Every year around Father's Day, I recall several personal stories my father, now long gone, told me during our trip to the Normandy battlefield 30 years ago. Since this summer is the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe in World War II, the sad actuarial truth is that before long there will be no more firsthand accounts of D-Day, Arnhem, the Bulge and other battles. They are preserved in footage, books, and on the Internet, but the personal stories — the tales of friendship, fear, valor and heroism — will soon be consigned to the mists of history. So on this anniversary, my father's stories assume added meaning.
In 1944, he landed at Utah Beach with the first wave in the early hours on D-Day. On the 40th anniversary of the invasion, we toured the beach together. After visiting nearby Pointe du Hoc, where Army Rangers scaled 100-foot cliffs to neutralize German gun emplacements that threatened the invasion, we arrived at Utah. With a faraway gaze, he stared at a placid English Channel and recalled it was nothing like the rough sea that made seasickness pills indispensable during transit in June 1944.
By 1984, Utah Beach was just another typical French beach: girls in skimpy bikinis, children building sandcastles, and dogs chasing Frisbees. Except for historical markers, there was little indication this was once a landing site for the greatest amphibious assault in history.
A wave of long-suppressed memories rushed over him, and in a moment of supreme incongruity he identified a spot where two teenage girls were sunbathing — the exact location where he took the shrapnel in his leg. Forty years on, he remembered.
Like many veterans, he rarely discussed his war experiences. Now at Utah, I had so many questions I didn't know where to begin. I wondered, "With all those men involved, how did we keep the invasion secret from the Nazis?"
He answered by grimly recalling a hushed-up incident, where hundreds of colleagues died during a botched rehearsal landing. Six weeks before the invasion, soldiers were stationed near an English beach called Slapton Sands. During a live ammunition practice maneuver, some men were killed by friendly fire and many more, some his friends, drowned or were burned to death when the Germans intercepted radio communications and attacked the landing craft at sea. That day, hundreds more died than at the actual landing at Utah.
My father was a medic, assigned to care for survivors, but like everyone else he was under strict orders, under threat of court-martial, never to mention the episode. For decades, the details remained confidential. Even today, exactly how many died at Slapton Sands is uncertain.
He recounted that episode, which he had never mentioned before, in hushed tones and shook his head forlornly, "Such a waste."
Apparently, hundreds of dead bodies of colleagues washed up on the shore. That, and the enforced secrecy, profoundly affected everyone, including one traumatized young staff sergeant named J.D. Salinger. Some biographers speculate the Slapton Sands debacle was the reason the author of "The Catcher in the Rye" subsequently became a recluse.
Then my father segued to another story. While in England, around that time his best friend approached him at mess. Out of the blue, he asked my father, "Are you a bigot?"
The question shocked my dad. He thought he misheard his friend and asked him to repeat the question.
"Are you bigoted?"
My father was Jewish from a Brooklyn ghetto. His friend was a Southern Baptist from rural Texas. Before the war, neither had any experience with the other's religion, so this was a potentially sensitive subject that had never arisen before.
My father, tolerant by nature, was profoundly hurt by the question. He answered:
"Bob, you've known me since basic training. You know I am not like that. Why did you ask me that now?"
Bob eyed him coldly, said nothing, and walked away. For several days, he deliberately avoided my father, who felt terrible and wondered what he did to insult his friend in such a manner to prompt that question. Who was the real bigot?
About a week later, my father was summoned before the top brass.
They basically said: "Major Franklin, we are releasing top-secret information to you. The approximate time and location of the Allied landing will be either the last week in May or the first week in June, depending on weather conditions. On the Normandy peninsula. This material is known only by selected officers, who must remain in England until D-Day, lest they be captured by the enemy.
"The code name for those entrusted with this information is that they are 'bigoted.' Anyone who inquires if you are a 'bigot' has already been briefed and is instructed not to discuss matters with those who answer they are not 'bigoted.' On penalty of court-martial."
My father instantly gained a newfound respect for his friend. For Bob to shun my father and walk away must have been tough.
Before we left Utah Beach, my dad took one last look at the channel. He said laconically to me, "I'm glad you never had to go through anything like this."
It was a father's expression of love for his son on Utah Beach.
Dr. Cory Franklin lives in Wilmette and is the author of a collection of essays, "Chicago Flashbulbs: A Quarter Century of News, Politics, Sports and Show Business (1987-2012)."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun