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Round Two: Remembering D-Day on its 80th anniversary

Piggybacking off my most recent Round Two column centered around Memorial Day, and with yesterday being the 80th anniversary of D-Day, today I’m going to tell the story of three veterans I met on the World War II Memorial Battlefield Tour of Western Europe that my wife and I took in June 2002.

Two of them are American, one is British. And I’ve wanted to tell their stories since the day I met them all those years ago. Here they are:


Our tour group spent all of June 5, from sunrise to sunset, touring the Normandy landing beaches and nearby historical sites and military cemeteries. The scene was surreal: It was one day before the anniversary of D-Day, and the region was overrun with World War II reenactment soldiers: American, British, Canadian and French (not surprisingly, we didn’t see any German units). They were walking around in full battle regalia, marching down roads in complete units, tent camps sprawled across the French countryside. If you didn’t know better, you would have thought it was June 6, 1944 and the Allies had just arrived in Normandy.

One of the places our group visited that day was the Mémorial de Caen, a museum in the town of Caen that featured major exhibit sections dedicated to World War II and D-Day. Aside from World War II reenactors, Normandy was also full of D-Day veterans from several countries returning to participate in commemoration ceremonies. These vets included British Pathfinders, who were conspicuous in their maroon berets, and there were a bunch of them inside the Caen museum on this day.

As I browsed the exhibits, I noticed that one of the Pathfinders was standing at the end of the aisle I was in. He was holding court with a few people, who were clearly hanging on every word uttered by this charismatic and jovial British veteran, so I decided to wander over and listen in. When they stepped away, I went up to him, thanked him for his service and asked if he would sign a D-Day map of Normandy that I had gotten. He gladly obliged and, since it was just the two of us at that moment, I figured I’d better take advantage of the situation and ask him about D-Day. I mean, how many times in my life was I going to get a one-on-one with a British Pathfinder who fought at D-Day? So I asked, and he was happy to tell his story.

It went like this:

British Pathfinders were paratroopers who were among the first Allied soldiers to reach French soil the morning of June 6, 1944. They were dropped behind German lines in the dark of night shortly after midnight, parachuting into Normandy well ahead of the main airborne assault and several hours before the amphibious troops hit the beaches. Once they reached the ground, their mission was to seize the drop zones for the main airborne forces and use radio, radar and signal lanterns to guide Allied aircraft to the target landing areas.

The Pathfinders had to perform this harrowing but critical mission at night with one of the most lethal armies ever assembled waiting underneath them as they jumped out of airplanes and floated helplessly to the ground.

As the man related his story to me, I couldn’t imagine the terror those paratroopers must have felt. They were highly skilled and well-trained, but for many of them, it was their first combat experience. By contrast, the Wehrmacht’s field divisions in Normandy were comprised of battle-hardened soldiers who were very well-equipped.

The Pathfinder told me the Germans below were firing indiscriminately up into the night sky at the paratroopers, hoping to pick them off in midair, and he was waiting to be riddled with bullets. After all, there’s nowhere to hide in the sky; the only cover they had was darkness. As he neared the ground, he knew which British paratroopers were being killed on the way down by the sickening thump sound their bodies made as they crashed to earth.

He waited to die, figuring if it didn’t happen as he parachuted down, surely it would happen when he hit the ground, because the Germans were firing in the direction of any noise anywhere — and there was no way for a paratrooper to avoid making noise upon landing.

He braced for impact and the inevitable volley of machine gun fire in his direction, but it never happened — at least not the way he expected. The next thing he knew, he was falling through something heavy and fairly sharp. His descent then stopped abruptly, his feet dangling below him, and he realized …

He had landed in a tree.

He had drifted off course — a common occurrence for paratroopers on D-Day, often with deadly consequences — and the branches of a tree had snared his parachute about 15 to 20 feet off the ground. He was trapped, completely at the mercy of any German soldier in the vicinity who noticed him.

So he hung there motionless, careful not to make a sound, and listened to D-Day unfold in the darkness around him: the thud of dead bodies slamming into the ground, the screams of paratroopers as they were cut to ribbons by machine gun fire moments after landing, and all the other sickening sounds of war.

He hung in that tree, held captive by its branches, helpless and waiting to die.

He hung there for hours until, finally, dawn began to break. But it wasn’t necessarily good news: Surely the light of day would give his position away and the Germans would finish him off.

And, sure enough, it happened: He heard a voice below. But it wasn’t German. It was French.

He glanced down and saw a farmer at the base of the tree. And adjacent to the tree was a house, which had been obscured during the night by the darkness and the foliage of the tree.

The gunfire in the area had stopped by this time, and the Pathfinder knew the Allies should be storming the beaches by now. It was a race against time: Who would reach him first, friend or foe?

The farmer worked to get the British Pathfinder out of the tree, then invited him into his house to hunker down until help arrived. The Pathfinder had no idea what happened to the other men in his unit, where they were or if any of them were even still alive. He assumed there were still German troops in the area, but he didn’t know where or how many. His best bet was to lay low in the farmhouse.

A few days later, Allied troops swarmed the area, the Germans having been driven back by the overwhelming force arrayed against them and the merciless pounding delivered by Allied bombers. He was saved.

Decades later, on a return trip to the D-Day commemoration events, he paid a visit to the farmhouse to thank the farmer and his family for their welcome. Upon arriving, he was greeted by the farmer’s son, who informed him that his father had since passed away, but he was welcome to come in and visit with the family.

As they spoke inside, the farmer’s son told the Pathfinder, “Oh, I have something for you.”

A few moments later, he handed an object to the Pathfinder: a fork from the mess kit he carried in his backpack on D-Day. “This is yours,” the man said to the Pathfinder. “You left it here in 1944, and we’ve been waiting for you to come back and get it.”

The Pathfinder had lived to tell his story — and retrieve his fork — thanks to a French farm family.

And their tree.


Infantry radiomen in battle are prime targets. In World War II, wearing an enormous communications apparatus strapped to their back with a long antenna sticking out the top, and holding a telephone receiver to their ear, they were essentially a walking bull’s-eye.

Radiomen are essential in helping to coordinate front-line troop movements and fire in a battle. Take out a radioman, and you can throw your enemy into a state of confusion, disjointing units and throwing off timing. It was not a position with a lot of job security.

One of the members of the group on our World War II battlefield tour had been a radioman who landed with the first wave at Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944. Some American units in that first wave suffered horrific casualty rates as high as 75%; in modern warfare, the saying goes that the life expectancy of a radioman in battle is about 30 seconds, and it can be as low as 5 seconds.

Yet, here he was, a calm, quiet, mild-mannered gentleman casually sitting on our bus taking it all in. I’m not sure if it was his first trip back to Western Europe since the war or not, but I wondered what must have been going through his mind as we toured all the big battle sites of World War II.

He told his story, and I was floored: Somehow, he managed to not only survive D-Day unscathed, but he made it all the way to the Elbe River in Germany, where, in April 1945, American forces famously shook hands with units of the Soviet Red Army advancing from the east.

I asked, as delicately as possible, how he, as a radioman, was able to go from the English Channel to the Elbe River against the Germans and live to tell about it. His reply?



The other World War II veteran in our group was an elderly man named Elmer. While physically frail, Elmer’s mind was very sharp and, as is customary with members of The Greatest Generation, he spoke in a blunt manner and looked you squarely in the eye when talking.

So it was that any question you asked Elmer about his military service, he was forthcoming and pulled no punches. He shied away from nothing, including his own D-Day story, which he told to my wife while our tour group paid respects at an American military cemetery in France:

Elmer was an infantryman whose unit was going to be part of the first wave to hit Omaha Beach. A total of 2,501 Americans were killed at Omaha and Utah beaches on D-Day, with the first wave at Omaha experiencing the worst of the carnage.

Except Elmer never made it that far.

Shortly before the massive D-Day invasion fleet left England, Elmer fell ill and was hospitalized. He didn’t recover in time, and he was still sick in England when his unit sailed for Normandy. By the time he made it to France, Allied forces were off the beach and advancing into the French heartland. The worst was over.

“I shoulda been with ’em that day,” Elmer, clearly experiencing survivor’s guilt, told my wife.

“Well, what happened to the guys in your unit on D-Day, Elmer?” my wife asked.

His blunt response belied the serene cemetery setting in which he gave it: a sea of white crosses aligned in perfect rows that stretched across the beautifully manicured grounds in every direction.

“They was all blowed up,” he said.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.