Thursday, June 6, 2013

...D-Day and Daddy

John Watson Strickland
AKA "Daddy"

My dad died almost two decades ago...hard to believe. His presence is strong with me. As is a conversation that took place ten days before the heart attack that killed him. It started with a question, one that pre-dated Saving Private Ryan. My son asked his grandfather about D-Day. And Daddy replied, softly, matter-of-factly, "The was the most incredible sight of my life." None of us spoke. Daddy's focus was somewhere else, far removed from that dining table. "The ships," he said. "And boats. All sizes and shapes. So packed we couldn't see the water."

"You were there?" Patrick asked. 


Patrick continued while I held my breath. I didn't want to stop the conversation. "What was it like when you landed?"

"I wasn't one of the early ones on the beach. We were on a Higgins boat for a long time. That thing bucked harder than Old Sam." Daddy smiled. He always did when thoughts of the old mule surface. Those two had plowed and pulled stumps and cleared land together throughout his youth. 

"What did you see?"

"Mostly the bottom of the boat, son. The artillery from both sides was flying over us. I kept my head down." 

"Were you afraid?"

"Sure was. Men were getting sick and it wasn't just from the waves. I just tried to think about everything I'd been told." He got very quiet. I remember thinking that - for the first time in my life - he wanted to talk about it...a purging. "When it was time to go, the end of the boat didn't hit sand. We weren't close enough to the beach. It fell open and we jumped out into the water." 

We waited as he sat there, quiet for a bit. "It was bloody." He frowned and shook his head. "Some of the men from the boat drowned. As we got closer to the beach, we had to crawl over bodies to get ashore." He stopped again.

"What happened next?"

"Mostly, I tried not to get shot. We hunkered down on the beach behind the iron hedgehogs the Germans had placed there." For the first time, Daddy chuckled. "At one point, this captain crawled over and told us to take of our insignia and stuff it in our pockets. The snipers that were left on the cliffs were trying to take out chain of command. So we did. A few minutes later another officer crawled over and ordered us to put it back on. 'If you die here, you're going to die in uniform!' When I heard this, the first real thought I had all day came right about then: 'Strick [his nickname, short for Strickland], you're still in the Army'."

Daddy's was not a mad dash up the cliffs. These men waited it out and returned fire until the snipers were taken out. After he died, I found an old ammo crate in the back of a closet, filled with papers and that highly-mobile insignia. A typed note from the clerk who processed him as they climbed up the winding roadway to the top of the cliffs listed routes and distances to towns and villages. I found passes, a letter from Eisenhower addressed "To All Members of the Allied Expeditionary Force." His eyeglasses...another story. Upon arrival in Europe, the army doctor told him that he was legally blind. 4F. Daddy said he volunteered to return but, nope, no such luck. There were a few copies of the Stars and Stripes and some of the Bill Mauldin cartoons of Willie and Joe that he'd torn out and stuffed in the pages of the old Bible his mother sent with him. And his discharge papers, dated December 25, 1946.

The real treasure in that box were the letters he had sent to my grandmother during the war. She had saved them all. The headers map his trek across Europe: "somewhere in England, France, Germany, etc." I've read them over and over again. Each one assured her that he was fine but was worried about her and Granzie (her mother). He put money orders into the letters when he could but they never made it to my grandmother. The letters were slip open when they arrived.  

These are the last two memories my dad described that June day 1995. He said that when they reached the top of the Normandy cliffs, he saw a young German boy's uniformed body to his right. "He was no older than you, Patrick. A boy." He shook his head. And he talked about seeing parachutes hung on buildings and trees as they moved inland. In some cases, the bodies still dangled below. 

One hour that reframed this man I love beyond measure. He wasn't transformed into a hero..he already was that for me. But he made history personal...and war, real. After he died, his brother told us that Daddy had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. They spoke of it once, never again. It was "just too bloody awful"...Uncle George's words. In the days following the invasion, he was one of those who fitted "teeth" onto the Sherman tanks so they could move through the hedgerows. The soft underbellies of the tanks as they bucked up over the hedges left them vulnerable to German artillery. Not only was progress impeded: within the thickly woven hedgerows, German runners moved intel and materials. So when my uncle told me about the Bulge, I replied, "But Daddy wasn't infantry." George's response was brief. "Honey, if you were anywhere nearby, you were handed a rifle and told to shoot." 

I can't imagine what these men faced. I'm not naive about war. Granted, I would prefer that better choices be made before madmen take power. But we do not live in a perfect world.  I pray that war would be a last resort. And propose that we send first to battle those who would profit from its spoils. I do believe that a good defense is the best offense. Could I kill someone? I hope I never find out. But I know that if someone threatened my child, my grandchild, those I love, I would do whatever I could to stop them. Whatever...and however. May I never know this test.

My dad was never boastful nor full of bravado. He had seen the price and the cost was high. But I am grateful to him, to all who answered a desperate call, who slogged, died, returned bruised and forever changed by battle. The comments that Daddy had made over the years were usually about people he encountered. One, in particular. Charlie Euler. He'd say, "What I'd give to see old Charlie again" and chuckle. I was young when I asked him if he'd seen Mr. Euler after the war. He said no and I left it at that. But in the intervening years, I've thought about this. Daddy stayed in touch with those he loved. I wonder if Charlie came home...alive, or at all. What I know is that whenever Daddy saw a memorial, with a roll of the dead, tears ran freely down his face. He left some friends along the way. But they never left his heart.

Lord, I miss him.

1 comment:

BrightSoul said...

Oh, great! I can read your blogs again! I love to reminisce with people near my age about their family.. everything you mention my Daddy did on a different shore. Mine was in the Coast Guard and was sent to Honolulu just after Pearl Harbour at only 18. He spent the rest of the war years there, but I never heard about it till recently...while sitting with him quietly at 91 years of age. I try and get him to remember and sometimes it comes out like a fountain and my brain tries to hold on till I can write it down.
I also love him exceedingly and my dear hubby takes me once a year on a visit for a week or so...