On D-Day, a Thankful Remembrance
In 1944 I watched truck after truck filled with soldiers rolling through Robbins on their way to Normandy.
Like other boys, I had a soldier suit and wore it to play with my wooden Tommy gun, cranking its clacker as I stormed imaginary pillboxes in the backyard.
My hometown was wearing its new name, "Robbins," instead of "Hemp." House after house had little star flags in a front window with one blue embroidered star for every person from that home who was fighting the war. There were also gold stars for those lost in battle.
Our Rockingham Street paralleled the main street of town a block away, and those trucks were executing maneuvers preparing for the greatest beachhead invasion in history. Nobody knew exactly when or where it would come, but everybody from Hitler to H.V. Kaltenborne knew it was coming.
We listened every night to Kaltenborne's precisely spoken war news. During blackouts we retreated to the small hallway -hardly bigger than a closet - where the absence of windows meant we could keep one light on without inviting a visit from Bill MacLaurin. He was the air raid warden, and had knocked on our door one air raid night when the only light in the house was my Lionel locomotive's headlamp. Despite thick woolen blankets covering every window, he'd spotted it.
"Cut that light out!" he said, his white belt and white hard hat about all we could see of him standing on our porch issuing his order. No more electric train for me that night. War was serious business everywhere.
Dad was born in 1902 - too young for World War I and too old for World War II - but he had to register for the "old man's draft" nonetheless. I remember trying to make sense of the word "register" during an energetic kitchen discussion between my parents about Dad having "to register" while crawling on the floor to feel the hot air register.
I had a leather pilot's cap, and wore it on a visit to troops on maneuvers. Soldiers were everywhere we looked on a big field, and I perched on the metal tractor seat of an anti-aircraft gun. We went into a glider, an empty airplane made of wood and canvas with only one seat. It was for the pilot, who had two controls. One was a "stick" he'd use for steering. The other was a ring he'd pull to cut his glider loose from the tow plane.
They practiced with gliders at Camp Mackall. I imagined hordes of silent winged craft gliding over France, each filled with brave fighters. Other soldiers practiced jumping down at Knollwood Field and in other places. Landing areas for airborne training at Fort Bragg had - and still have - destination names like Omaha Beach.
Sometimes Dad took me out to Bragg to watch jumps. The planes came roaring over and dots dropped from side doors. Chute canopies blossomed, popping open in the air and drifting like so many soap bubbles as they floated down.
Soldiers love kids. They all waved and kidded me as their trucks passed the house. "What's your rank, soldier?" they'd sing out. I'd shout back.
"General nuisance," I'd say. Got my laugh, too.
In the store uptown, Momma would count out red ration coins made of cardboard when she needed butter or some other rare and controlled staple. She carefully chose brands of flour based on which of the flour sacks' patterned cloth she fancied.
At night on NBC there was "The Lone Ranger" followed by "Just Plain Bill," and then Kaltenborne came on with the news. Dad listened carefully to the news. We heard FDR, whom I only heard called "the president," sometimes, once on Christmas Eve. In those days everything important was on the radio.
I didn't know either of them then, but two brothers from Dad's hometown in eastern Kentucky were in uniform. Their father, James Jackson Hume, fought in the first and his sons in the Second World War. Jimmy Hume later married Dad's sister, my Aunt Diddle. His service was as lieutenant and aide to "Ripper" Collins, known as "the baby-faced colonel." Like many comrades in arms, they kept up a correspondence after the war.
Collins ended his military life as a three-star general officer in command of all U.S. forces in Europe. In one letter from Vietnam he wrote, "Jimmy, we're fighting the same kind of war here we fought on Moritai."
His brother David's war was in the European theater, where he was wounded in battle, recuperated in England, and sent back to the front. He made it to Paris, returned to marry a Carthage girl who grew up in The House in the Horseshoe, and now lives in Canada. I phone him every June 6.
On June 6, 1944, David Hume hit Omaha Beach at 9 a.m. He and one other man from his unit made it across that bloody stretch of sand. The two of them joined with some Army Rangers and went up the side of a cliff. A and B Companies of the 2nd Rangers, and the 5th Ranger Battalion had landed at Omaha Beach instead of Pointe-du-Hoc.
"Those were the fightingest men I ever saw in my life," David Hume would say later, and that was about all he'd ever say about D-Day.
President Ronald Reagan said something more about those Rangers in 1984 when he visited Normandy on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
"These are the champions who helped free a continent," the president said.
Some of them still live here. Thanks, guys. Thanks a lot.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by email at email@example.com.
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