One of my favorite memories as a journalist was the afternoon I spent with an aging veteran who fought on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944: D-Day.
It was 1994, and I was a young, green reporter for a daily newspaper (remember those?) assigned to interview World War II veterans for a front-page 50th anniversary story. A long-time history geek, I felt privileged to be listening to this ordinary man from a small Pennsylvania town tell his story for the first time in 50 years. I was getting paid to hear his eyewitness account of one of the most historic days in American history. It was like interviewing a Gettysburg veteran in his living room.
I listened reverently as Francis, a small, soft-spoken man – who looked for all the world like anybody’s grandpa – described the carnage he survived that day as a rifleman with the 29th Infantry Division. He was in the second wave of infantry to wade ashore at Omaha Beach, and they suffered heavy casualties. The first wave was shot to pieces; the survivors lucky enough to make it to the sea wall huddled there as artillery, mortars and machine gun fire raked the beach.
Francis told me how he calmed his nerves by humming to himself as he waded through waist-high water under murderous fire to reach the beach. Their Allies’ well-rehearsed plan had quickly gone to hell. But they regrouped and adapted, and before long small groups of American GIs were working their way up the steep bluffs – taking out German strongpoints as they went. By day’s end, American troops were firmly entrenched atop the bluffs over Omaha as men, vehicles, tanks and supplies poured ashore. Thousands of Americans lay dead in the sand and surf below, the tragic cost of this momentous victory.
My interview represented the first time Francis had openly talked about the war in 50 years, and by the end of the two-hour conversation both he and his wife were in tears. It was an emotional experience I’ll never forget. Before I left, Francis lifted his shirt and showed me his back. Part of it was missing where shrapnel from a German 88 ended his war a month after Omaha Beach, near St. Lo. I thanked him for the privilege of hearing his story, and for his courage and sacrifice in Normandy.
It’s been 73 years since D-Day, and the veterans who fought there are vanishing fast. If you’re lucky enough to know one, thank him today. They’ll probably defer, as Francis did, to those heroes who rest beneath neat rows of white crosses overlooking the Normandy coast. We should all take a moment to remember the heroes of Normandy – living and dead. If you don’t know their story, honor them by learning what they did there 73 years ago today.