They were unsung, these local World War II vets, whether they threw themselves at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 – 75 years ago, ended up at Anzio, were at the Argonne, flew the Pacific in a TBM Avenger, served as a navy signalman, or landed at Iwo Jima. In a rural town of 500, it always seemed we were blessed by World War II veterans.
As I got older, these locals seemed two people – the cheerful one I grew up with, worked for, was taught by, and thought I knew – and another, more mysterious person, a boy who grew up too fast, saw too much, and worked not to remember what is hard to un-remember.
On days like D-Day, which unfolded 75 years ago this week, we celebrate the courage, can-do and victory of these unstoppable young men – the ones who lived and ones who did not. They literally saved the world in which we live. Without them, freedoms we take for granted would not exist at all or, at best, would be circumscribed by evil. We owe them everything.
D-Day was an epic battle, American forces numbering 73,000, 34,250 boys headed for Omaha Beach – a five-mile-wide tract of sand overhung by a 150-foot vertical cliff, and 23,250 boys deployed to Utah Beach. To that, add 15,500 airborne troops.
German artillery, mortars and interlocking machine gun fire riddled anything that moved. By the time D-Day was over, 1,465 American boys lay dead on Omaha Beach, another 3,184 wounded, 1,928 missing, 26 missing – but the beachhead belonged to freedom.
Hard-bitten fighting followed, Germans behind hedgerows all the way to Paris, where Americans arrived late August 1944. The Battle of the Bulge still lay ahead, the Argonne, Bastogne and more casualties, but they were in Paris.
Meantime, others were fighting and winning back Italy, some inserted from Sicily, others Naples and Anzio. Eventually, they took Rome on June 4, 1944, then pressed the fight across the Arno River, liberated Florence, worked their way methodically north.
In the Pacific, the US Navy and Marines saw much of the worst, from the Solomon Islands and Okinawa to Iwo Jima. On sea, land and in the air, the human toll required for victory was inordinately high – but Americans won those beachheads for freedom, too.
Then, the boys came home – the ones who survived.
Where I grew up, one local had been a first scout in Italy, saw 344 days of combat, and did not talk about it until 92. He won the Bronze Star. Every Battle north of Naples, he was in. His three brothers fought too – and all came home. One served as our postmaster for 40 years.
Another local saw combat on Omaha Beach, was promoted to captain on the beach when others fell, won the Croix de Gare with a Silver Star for heroism at the Bulge, never spoke about it. I only learned about my English teacher’s past after his death. His brother-in-law won the Distinguished Service Cross in Sicily and died defending his company from a Panzer attack.
Another high school teacher found himself at Iwo Jima, a fact not mentioned until he was in his 90’s. He is crisp, eyesight and mind sharp still, but some sharp places he will not take me, and perhaps that is as it should be. Each of these veterans protected us over there, and again on their return – in easily missed ways.
In this little town, three World War II vets were my bosses, one the TBM Avenger turret gunner, the second that Navy signalman in the Pacific, a third who never spoke of what he did. None talked war.
The turret gunner had napalm scars; you could not miss them. The signalman built houses, you could not make him angry. The third was a farmer and talking was not required. All were mentors, not mentioned the war. Not self-impressed, they just felt no need to go there.
All this said, several of them spoke as they entered their 90s. For this reason, if no other, paying a visit, listening, saying thank you to World War II veterans again, is worth every minute. We are blessed to still have some with us. This D-Day is as good a time as any to have a conversation.
On such days, we try to imagine what those we know saw, did and lived through – something terrifying yet necessary, innately honorable yet horrible, something they had to do, did not want to do, but did anyway – and in many cases, could not communicate to anyone once they got home.
So, for those who risked all on our account, thank you – once again. Thank you cannot be said often enough. D-Day is unique, but also emblematic. High risks attached throughout the war for most combat veterans, and if these boys – and they were boys – had not done what we did, we could not live in the peace we do today. Where I grew up – and across the nation – World War II vets are unsung. Time to remember – on D-Day and beyond.