Monday, June 13, 2005

D-Day Plus 7 ... 61 Years Ago ...

He had just landed. In fact, he came ashore on Omaha Beach on 11 June 1944. He had the measles on D-Day. So, his landing on northern coast of France was delayed a bit.

He was one of the people I wanted to see this weekend, when for the first time in about 30 years, I went back to the family reunion ... a place of good memories from my youth. He used to cook the barbecue at these events, but he has since given up those duties. My grandmother (his older sister) passed away nearly two years ago, and her passing set me on a course to reconnecting with my family roots. I meant to go last year, but couldn't make it. This year, I'm glad I did.

He is a bit more frail now than he was as a 26-year-old staff sergeant. He has had some serious health struggles of late; in fact, he wasn't able to come to Houston see my grandmother as she battled heart disease two years ago.

But yesterday ... there was my great-uncle, with a walker, a big cowboy hat, and a bigger smile. He was messing with every one within earshot. He said I've "put on a little weight since he saw me last". He's right. I was about 12 then.

The family reunion was held in VFW Post #4006, in Navasota, Texas. As a life member of that post, my great-uncle enabled us to reserve the hall. He is one of the few surviving WWII members of Post #4006.

I went over and started picking his brain about his time in WWII. I had heard bits and pieces, but never from the man himself. He talked as a wise sage who says much less than he really saw and knows. He said he helped form a company from a group of soldiers who had spent time in the stockade; they were unruly, but they were tough and salty. He and these renegades arrived on Omaha Beach on D-Day + 5. The walked a full day or so ... and then for the next two months he encountered German soldiers on a near-daily basis as the Americans fought to liberate France, but mainly they just fought for their lives.

Many have not heard of the "Battle of the Hedgerows" in Northern France. It was a difficult and bloody stretch in the most difficult and bloody drive to liberate France. My great-uncle said he changed clothes once in a couple of months. He and his men pressed the attack while routinely facing desperate Nazis unleashing relentless machine gun and artillery fire. They spent weeks on end face-to-face with the enemy. In fact, they were often close enough to hear the enemy talking and screaming. But the Germans did much more than talk: "I didn't mind the machine guns so much," he said. "But the artillery ... it would come down and just scare you to death, but you couldn't move."

The big German guns rained down on 4 August 1944 near St. Lo, a town about 30 miles inland from the beaches of Normandy. The shelling was the most intense encountered thus far. His captain was decapitated by an artillery shell. My great-uncle himself then became a casualty as shrapnel from a shell ripped through his shoulder. He suffered a great loss of blood, and medics pleaded with him to hold on while he was taken to a field hospital, where he ended up spending three days. Then he was taken to a London hospital, where he stayed four months. Christmas was spent on a hospital ship crossing the Atlantic. When he returned home, he recouped for many more months. But by the time he was finished recovering from his life-threatening injuries, the war was over ... won by his own sacrifices, as well as hundreds of thousands like him.

Like many others before and since, though, prevailing in combat really came down to just day-to-day survival. Taking care of your buddies. Making sure that you stayed awake while he slept, and vice-versa. Loving their country got them to the battlefield, but loving each other would take them home.

He showed me his scar where they removed the pieces of the artillery shell. Still, they didn't get it all. His bride (who was at the reunion, as well, and completed a number of his sentences) pulled pieces out for many months and even years, as the pieces would eventually come up to the skin where they could be removed.

Listening to him, I was reminded of how many think that the D-Day ended the German resistance in France and set the allies on a path directly to Berlin. Hardly. Bloody D-Day was only the beginning, and many, many Americans and other allied troops would die on the way to surgically removing the Nazi cancer from Europe. Then, Nazi "insurgents" or "werewolves" wreaked havoc even after the fall of Nazi Germany. Thus, it remained a long road to defeating evil. Sound familar?

Thank God they had the patience to see it through.

I pray we do, as well.