One of the first movies my dad ever took me to see was “The Longest Day,” the 1962 award-winning epic story of the D-Day invasion of Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944.
Though I was only 12 years old when the movie came out, and too young to comprehend it all, it still made an indelible impression on me. As one would know history, this invasion, this battle involved over 156,00 Allied troops (mostly from the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada) and would prove to be the turning point of the war in Europe, and in turn, of world history itself.
Little could I imagine some 57 years later, that in little ol’ Glen Rose, Texas, I’d come to know someone who actually stormed those perilous beaches with the first wave of Allied soldiers that fateful day.
He did so for me and you. You see, I came to know George through his son George, Jr., a classmate of mine back in Odessa, whom I saw for the first time in 50 years last summer at our high school reunion.
He told me his dad had recently moved to a nursing center in Glen Rose. I just knew I had to look him up.
George is 94 now, wheelchair bound, and doesn’t get out much anymore. But he can talk some, and for those who will listen, this brave soul has tales to tell and wisdom to share.
Seems as if George was a part of a 16-man Army Air Corp anti-aircraft crew that came ashore on Omaha Beach at daybreak that morning. It was like a bloodbath with over 4,000 Allied soldiers giving their lives that day. George told me he wasn’t scared — he was too young, too innocent, too naïve to know the reality he was facing.
He told me they were all just doing the job they signed up for, and he deflects any accolades to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Besides being a part of the crew that shot down four enemy aircraft trying to thwart the Allied invasion that day, one of George’s later tasks was to retrieve the bodies of killed paratroopers they found as they made their way further inland.
Their job was to identify the corpses as best they could and place them in body bags for transport to be shipped home or prepared for burial.
How does a 19-year-old cope with that?
A recon man and skilled sniper, George also survived the Battle of the Bulge and eventually marched all the way through Belgium, France and Luxembourg to Berlin at the end of the European conflict.
I asked if he ever harbored bitterness toward the German people. No, he was not bitter, because “it was Hitler and the ruling Nazi Party that were the true enemies.”
He said most of the remaining German combatants were men or young boys just like him fighting for their country. The Nazis ordered them what to do, and they had no choice but to fight.
I asked how the French people felt toward the Americans “invading their country” to battle the Germans. He said they were “appreciative, thankful and happy to be free again. They gave us food and water to help sustain us on our mission.”
How about the German citizens as you entered their country?
“They treated us as liberators. Very hospitable. So glad for the war to be winding down and for Hitler to be gone. Some of us even became ‘friends’ with German families who welcomed us.”
As I visited George on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, I saw a man whose life is winding down, but still has purpose.
He reminded me that people the world over, no matter their race, language, or ethnicity, all have the basic yearnings of peace, freedom and love.
As I was closing my time with George on this visit, I told him he would not be forgotten. And that I would remind my own grown children, and teach my grandchildren of the courage and sacrifice of his generation for us.
I asked him if I could hold his hands and say a prayer for him. He’d like that. As I was finishing my prayer of thanksgiving to the Good Lord for this good man, George interrupted by saying, ”Can I pray too?” “Of course.” He grasped my hands firmly, and with weakened, raspy voice proceeded to thank God for sending me to be his friend and cheer his day.
Once again I was reminded why George and those of his era are deservingly called “The Greatest Generation.”
Charlie Norman has lived in Somervell County since 1994. He and his wife have two adult children, who graduated from Glen Rose schools. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.