I was born on the second anniversary of D-Day and I was raised near Omaha. Maybe that’s why I have always been fascinated by those men who had the courage to step off a ship into the cold waters off Normandy and storm Omaha Beach. I didn’t know anyone who actually fought on Omaha Beach, but I knew several who were involved. My uncle was in charge of maintenance of the transport planes that helped supply our troops. Later, he was charged with supplying General Patton’s tanks on their race to Berlin. Indeed, after I saw the movie Patton, he asked if I remembered the scene in which Patton was chewing out a supply officer over the radio. ‘You know who was on the other end of that conversation?” he asked. “It was me.”
It was my uncle who introduced me to the horrors of war. When I was about 12, he brought a box of photos to a family gathering. While the women and girls were in the kitchen, he pulled out photos taken in the German death camps. He wanted me to know why his generation had fought and he wanted to make sure that the horrors of those camps were never forgotten.
Most of those who fought in World War II seldom talked about their experiences.
One of our neighbors was a member of the 82nd Airborne who parachuted into a small French town in the early morning hours of D-Day. I only remember him talking about his experience once while we were working together in the field. He said that, as he floated down, his unit took fire from the German troops below. He talked about how lucky he felt to avoid being wounded after discovering holes in his parachute upon landing. When I asked how he found the courage to jump into enemy fire, he replied, “My unit was full of ex-cons. During the preparations for D-Day, there was a beating or a knifing in my camp almost every night. By the time D-Day rolled around, I was more frightened of my own unit than I was of the Germans.”
As we commemorate D-Day, we should also pay tribute to the men who fought in all of the battles of World War II, like my dad’s cousins. One received an astounding seven battle stars after fighting in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and, finally, the Battle of the Bulge. Another fought in the Pacific Theater beginning with the Battle of Attu in the Aleutian Islands and ending with the Battle of Okinawa.
Of course, they most certainly were not alone. Millions of Americans, Australians, British, Canadians, Chinese, Filipinos, French, Indians, New Zealanders, Polish, Soviets and others fought and died in the war that some like to call “the good war.” I think my uncle, my relatives and my neighbors would have hated that moniker. They put themselves in harm’s way to save others. But they hated war…any war. For that reason, more than any other, they deserve to be called the “Greatest Generation.”