Most folks over sixty-five years of age remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated, and many of us yet older codgers recall their first reactions to the news from Pearl Harbor and, a bit later on, from D-Day.
Early on the morning of June 6, 1944, I was in a car heading east on a brand-new turnpike, having spent the night in a tourist home in Bedford, Pennsylvania. My brother, who had just turned 17 the week before, was driving and my mother was sitting beside him on the front seat. I, who would be 15 in two months, had the back seat to myself. We were driving to Philadelphia after having spent two years in Mobile and New Orleans, where my father, an Army physician, had been stationed. Now he was overseas in Bari, Italy, and my mother had decided to get back North and leave the South behind. Both parents had “C” ration cards that made our long trip possible.
She was 45 years old and, after night school at the U. of Alabama, had spent a year as a safety engineer working for Higgins, a company which made landing craft as well as the famous PT boats. She would soon be using her skills at the Philadelphia Navy Yard until the war ended. My brother was able to finish a year of college before joining the Navy, and my oldest brother would become an Army doctor after he finished a residency in psychiatry. At war’s end, I was the only family member not engaged in the war.
On that lovely morning in the Alleghenies, we were listening to music on the radio. “Long ago and Far Away” was a new hit, but “I’ll Be Seeing You” was leading the hit parade, and when it came on, all three of us burst into lusty song as we sped by banks of mountain laurels in bloom.
I’ll be seeing you
In all those old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
In mid-verse, the music rudely stopped, and a broadcaster came on, telling us that in confirmation of earlier reports from German sources, the Allies had indeed landed in France and that the long-awaited second front was in the offing. The commentator pointed out the time difference of some six hours and that despite heavy fighting, the beachhead now seemed to be secure. It was heady news, and we hung on every word. We had seen film footage of the deadly amphibious assault on Tarawa in the Pacific, where one out of four marines were killed or wounded. If the Japanese could inflict such costly losses, how much worse would it be facing the vaunted Wehrmacht?
“Those poor kids,” my mother sobbed. “Many won’t be seeing anyone any more, let alone the old familiar places.”
“Maybe it’s just another Dieppe,” my brother said, “maybe it’s another dry run, where they won’t get beyond the beach.” He was referring to the 1942 commando raid-in-force that ended with the Allies – mostly Canadians — losing 60% of their men, a shocking disaster that sent a warning about the invulnerability of German defenses.
“If they could throw us back two years ago, just think how much stronger they are today,” he went on.
“Yes, and maybe this is just a feint,” I piped in. “Isn’t that exactly what Churchill said the other day?”
But as we weighed the possibilities, the radio crackled, and the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, came on the air and verified that this was indeed the much anticipated invasion and the first step in an Allied Crusade to defeat Hitler. Ike gave a real Knute Rockne pep-talk. We spent the rest of the trip listening to nonstop radio bulletins that convinced us that D-Day was a success after all and that the Allies now had a firm foothold in Europe..
Yet, with all the hope the landings promised, we were deeply apprehensive about the lives such an undertaking would cost. We knew high school friends who had been killed in training flights. We knew others who had been lost at sea. We knew young couples who possibly would never see each other again. Thousands of families paid a high price for the carnage of D-Day.
At the end of the war, the totality of personal tragedy was immense. War, no matter how just the cause may seem, is a meat grinder that pulverizes the hopes and dreams of its participants in and out of uniform.
Every anniversary of D-Day wrenches my heart as I reflect on the misery it caused in families all over the country. And still today I hear the strains that bring a lump to my throat because it describes what for many would never come true:
I’ll be seeing you
In every lovely summer’s day,
In everything that’s light and gay,
I’ll always think of you that way,
I’ll find you in the morning sun,
And when the night is new,
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.