Letter to my Dad on the anniversary of D-Day

by Lynne Warfel, Minnesota Public Radio
June 6, 2014
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St. Paul, Minn. — In 1984, I took a grad school student's holiday to London to stay the summer with a friend, trying to see all the West End plays I could from the cheap seats. Before returning home, I went to Normandy to see where my Dad, Norman "Bud" Warfel, served during World War II. It was then the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

My Dad didn't have much to say about it at the time, like a lot of World War II vets.

Over the years, my Dad had stayed pretty silent on the topic of the war, until the 50th anniversary rolled around in 1994. Then, one night in a single phone call with my Dad, all the stories started pouring out. I had never heard them before.

Perhaps he realized the time left to him was short, and he needed to pass this oral history on to the next generation. Immediately after that phone call, I knew I needed to write it all down to remember how he remembered.

Dad was a career high school history teacher in Pennsylvania, loved by his students for his sense of humor; an avid (and excellent!) golfer, golf columnist, and one of the best jazz trumpeters ever.

Rafael Mendez used to call on Dad in his clinics in New York and Pennsylvania, where he called Dad "the best naturally gifted trumpeter" he ever heard. I grew up hearing him play every single day, and many nights his playing the blues or a great ballad put me to sleep.

During the war he found an old beaten up rotary valve trumpet and carried it with him through the whole thing. Officers and other enlisted men called on Dad to play impromptu recitals.

Once, on "R & R" in Nice, France, his buddies got him up on stage at Maxim's. As Dad got up on stage, he realized he was about to play with Django Reinhardt. He sat in for two sets.

My Dad died suddenly on December 21, 2005, but he had a lot of chances to hear this piece as I sent him a copy when I first wrote it for MPR News. I think he was both pleased and proud -- mostly for me.

He certainly never thought of himself as anything special or heroic. But I did.

Hey! What DID you do in the war, Daddy?

That was a question I often asked as a 6-year-old tomboy growing up in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Susquehanna River. It was there I spent most of my playtime tearing around the streets and alleyways, pretending I was Roy Rogers or Sgt. Saunders from the 1960s TV series "Combat."

In my young mind, I guess I thought it would add a new direction to our war games if we had some REAL stories to act out.

It wasn't until now, almost 40 years past those backyard adventures, I realized that you, like so many other veterans of D-Day, just plain don't talk about what you did in France in 1944.

Maybe as the years passed and I entered young adulthood, I -- like so many of my generation whose war divided a nation along the lines of age and politics -- became cynical about war and "the government," deciding that all war was always wrong. I certainly didn't want to hear anything about the military or invasions.

Then, in 1984, something happened to change my point of view about THIS war, and about your generation.

The day was Aug. 9, 1984, and I was standing on Omaha Beach in Normandy. I had spent that summer as a graduate student visiting a friend in London, when I figured it might be fun to visit France on a shoestring for a couple of days and visit the beaches in Normandy. After all, there was all this stuff going on about the 40th anniversary of the invasions, I might as well check it out.

My journey started by channel ferry and French train, and it ended at L'Hotel du Lion D'or -- The Gold Lion Hotel -- tucked away in a beautiful flower-laden courtyard in the shadow of Bayeux Cathedral. I later discovered it was Gen. Eisenhower's favorite restaurant and hotel during the war.

After dinner that evening, I went to my room and called you in the States: "Hey, Dad, guess where I am right now?" You, of course knew, because we discussed the possibility of my visit when I was home earlier in the summer.

The Mampaeys had been 7-year-old kids during the invasions -- refugees from Belgium trying to escape the occupation of their country. They felt they still owed a lot to the Allies, so they were honored to take me, the daughter of an American G.I., to

At first, I didn't understand the complete silence that followed my question. I thought maybe we had been disconnected. Then as you tried to speak, I realized you couldn't. You were in tears, weeping because I was in Normandy.

The next day I was met at my hotel, by a Belgian couple, Marcel and Jose Mampaey. They had bailed me out at dinner the previous evening when dining solo -- I was struggling with both the waiter and with my poor collegiate French. I was great with the nouns, but lacking in operative verbs. ... a definite drawback in conversations especially when fending off French waiters.

The Mampaeys had been 7-year-old kids during the invasions -- refugees from Belgium trying to escape the occupation of their country. They felt they still owed a lot to the Allies, so they were honored to take me, the daughter of an American G.I., to see the sights.

As a matter of fact, wherever I went, if the local folks found out I was related to a D-Day vet, they were certain to thank me for what my father did for them.

The Mampaeys took me on a daylong tour, from the British invasion beaches at Arromanches -- Gold Sword and Juno Beaches -- to the east of Bayeux all the way west to St. Mere-Eglise. And we visited the austere German cemetery at Isigny with its rows of small dark crosses, so different from its American counterpart.

Then we stopped for lunch at a small cafe. At the next table was an older German gentleman with what appeared to be his grandchildren. How ironic, I thought, to be at adjoining tables with a German veteran, sitting with two Belgians -- 7-year-old refugees from the war -- and me, the daughter of an American infantryman. The world changes a lot in 40 years. Or maybe not so much.

After lunch, we headed back towards Bayeux for the big stop at Omaha Beach. It was a gorgeous, clear blue August day. We came in from the top near the eastern end of the beach, which would have been one of the many German vantage points on that day in 1944.

There are high bluffs surrounding this huge expanse of sandy beach -- a definite advantage for the enemy machine guns and mortars. Anything coming up on the beach from the water would be an easy target even at a fairly long range.

I picked my way down to the beach through some pretty stiff and sharp undergrowth, passing an old, overgrown German bunker on the way.

The only thing you said you'd like me to do in Normandy was to buy some flowers and throw them in the channel for your friends who stayed on Omaha forever. I had such a hard time holding on to them climbing down the hill, I can't imagine what it must have been like trying to go up, carrying a heavy pack and rifle with an awful lot of folks shooting at you.

Once I got down on the beach, I realized my mental picture of Omaha as a small place like the cove at La Jolla -- maybe a few hundred feet wide and a couple of hundred yards long -- was entirely wrong.

Omaha Beach is massive.

It stretches for what looks like more than a mile down to the sheer cliffs at Point du Hoc, off in the mist of the channel, and from the water. You have to cross a really huge beach before you hit a line of dunes, which is the only small shelter between you and the bluffs.

There's nothing, really, between you and the bluffs. Nothing between you and the German bunkers that still dot the hillside. There is no way off that beach to this day except over the sand, across the dunes and up the bluff.

That day, Omaha was strangely quiet and empty, almost deserted except for a few tourists, the Mampaeys and me. When we neared the water, the Mampaeys suddenly stopped walking beside me, leaving me to go on ahead as if they knew this was a sacred task I had to do alone.

I walked from where you landed, the section of beach erroneously called "Easy Red," down toward the cliffs at Point du Hoc. I was barefoot and completely alone on the sand, and I started to feel a little of what it must have been like. I started to feel I wasn't really alone on that beach at all. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood up. I started to cry. I didn't know why.

I walked out a few yards into the channel to drop the flowers I had brought for your friends who never made it off Omaha, and even on that calm, sunny, warm August day the water was like ice. My feet were numb after only a few minutes, and I thought about what it must have been like struggling through deep water in combat gear, terrified, and carrying nearly half your own weight in equipment.

I thought about what this calm, isolated, still wild place must have looked like 40 years earlier. Nothing at all as it looked on this peaceful August day.

Then we climbed up the bluff to the beautiful American cemetery at the top of the hill. A lovely, peaceful place of manicured gardens, marble shrines, and rows and rows of white crosses and stars of David as far as you can see. The very first cross I came to bore this inscription:

Private first-class James Noonan
16th infantry Pennsylvania
Died: June 6th 1944

Another 19-year-old soldier from Pennsylvania.

Then I knew this war definitely was different from the ones that followed. People were different, both those fighting there, and those left at home. Times were different. We could trust our leaders then, and they were trustworthy.

I knew there was a reason that you weren't one of the majority of your company killed that day, and there was a reason I was here -- the only child of an only child who could have died here 40 years ago, as so many did. I sat by Noonan's grave and cried and cried. I still am not sure why.

Well, Dad, like I said at the start of all this, you never talked at all about what you did in the war. But then I called you last week and you mentioned in passing that a reporter from the Harrisburg paper was coming to interview you and a few other vets about the 50th D-Day anniversary coming up.

In that typical gruff way you sometimes have when you're nervous, or you really don't want to fuss about something, you said, "Hell, what do they want to know? Why does anyone want to know?" You said you couldn't remember a thing about it anyhow.

Except -- you remembered being scared to death about going over the side of the transport ship, down a cargo net ladder and into the landing craft. You and bodies of water were never the best of friends anyhow. You were a lousy swimmer, and the waves were so rough it was pitching the huge transport ship up and down in converse motion to the bobbing landing craft, so sometimes the drop between the two vessels was reasonable, sometimes it was a couple of stories down to the deck to the landing craft. You remembered you had to time your jump off the netting just right, or you'd break a leg. And that was all you could remember.

Except -- that once inside, you couldn't see over the top of the landing craft, and most of you were getting seriously seasick as storms had hit the area in the past weeks and days, and the English Channel isn't known for calm seas on its best day. Guys were throwing up all over, but that was about it, as far as you could remember.

I was about to interrupt when you kept going. This was the first I had heard of any of this, and I then realized it was the first you had talked about it in 50 years.

Except -- you remembered the front ramp on the landing craft opening and dumping you all into the water. But that was definitely all you could think of.

"Except..." and your voice got very quiet, "complete fear turned into absolute terror." A guy next to you yelled at you to move it and you turned and recognized somebody you knew from back home. Then another guy near you got hit.

You grabbed the straps on his pack. You said you knew he was hurt pretty badly as there was a lot of blood in the water, but still, you figured it was best to take him with you up to the beach. Other guys yelled to drop him, that the guy was dead, but still you dragged him up on the sand. It wasn't until you rolled him over and saw his face was completely gone, you knew just how awful this was.

Now I know why you never wanted to go to the beach when I was a kid. And you said that was all you could remember. You paused for half a minute.

Then you continued.

You remembered you got pinned down on the beach for the longest time. No one could do a thing. In your words, "We were ALL getting the crap kicked out of us."

Then you recalled a sound you said you'll never be able to describe adequately. The allied naval forces saw the beating you were taking on the beach, and they opened up with their big guns. You turned and looked back toward the water and you saw one battle cruiser doing something really extraordinary.

It started coming in so close to the beach you swore the hull must be scraping the sand; and then it ran broadside, parallel to the beach, back and forth, firing huge rounds into the bluff.

You said when the ships started firing you really couldn't hear the noise anymore, it was so deafening. You felt it in your bones as they rattled in your body. You said you were screaming for it to stop and it wouldn't. You couldn't hear your own voice screaming.

When there was a small break in the shelling all you could hear were lots of men weeping, calling for their mothers, and the sound of people dying. Those of you not physically hurt were lying face down in the sand under the bluffs, clinging to your rifles, unable to fire a shot.

At this point you really insisted you couldn't remember much else.

Except -- you thought about the fact you might never see the maple trees in blossom again, or walk down Market Street to get a malt at Nelson's. And the next moment you said you hated yourself for actually trying to get into a combat unit for an entire year, instead of fulfilling your service as part of an Army Band unit.

You had to get farther up onto the beach, but you had decided you were not going another inch even if you were ordered to. But when the commander gave you the choice of dying then and there or dying later on in the war, you decided to run as fast as you could toward the bluffs.

You were in great shape, a champion high school athlete. But with the noise, the chaos and the sheer terror, it felt as if your legs were made of lead, like in that old childhood nightmare -- no matter how hard you run, you never gain any ground away from the monster.

You ran and ran, and you could hear the bullets flying past you. You remembered wondering why no one was getting killed, and then you looked around. Lots of men were getting killed. You just weren't one of them yet.

So, recalling the landing craft and the seasickness was it -- except for that one small matter of getting pinned down at the foot of the bluffs. If someone hadn't gone in with a flamethrower to take out the German machine gun nest 50 yards away, you and what was left of your outfit would have died on Omaha.

You heard the screams of the German kids as they died less than half a football field away, and you felt guilty and sad. After all, they were probably just like you -- 20-year-old kids from a small town along a river somewhere in Germany, and our part of Pennsylvania is populated with families with names like Laudenslager, Fenstermacher, Schneider -- and Warfel.

The last thing you remember, it was near evening, and you were at the top of the bluff at last, but you said you never felt safe. You only traded one kind of fear for another -- and all of you were in for the duration of the war -- non-stop, until the end. No furloughs home every few months.

You and thousands like you went from Omaha, through France, into the Battle of the Bulge and finally into Germany. Some of you crossed the Rhine at Remagen. Some did what you could at places called Buchenwald and Dachau and Auschwitz, and saw firsthand what horrific things people can do to other people. Some of you went on to Berlin.

So what did you do in the war, Daddy? What was it really like? I suppose none of us, not even the children of D-Day vets, will know for sure. You had to be there. Why do we need to know?

Maybe it has something to do with a passing conversation I had with a veteran from the Pacific theater I once met when my oldest son was starting kindergarten.

I mentioned my dad was a European theater vet. "Where?" the vet asked.

"Omaha Beach on D-Day." I replied.

"You know, he's damned lucky to be alive."

I knew he was right. And I was damned lucky to visit Normandy to see what you all did that day, and to know there's a reason you are here and I'm here and your grandsons are here.

Thanks, Dad, from all of us.

(First broadcast on MPR on Memorial Day 1994)

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