Saturday, June 6, 2015

The only D-Day Vet I ever got to meet...

I don't like commenting on days dedicated to remembering great battles or great soldiers. Only because it's THEIR day and I don’t feel worthy of anything except a heartfelt “Thank You.”
But it’s D-Day, (plus 25,915) and I suddenly remembered my only meeting with a D-Day survivor. It’s worth telling. I hope I tell it in a way that doesn’t make it about me. There are people who will do that. People who will retell a story they heard from a veteran as if they themselves had been there. I hate that sort of thing. I’m also not a guy to claim deep abiding friendship with someone I follow on Twitter or Face book. Just because we “Like” each other doesn’t mean we’re actually friends. I wanted that out there too, because I’m not claiming friendship with this man.
In fact…I don’t remember his full name. His first name was Paul, I believe. I met him at a Bible study in Nashville. It was a suburban home in the toney section of town near Lipscomb University He was there to visit his grandson and he was invited to go along to the group. After the meeting, when we were all sort of hanging around and chit chatting, (a group of about 30) Paul was sitting on the stairs, eating a cookie. I walked over and simply pointed to his hat and said “Thank you for your service, sir.” He was wearing a “Scrambled Eggs” cap that said “WWII Veteran” on it.
Having two uncles and a grandfather who served in that war, I asked him what theater he was in. He said “Europe.” I asked him what area he was in and he said “Oh a few…I landed at Normandy and then worked up to Arnhem…”
I paused. I had never met an actual Normandy beach survivor before. Saving Private Ryan had come out the year before and I had that graphic image in my mind. He suddenly took the form of a superhero. Or a god. I asked him if he’d mind telling me about it. He didn’t seem bothered or reluctant; it was simply part of his life. Like asking him what brand his first car was or where did he learn to swim.
“I landed in the second wave of Higgins Boats,” he said. “Half my battalion had already landed and fought their way to the cliffs. We followed behind by about twenty minutes.”
He was rather jovial as he spoke, so far in the story he hadn’t touched upon anything that hurt him. He told me he was seasick and throwing up before they landed. Even before the door dropped, the bullets were bouncing off. They knew the first guys were going to be hit. He was about halfway back in the crowded vessel.
The door dropped and hell unleashed its worst. We’ve seen the movies and heard the stories. I won’t recount them here because it’s not my tale to tell.
He was still not very emotional at this point and telling the story rather matter-of-factly. But then he came to the part that apparently still haunts him. He slowed down a bit and cleared his throat. He told me about the cliffs.
His mission –and that of his battalion- was to scale the great cliffs at Normandy and somehow, some way take out the massive German machine gun nests at the top. They were heavily fortified and deemed almost impenetrable. The Allie plan was simply to thro enough men at them that they would somehow over run them.
Paul was in the second wave.
The first wave was ¾ of the way up by the time he got there. That part had been easy. It was getting near the top that caused the problems. Paul was about half way up himself when the first body fell. The half of his battalion that had arrived earlier had begun to reach the top, and the Germans were picking them off like target practice. He was trying to scale the cliffs on ropes while avoiding the bodies of his fallen fellow soldiers as they hurled past him, missing him by mere inches. It was here that he coughed a little, and cleared his throat. It was here that the slightest tears formed in the corner of his eyes.
This was the hard part. He saw them coming. Sometimes they screamed. Most of the time they were already dead from the gunshots and they were simply falling. He recognized faces. He remembered other, far more pleasant days.
He made the climb and by days end, his group had secured the cliffs. It was on to Arnhem and eventually victory.
But that day…
I can’t imagine. I think it would be obscene of me to try. He was about twenty years old at the time. When I was twenty I was working in a factory, driving a Camaro and my only worry was finding a date for the weekend. His was literally surviving one more day.
I don’t know how a man lives all his life with the images of his friends hurtling past him, either already dead or on their way. I don’t know how he became the jovial, successful, gracious man I met that night. Perhaps the fact that we met at a Bible study and he was a man of faith holds the obvious answer.
Today is June 6. D-Day. If not for men who had sacrificed their youth, and who carried those memories for these 71 years, we’d be in a very different world right now. Battles are large and we see them on a grand scale. But every battle was fought by individual soldiers who fought separate little battles within the large ones. Battles just to survive, and later…to forget. Or at least to accept and move forward.

To those men from D-Day who remain. Thank you. I cannot imagine what you endured. Watching “Saving Private Ryan” doesn’t bring me the slightest bit closer to understanding it. I can only say Thanks.

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