Today is the 70th anniversary of “D-Day,” the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, in Normandy, France.
It marks 70 years since my father, a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, climbed down a rope ladder on a troop ship, into a landing craft, and with a heavy pack on his back, a big red cross on his helmet, and only a .45 on his belt (which he barely knew how to use), landed on Omaha Beach on the first day of the invasion.
He had already made the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He had been at the Kasserine Pass, in North Africa, luckily leaving one day before his hospital was overrun by the “Afrika Korps,” during the biggest defeat in the history of the U.S. Army.
My dad, a young surgeon, enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor, with a strong sense of duty, and a feeling that our country’s existence itself was at stake. He didn’t see my mother or my sister Fran, 2, when he left, for more than three years. They could communicate only by mail, irregularly delivered long after being written. From day to day they literally had no idea whether he was still alive or dead.
During that time, he saw unspeakable horrors and suffering. Despite that, he always talked freely and openly about his experiences, what he saw, and his comrades. The only time I ever heard him express bitterness was a time, while discussing the Normandy invasion, he related how many men had drowned because they had been disembarked in deep water, too far off the beach.
Of all the things my father experienced and accomplished in his 89 years of life, he was proudest of the fact that he served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in WWII, and that he had made the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
But most important, I’ll always remember that day when we were watching a documentary on D-Day. It was only a few years before his passing, and long after I’d reached an age well beyond his at the time of WW II. Afterward, I turned to him, and said, “How could you have done that? How could you have clambered down that rope ladder, into that boat and landed on that beach under fire? What could possibly have motivated you to go and do that?”
He turned to me, looked right at me, and said, “So you wouldn’t have to go.”
James G. Schwade, M.D., Miami