I was working at a local coffee shop when I noticed an old man walk in. His hat had a Yin Yang on it. It struck a memory and I Googled for a list of US Army division patches. Easy access to modern technology told me more than I expected. The 29th Infantry Division, the Blue and the Gray, landed at Bloody Omaha on June 6th, 1944.
I walked up to him and asked “You were with the 29th Division in WWII.” I looked a man Great-Grandfather old, but strong for all that.
“Yes, I was.”
I held out my hand to shake his. “Thank you.”
He was startled. He offered me a seat and I took it. I didn’t think to ask his name yet, but later found out it was Angelo.
“Most people don’t know what it means.”
“I was an Army officer. An infantryman. I owe you a special debt.” I told him. “My Grandfather was at Utah. They’ve said that the fighting at Omaha was so fierce that it pulled forces from elsewhere. If it hadn’t been so bad there, I might not be here.” Not quite correct, now that I think about it. William Spelman had managed to get his wife pregnant before deploying to England. That was my Mom, so I would possibly still be here. It was my Uncle and Cousins that owe their existence to my Grandfather’s survival.
Our conversation progressed non-linearly. He had not been in the earlier invasions of Italy or Africa. His job was specialized, so after Normandy, they shipped him to the pacific theater. Has was with a unit attached to the 29th, not specifically assigned to it. The boat that took him back stateside was taking Churchill as well, and the statesman’s quarters had to be re built, delaying their departure. The late departure meant that he only got eight days of leave before shipping out to join the preparation for the invasion of Luzon.
He told the tale of one comrade, a normally happy-go-lucky guy that became quiet and withdrawn before Luzon. “I’m not going to make it.” He told Angelo. “Everyone thinks that.” They landed fairly unopposed at Luzon. They only lost one man: Angelo’s friend hit the deep water when disembarking and he drowned.
“I felt the same way, if we were going to Japan.” He confided. “I owe Truman my life. If they hadn’t dropped the bomb, well, you know what they were saying?” I assured him that I did. The casualty projections for a Japan invasion were staggering.
We returned to talking about Europe. I told him, “My grandfather was drafted. He was older, and had worked on the rail road. Back during the depression, he dropped out of school and started on the rail lines. He was in logistics. So by the time he deployed he was the company First Sergeant.” Also, I realize now, a little inaccurate. I have a photo of Grandpa Bill in a fairly clean uniform, carrying an M-1 carbine. The date on the back of the photo is June 7, 1944. I can’t remember the place, but I suspect it was Marie St. Eglise. On the sleeve of his Eisenhower Jacket he has the rank of a Staff Sergeant. I had his jacket back when I was in High School, and it had three chevrons and two rockers with the First Sargent diamond in the middle. I guess he was made Top later than June 6. “Since he knew logistics, they put him with a transpo company.”
Angelo had been an “invasion specialist.” Enlisting as young as he could, he had managed to learn cryptographic and radio skills in the days back when a computer was still the name of a human occupation. They went in early, and broadcast back to the fleet. I didn’t think to ask how he got t on shore.
“War is horrible. I heard people screaming ‘Don’t let me die.'” He paused, lost in the past, momentarily unable to speak. “I don’t talk about this with most people. My wife passed away a few years back. I have dreams, and she used to wake me up. I go to the VA. I have PSTD” I didn’t correct the misordering of the acronym.
“We had been told they were evil, that the krouts were inhuman. When we got to Germany, we saw that they were just people. We thought that we were the good guys. At some point I realized that they thought that they were the good guys. We watched these films, you saw them marching so perfectly and you thought that they were unbeatable. I thought, ‘how are we going to go up against this.’ But war. War is horrible. They were people, just like us.”
This was three or four days after the 67th anniversary of the Normandy Landing. While the press had made a big deal about it on the 50th and 60th anniversaries, this year it had passed with barely a mention in the news, and Angelo was annoyed. “I wasn’t the hero. It was those guys that didn’t come home that were the heros.” It was just platitudes. His face reflected the pain of the memories that came back, the people he had seen dead and dying, the friends and comrades that didn’t come back.
“Some of us will always remember, I assured him.”
Is it wrong of me to post this here? He talked to me in confidence, the sharing between former soldiers. But we should remember what those men with Baseball Caps with funny looking logos on it went through. And what they still go through.