The last time Staff Sergeant Harry Diehl landed in France, he didn’t need a passport. That was in June of 1944. This time around, in June of 2019, Staff Sergeant Diehl – my dad – made a more conventional entry into the country to take part in the 75th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings in Normandy.
In 1944, more than a hundred thousand Americans joined Allied forces in the Normandy invasion, arriving by land, air and sea. This past June, just over a hundred veterans made it back to Normandy to mark the 75th anniversary of that monumental battle. These days, there aren’t many veterans with the health and wherewithal to make such a journey. I’m grateful that my dad was among those who could.
During the war, Dad served in the Army Air Force as a C-47 crew chief. The C-47 wasn’t a glamorous aircraft like the sleek, fast fighter planes, nor did it stir the imagination like the mighty long-range bombers. But the C-47 was a lovable workhorse – tough, dependable and versatile. It was the aircraft that flew, unarmed, over enemy territory to drop paratroopers; and later, would land behind the lines to deliver supplies to those troopers and pick up the wounded. After the war, General Eisenhower called the C-47 one of the pieces of equipment “most vital to our success” in the war.
As a young boy – growing up in the part of the country where West Virginia and Pennsylvania are separated by a small sliver of Western Maryland – Dad never dreamed that he would one day leave home, join the Army, sail half-way round the world, fly airborne missions over Africa and Europe, and be part of the largest amphibious battle in the history of the world.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, Dad was just 18. His father – my grandfather – took the oldest of his five boys into town to enlist. One son was turned away with a heart condition, but Dad and Uncle Paul were accepted. (Uncle Paul ended up working on General Eisenhower’s staff, helping to plan the D-Day invasion.)
Ten days after Pearl Harbor, Dad was in basic training, on his way to becoming an infantry soldier. But fate would intervene. After he scored well on a written exam, he was transferred to the Army Air Force. He was sent to a training program where he learned aviation mechanics. From then on, his job would be to keep the aircraft flying.
Dad’s service record covers almost every major battle in the war against Germany. After a trans-Atlantic trip onboard a ship filled to the gunwales with servicemen, he landed in Casablanca. His unit chased General Rommel across North Africa, through the Algerian desert all the way to Tunisia.
From there they flew missions to Sicily, and from Sicily to Italy. After that, they sailed to England where they awaited the inevitable invasion of the European mainland. Of course, like every other enlisted soldier, Dad had no idea when or where the invasion would happen. He only knew that the scuttlebutt said it was coming.
And so it was that in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, hundreds of C-47s flew into the dark sky over the English Channel to Normandy, loaded with American paratroopers who were about to embark on the biggest moment of their young lives.
Dad wasn’t on those June 6 flights. His squadron was assigned to fly the next day, to bring supplies to the paratroopers. As those crews prepared to take off on the 7th, they knew that although the landings had occurred the day before, the element of surprise was gone, and the battle for Normandy was far from over.
C-47s were rugged planes that could land and take off from nearly any cow pasture or strip of open land. Dad’s plane landed with the others in a field the troopers had secured the day before, and they unloaded the supplies.
Because they flew low and slow, C-47s were susceptible to small-arms fire. Sure enough, as Dad’s plane started back to England it was struck by rifle fire that ruptured an oil-line and knocked out one of the engines. The pilot ordered the crew to lighten the load, but after tossing everything they could find he thought the plane was still too heavy to fly on one engine. Which meant that, in order to make it back across the Channel, Dad and the radio-operator/navigator had to jump.
C-47 crews did not receive extensive parachute training. Their only “jumps” were from practice platforms. So, when Dad leapt from that plane, it was his first actual parachute jump.
With the lightened load the plane made it back to England. But Dad had landed in the rural Normandy countryside, and now he was on his own behind enemy lines. (The radio operator landed elsewhere, and the two never met up.)
Normandy, then as now, is dotted with small towns that rise up amid prosperous farms. Fortunately, Dad touched down in a pasture where a French farmer found him before the Germans did. The farmer spoke no English, but he recognized that he’d come upon an American airman. They gathered the parachute, and the farmer hid Dad in the barn. The family brought him food and water, and kept him safe.
Several days later – Dad’s not really sure how long he was there – the Allied lines caught up to his position. When he saw Americans driving by in a Jeep, he went out and waved them down.
That was Staff Sergeant Diehl’s D-Day story. Dad would be quick to tell you that he did nothing special. And, in the greater scheme of the Battle of Normandy, he’s right – to an extent. But most of us have never been shot at while flying over a war zone, or jumped from a burning plane into enemy-occupied territory in the midst of a huge, ongoing battle. So, really, it is rather special.
Dad managed to return to his unit and, after a few more adventures, made it safely through the rest of the war. When it was over, he came home and his run of good luck continued when he met a young beauty named Annie Russell, a farm girl who had left home to work in a wartime factory that assembled parts for parachutes. I always liked to believe that maybe she had a hand in making the parachute that Dad used in Normandy that day.
They were married, and together, he and Mom raised three kids, watched five grandchildren grow up, and, 72 years later, they’ve been blessed to welcome seven great-grandsons into the world.
But Dad never went back to Europe. I don’t even recall him expressing an interest in going back. And I wouldn’t have thought to suggest it, until a good friend of mine, Bob Horner, brought it up. Bob is a board member of Honor Flight Columbus, a group that flies veterans to Washington DC on charter flights so that they can visit the World War II Memorial that was belatedly built in their honor on the National Mall. Bob was planning on attending the D-Day observances, and he asked Dad and me to join him. To my great surprise, Dad said yes.
This trip would not have been possible without Bob’s generosity and encouragement. Dad and I, and my whole family, are extremely grateful to him for making it happen.
The D-Day anniversary ceremony was held at the Normandy Cemetery, situated magnificently on the bluffs above the beaches where the warriors waded ashore 75 years ago. An inscription at the entrance reads: “If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest. All we asked was enough soil in which to bury out gallant dead.”
A person would have to be made of stone not to get a lump in the throat while walking among the rows of nearly 10,000 gleaming white crosses and Stars of David, the final resting place for the boys who liberated Europe.
Before the ceremony, we gathered in a large tent set up for the occasion. The tent was filled with active military officers, politicians and the families accompanying the veterans. The veterans themselves were interspersed with the rest of the crowd, but you could spot them easily. In the hours before and after the ceremony, we had an opportunity to mingle with them.
It’s almost a cliché to say that Dad didn’t talk much about his war experience when he got home. Most veterans didn’t. Probably because they had no desire to stir up memories of what they’d seen. But there may have been an additional reason. More than 16 million Americans served in the military during WWII. That’s out of a population of about 140 million. So, coming home with war stories at that time wasn’t terribly unique. It is now though.
Once, there had been so many of them – the ones who served overseas, the ones who served on the homefront, all of them who had their lives shaped by the war. Now, as their numbers diminish, they have become precious and rare, like living museum pieces. To be in the tent that day, to be in the presence of those veterans, to hear the stories that they are now not so reluctant to share, was a privilege beyond compare.
Preparing for this trip, I thought it might be an emotional time for Dad, although he’s a bit reserved about such things. What I hadn’t anticipated was the emotion and reaction from the people we encountered. From the moment we arrived in Normandy, Dad and all the veterans were treated like visiting royalty.
More than 20 thousand tourists had crowded into the Normandy countryside to honor these men. We met some wonderful people, many of them from Europe who make the trip to Normandy every year. They were thrilled to meet a veteran, and they were all so kind and gracious to us. It added an element to the experience that was both unexpected and unforgettable.
Those who made the journey – whether from America or Europe – realized what they were witnessing. This may very well be the last big gathering. They understood that these are the rearguard of the 16 million, and this was one of the final chances to pay tribute to these men.
When the veterans passed by, the crowds of tourists would stop in their tracks and erupt in spontaneous applause, cheering these men, all of them at least in their 90s, some bent and walking with canes, others in wheelchairs, but all still vibrant and invigorated by the reception of the crowd.
Most of them had never had that sort of thing happen to them before. Seven decades ago, when they returned home from the war, they were just one of the many millions. Now, they’re the last, the representatives of a generation that we may not have appreciated enough while they walked among us in greater numbers.
For me, getting to have this experience with my dad was the trip of a lifetime. My most enduring memory took place at Pointe du Hoc. That’s the windswept outcrop on the Normandy coast where, on D-Day, Army Rangers climbed an impossible cliff through a hail of bullets to destroy huge German guns. 225 Rangers hit that beach; two days later, only 90 remained able to bear arms. In 1984, President Reagan commemorated the heroism of those men when he gave his famous “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech on the site of the battle. Dad wanted to see it.
It was cold, windy and raining the day we visited Pointe du Hoc. Nevertheless, the grounds were teeming with hundreds of tourists. Slowly, as the people realized that the old man wrapped in jackets to buffer the wind was a veteran, they approached him by the dozens to shake his hand, to take his picture, or to have their picture taken with him. Parents wanted to make sure their kids got to talk to this man who was a witness to history. One schoolteacher, leading a field trip and barely holding back tears, brought her entire class over to meet him.
As all of this was happening, a man in an unfamiliar military uniform came briskly through the crowd and walked up to Dad. We later learned that he was a retired Swedish paratrooper. Dad was sitting down, and the trooper bent over, shook his hand and quietly said, “Thank you sir, for what you did to save Europe, and for giving me my freedom.”
And then he stood to attention and snapped off a salute.
It’s a moment I will never forget.
Of course, to a man, none of the veterans who gathered in June 2019 believe that they did anything out of the ordinary in June 1944. They say that they were only doing their job, that they did what everyone else did, and they proclaim with sincere humility that they are not heroes. But we know better.
The assembled crowds in Normandy understood that every one of these veterans who answered the call to duty, no matter in what capacity they served, were heroes in the truest sense of the word. And that all of us – their sons and daughters, their grandkids and great-grandkids – we are all the recipients of their sacrifice and bravery.
Whether landing on a beach, jumping from a plane, sailing into a hail of cannon fire or any of a hundred other things, their exploits – so seemingly routine to them – have become the stuff of legend to us. And that’s why the people gathered to cheer, to shake hands and to give thanks to these men, these mortal men who, decades ago, performed immortal deeds.