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Jefferson Weaver: Boxers, baseball players and barbers

They were boxers, baseball players and barbers. Farmhands and fathers. Policemen and petty criminals. Career soldiers and draftees who just wanted to go home.

They were Americans.

It was 75 years ago that Americans and their allies dropped from the sky and fought through the surf to begin the end of the Third Reich. Somewhere around 156,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen grabbed a toehold on a French beach an the nearby countryside, and began the last 11 months of freeing Europe from Nazi Germany.

There are so few of them still alive today, or it seems that way. If you consider that an 18-year-old in 1944 would be 93 today, that’s understandable.

I reckon I was a member of the last generation to be able to take WWII veterans for granted. Both of the barbers I remember when I was growing up were veterans of the war. (My very first barber served in Korea, but his brother was a prisoner of the Japanese after Wake Island.) Mr. Owen went to Europe after D-Day. Uncle Rip wore a toupee to partially cover a scar that was a reminder of an attack by a German dive bomber in North Africa. That injury kept him from being a part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, since he was sent home to recover.

We were talking about the diamond anniversary of that horrible, incredible, longest day a while back, and for whatever reason I had a crystal-clear memory of a rainy fall day in Uncle Rip’s barbershop. It was a Saturday, and I was there with my dad. The shop was a classic, with three chairs, an ancient shoeshine throne, and a drink machine that dispensed nearly-frozen Cokes from horizontal racks that required a 35 cent ransom. There were an even dozen chairs, if my memory is right, and a bench that was always full of newspapers and magazines. Some regular sat on the wide sill in front of the plate glass window that opened onto the sidewalk.

On this particular day, through some serendipitous coincidence, not only was the shop full, but it was full of those who knew the rock of an LCM in the French surf and the drone of a C-47 reaching jump altitude.

My father and one other man were the only ones of that group who didn’t fight in World War II; my dad’s legs wouldn’t allow him to join. I don’t know why the other man, who attended our church, was rejected.

Not all of them were in the water or the air above Normandy – Mr. Walt Shermer, one of my heroes, was in the Pacific fighting the Japanese– but incredibly, most of them were there on June 6.

Lloyd Byrd, who was one of my dad’s dear friends despite their political differences, was the pilot of a B-17 bomber, part of the heavy raid that was meant to distract Hitler’s forces from the true objective. Another man, one who chewed cigars, was a truck driver, but in the confusion he ended up on the beach with no truck and not even the faintest idea who he was with. He had a Thompson submachine gun, and a .45 automatic pistol, but only one magazine for each.

Two other men, both of whom had an incredible skill at cursing, were paratroopers who had settled in Fayetteville after the war, married women from our town, and gotten jobs in the mill.

The aforementioned Mr. Walt didn’t know it at the time, but his brother was killed in the first wave. The younger Shermer joined the Army, rather than the Marines like his brother, because he hated the ocean.

There were other stories shared that day as well, in a room that smelled of hair tonic and cigarette smoke and Old Spice cologne and coffee and sweat. Rain beat against the nicotine stained window as over and over again we heard the words, “I remember when…”

While we boys usually enjoyed the stories, there came a time when we took them for granted as well.

Years later, I tried to make up for some of the times I disregarded the old “war stories”. Most of the surviving veterans I knew by then were more than willing to share what they went through, whether it was in France or Belgium or Peleilu or Okinawa or India. One old Navy officer I knew in Wilmington frankly feared that with every loss of a member of his generation, there would be significantly fewer who would appreciate what it takes to protect and maintain our freedom. Sadly, I think he was correct.

Many of you likely had your caricature drawn by Mert “Star” Aduchefsky. He drew thousands of pictures when he was at White Lake and elsewhere, having landed there after being discharged from the Army. Before the war he boxed, and had some odd jobs. His sister Rhoda was a dancer. They grew up poor in New York City, losing both their parents while Mert and Rhoda were teenagers. He discovered his artistic talent while doodling on a napkin in a bar in San Francisco.

Mert told me he began drawing pictures to make people laugh, and to help his friends forget about what they had seen. He landed late at Normandy – but that was all he would ever tell me, except that he had a picture of a friend that he had kept all those years. Mert drew it before they left England on June 4, heading for the French coast, but his friend never made it to the beach. I have mentioned before the two brothers I knew, Dick and “Duck” Daughtry, who
were baseball players. Duck died a number of years ago, but were it not for God’s grace, he would have died in a foxhole on Omaha Beach, desperately holding his internal organs in place. He came home to heal, build a successful business, and raise a family.

Dick was overhead at the time, listening to the high pitched ”ping” of fragments from anti-aircraft fire piercing the sides of his B-26 Marauder bomber as he desperately kept the radio working and watched for enemy fighters. It wasn’t long ago Uncle Dick left his beloved Wilmington, where he was known as the Mayor of Front Street.

He opened retail stores downtown when storekeepers had to sleep in their businesses with a shotgun. One of the shops Dick started is still thriving today. Some of the veterans I knew had a greater goal than just sharing their own history. While some just had wonderful stories, and could tell them well, but others could convey, without beating the listener over the head with a message about freedom’s cost.

It was a long time, sadly, before I had a true realization of what we lose with each veteran of World War II. The lessons learned then helped create the modern fighting skillset used by the grandchildren and great grandchildren in today’s military. But more importantly, the members of that Greatest Generation survived the Great Depression, went to war, came home and built a new nation. We lost so much of what made this country great every day; there was a news story the other day that students in high school and college show less interest in history than ever before.

That hurts my heart.

While there were other battles that were just as pivotal, and often bloodier, the D-Day invasion of Normandy was truly a moment when the tide turned against nationalist socialism in Europe. The Imperial Japanese were just as nasty of a foe, and just as determined as the Nazis, but Hitler’s plans for world domination, with a twisted, evil philosophy based on skin color, truly were a threat not just to America, but to freedom in the entire world.

Thinking about the 75th anniversary of that greatest day for the Greatest Generation, I can’t help but be awed, and a little ashamed.

D-Day was the culmination of all the other campaigns in Europe, the Mediterranean and Africa. Everything had built up to the moment when the Dakotas and Gooney Birds released their gliders and paratroopers over the dark French countryside, and the boxy landing craft full of soaking wet solders were stranded far beyond the ideal landing points.

The boats and planes were full of Merts and Dicks and Ducks and Lloyds and Rips and a thousand other names. I doubt one in a dozen had a grandiose, melodramatic, philosophical moment about what they were doing that day. Most of them likely just wanted to survive, watch out for their buddies, and destroy the enemy so they could go home. Maybe later there was time for deep thoughts.

But right at that moment, when the jumpmaster yelled to stand up and hook up, or the bo’sun waved to the gunners to chamber rounds in their .50 machine guns, or each solder tried not to be seasick, knowing it would cause a chain reaction among his buddies – it wasn’t the time for philosophy. It was a time to do one’s duty to one’s country, home and family. It wasn’t a time to be worried about one’s self. At that very moment on June 6, 1944, most of those men likely weren’t thinking of me and you and everyone else, but what they were doing was making sure they left us a better country and indeed, a better world, than they had known.

I wish we all would have more of that attitude. The Greatest Generation left us an incredible legacy. That legacy was forged on beaches in France and Italy and forgettable islands in the Pacific Ocean. It was tempered in a strong commitment to a strong country, where everyone who followed the rules and obeyed the laws at least has a chance to succeed.

Whether that legacy stays sharp or not is up to us. I hope it does – we owe the Boys of Normandy nothing less than to preserve and protect what they fought for, three-quarters of a century ago, those barbers and policemen and millworkers and artists and farmhands and baseball players and storekeepers who gave their all to make the world free.

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