Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Greatest Generation

I've had the opportunity to travel to France twice so far in my life. The second time was in '04 to follow the second week of le Tour through the Pyrenees and spend the last week in Paris with Gina on our extended honeymoon. While spending two weeks and enjoying the country on a grander scale with my new wife, it doesn't compare to the week spent there two years earlier with my grandfather traveling through the Normandy region. This wasn't my grandfather's first trip to France either, his first trip as he would always say was courtesy of Uncle Sam, first stepping foot on Omaha beach in Normandy on June 6th, 1944 from a landing craft while taking fire from German artillery and machine guns. He was in the National guard as part of the 115th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division out of his home town of Frederick. During his time in France he earned two Purple Hearts and the Silver Star, but as the story goes, since his Company Captain didn't have a Silver Star no one in his command could either, so the orders were rewritten as a Bronze Star.

In 2000 he returned for the first time in almost 60 years with a group of veterans, when he returned he insisted he go back again with his two grandsons. Growing up we always knew he served in WWII and landed on Omaha beach. Over the years I can't count the number of times I watched the movie The Longest Day and watched in amazement how these men were able to fight their way off the beaches let alone go on to liberate France. My grandfather never talked about the war, only little things here and there like the hedge rows, the first German he had a close encounter with while searching a farm just inland from the beach and some other lesser events of his experience. He never discussed the things that I knew kept him awake at night, even years later I know he still had nightmares of his days there. At the suggestion of a friend he began writing down some of the stories but I have yet to read them. When we visited the WWII museum in Aramange they had a small theater where you watched a short movie recounting the events of D-Day. Within the first few minutes of the movie that opened with the sound of machine gun fire and explosions, he had to leave the theater. This was probably the first time I had ever realized how much this part of his life still affected him and made me regret all of the Christmas and birthday gifts of books and movies on the war that probably only served as a reminder of things best forgotten.
During our trip we visited a small farm not far from the city of St. Lo made famous by the 101st Airborne to visit the Wall of Remembrance. The Wall of Remembrance was erected by the local farmers to pay homage to the soldiers of the 29th. Typically if your name is up on this wall, it is put there posthumously. To our surprise, while we were there my grandfather was honored by having his name put on this wall with his daughter and grandsons present. I think this was the first time I had ever seen him cry.
When he returned from the war he married my grandmother whom he had only corresponded with through letters. He originally wrote to her sister but she was already engaged at the time so she had her sister respond. After the war he continued to serve in the National Guard and went on to become a cabinet maker. My fondest memories of my youth were the summers spent working in my grandfather's basement workshop constructing things out of wood, glue and nails.

He passed away on Saturday, June 28th at the age of 88. He's survived by his wife Madeline, his daughter, his two grand children and his great grand daughter. At his service, many of the men he later served with in the 29th came to honor him as well as those who had grown up or worked with him. They all spoke so highly of him, considering him among the greatest people they knew and how they were all honored to have known him. One man that grew up with my grandfather told my brother and I that "we could only hope to be half the man he was". I believe him.
It's taken me a month to come up with the words for this post and be able to finish writing them down before having to walk away. Regardless, they'll still not capture the man that my grandfather was or how much I'll miss him.