvey continues, "The day of our landing in Normandy, we traveled through an area that was devastated by Allied bombing. There were potholes and craters everywhere and not a leaf left on the trees around us; it was a no-man's land! We came across a firing German 88-artillery gun emplacement. We quickly dispatched the German gun-crew, as my buddy Virgil Kimberling quickly dropped a grenade down the 88's barrel, thus knocking the big gun out of commission."
After surviving the brutal Normandy campaign and losing a few close friends during the heavy fighting there, Falvey transferred from his communications platoon to join a newly formed bazooka platoon for the Holland mission. Falvey witnessed the Germans blow the bridge over the Wilhelmina canal to "smithereens" at Son, and shortly after, helped with the liberation of Eindhoven from German occupation. After the stalemate in Holland, Falvey went on to defend Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Falvey was wounded at Bastogne, was treated at an aid station, and then sent back to the front lines. Falvey then accompanied the 101st Airborne Division through Germany, ending up at Hitler's Eagles Nest at Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, Germany. Falvey concluded, "I am a very lucky man to have survived the war. Not a day goes by that I don't think about the men who never made it home."
Beginning in late October through December of 1945, before being discharged from military service, Falvey toured the United States in Hitler's black parade sedan and Goering's "Blue Goose" vehicles during the last "Victory Loan" bond drive. The rare and unique Mercedes-Benzes were "liberated" by the 101st Airborne at Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, Germany, the location of Hitler's Eagles Nest. Falvey commented, "We had a great time touring the country in these vehicles. Thousands of people would come out to see Hitler and Goering's armor-plated and bulletproof windowed cars. We were even able to get Hitler's car up to over 100 miles-per-hour!"
We continued to follow the World War II path of my father's battalion in Normandy. We visited battle sites with unique wartime names such as Dead Man's Corner, the Carentan Causeway, Cabbage Patch, and Bloody Gulch. Brutal fighting at these historic sites would take a tremendous toll on the American troopers who had fought there. Only the lucky ones would survive to see the wars ultimate and decisive conclusion.
June 8th 2004
No words can accurately describe one's emotions while standing among 10,000 white crosses and Stars of David. No other location in Normandy moved me so much; it's impossible to hold back the tears. We walked between the long and straight rows of crosses, reading the endless number of names of our fallen sons and heroes. Most were just boys from every corner of our great nation. Many had died on D-Day, many more were killed months later as the bitter fight continued on towards Hitler's Germany. But all were laid to rest together on these hallowed grounds, brothers for eternity under the green and peaceful fields of Normandy.
I happened to notice some World War II veterans, bent and gray with age, as they stood along the cliff's edge staring down onto Omaha Beach and the calm blue Channel below them. Their eyes glazed over, their thoughts lost to a time 60-years past. What visions were burned in their memories: the raw carnage of combat, faces of friends from a lifetime ago, their futures denied? Many of the veterans had their loving and supportive families with them. Some were just holding on to each other, some were hugging, some were weeping. This was hard to witness, but it became a moment in my life that I will always cherish and will never forget.
Omaha Beach was a slaughter. German guns had been sited to cover every section of the beachhead, resulting in nearly 2,200 American casualties. Below the high cliffs, I met many Americans down on the sands of "Bloody Omaha." A young U.S. serviceman collected a sample of the sacred sand. As we briefly met and talked, he related to me that his father was a pilot with Troop Carrier, who had flown the paratroopers into Normandy on D-Day. I replied to him that possibly his father flew my father into combat. He was there to learn more about his father's war, as was I. We smiled at each other and shook hands, and then he walked back up the long and windy trail to the top of the windswept bluffs.
It was a long walk out to the water's edge, a long run for the men on that longest day. I noticed that someone had carefully carved the word "Remember" in the soft sands of this vast beach. Will we always remember our fallen heroes who gave their last full measure of devotion and their first brave step to victory? I hope so. Yes, the boys of Normandy would change the world forever.
The tide rises quickly here at Omaha Beach. Near its cool-water's edge, I wrote my father's name in its golden sands. I stood silently and watched as the tide quickly washed it away.
I recently attended a memorial service for a World War II veteran and personal friend of mine, Gerald "Gerry" Cataline. Gerry made several missions towing gliders to Normandy on D-Day as a crew chief with the 83rd Squadron, 437th Troop Carrier Group, 9th USAAF Shortly after the service, Gerry's son Terry sent this insightful letter to me in regards to a Civil War story that I had sent to him earlier.
I got up today recalling that my dad's service was only one week ago today; it seems like a long time . . . But thinking of the story you sent today, it reminds me of the very short story of his that I mentioned at his burial. I don't know if he ever mentioned it to you, but around the last Veterans Day, he told me how he used to go to his hometown (Port Huron, Michigan) Veterans Day parade when he was a kid, watching the small group of Civil War veterans march slowly by. And then year after year, the number of them got smaller until one year, there was only one Civil War vet left. The next year, there were none left.
It was on his mind that the World War II vets are slipping away, but of course he would never speak of that . . .
Our World War II veterans are indeed slipping away from us now at a tremendous rate. Within a short number of years, Normandy will see its last veteran walk those long ago battlefields of his youth. And soon all the veterans will be gone and their stories left to history. But neither Normandy nor I will ever forget the past deeds and sacrifices of these great men and heroes of World War II.
D-Day, June 6, 1944, was the world's great victory of nations united to end a brutal legacy of Nazi tyranny. I am so grateful and honored to have participated in the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the last great gathering of World War II veterans in Normandy. I will never forget the veterans that I had the privilege and honor to meet in Normandy, the true graciousness of the French people, nor the unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience of the 60th anniversary of D-Day.