<i>This article was originally published in June 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.</i>
As I sit in my yard toward sunset on a lovely, long June evening, my gaze falls upon my small bed of poppies, in gorgeous full bloom, and the sight of these tall, majestic symbols of the American veteran jogs my mind back yet again to that longest June day 50 years ago.
For months D-Day has been heavy on my mind as I worked on a Memorial Day special with Frank Whelan, Stan Schaffer and many other Morning Call staffers.
I try to picture 15,000 poppies on my acre-plus piece of America, one poppy for each Allied soldier killed or wounded that day.
But the vision blurs quickly, too much to comprehend, to think of the flower of an entire generation wiped out in an instant.
In a way the years have blurred our vision of D-Day and the incredible sacrifices and accomplishments of the brave men who helped save the free world.
Only today are we beginning to gain perspective, thanks in large part to the oral history project started by Lehigh County commissioner John McHugh, as well as the commemorative medal project of Lehigh County Veterans Affairs director Gene Salay and the 50th anniversary commemoration committee. Salay's group is honoring Lehigh and Northampton counties' World War II veterans with commemorative medals.
In many ways this nation and the world are having a collective epiphany on the role these men played on D-Day. Newspapers such as The Morning Call, and magazines such as Time and Newsweek have devoted special sections, and television has dedicated hours and hours of programming to retelling and reflecting on what happened on June 6, 1944.
For its part, The Morning Call published the equivalent of more than eight pages of stories concerning D-Day and the recollections of local men who were there. In addition, we inaugurated a Call INFOTEL audio series of historic recordings and tapes of local veterans, which drew more than 7,000 telephone calls.
The response has been overwhelming, according to McHugh and Salay. Phone calls to them over the past two weeks number in the hundreds. McHugh says more veterans are coming forward to offer their oral histories, including at least a dozen widows who want to share the stories of their husbands, and sons and daughters of veterans also wish to tell their father's story, or share letters and memorabilia.
McHugh says that "this whole aura right now is bringing back such a flood of memories that it's probably the most dramatic time of remembrance in their lives."
And he cites conversations with young people who say, " `Oh, if only my father were here to tell his story ... or my father died recently ... if only I had gotten my father to tell me the stories.' "
Salay notes an equally overwhelming call for Lehigh and Northampton counties' World War II medal. "We are inundated and Northampton County is inundated with requests."
Northampton County Veterans Affairs director Don Williams and Northampton County Executive Bill Brackbill will be presenting 42 medals today to veterans at Gracedale. Salay will be doing the honors with Lehigh County Executive Jane Baker at D-Day services in Center Square, Allentown, where the 50th anniversary committee is hoping for a large crowd at 11:15 a.m. today. Representatives from all levels of government will conduct ceremonies, the Allen High School band will perform, and at noon, church bells throughout the county will peal, exactly as they did 50 years ago.
The observance then will move to Zion's Church along Hamilton Mall where ecumenical services will repeat the prayers for the nation given 50 years ago. Rabbi William Greenburg was there in Zion's Church on that day and he will repeat the prayer he gave then. Bishop Thomas Welsh will represent the Allentown Diocese with the prayer originally given by Monsignor Leo G. Fink, and Zion Pastor I. Raymond Berrian will offer the prayer that his predecessor, Pastor Simon Sipple, gave.
It is obvious that the Lehigh Valley and many more Americans are beginning to understand the debt we owe D-Day veterans.
During interviews, I could feel the pride of these veterans, tempered by an abiding sense of humility. They don't seek glory, just a bit of recognition. For many it is also what the psychologists might term "closure," an attempt to put into perspective the most traumatic event of their lives.
These were, when all is said and done, just ordinary men faced with an extraordinary mission. Our mission and the mission of generations to come is to never let them be forgotten, a goal that seems simple, but is actually quite difficult.
I'm struck by the irony that I can't put a name to each man who died, each man who served. Strangely, I can tell you more about who fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War than I can about World War I and World War II.
"Once we hit World War I the only people in our records are those that died following services and are buried here," Salay explains. "People just disappear. This is one of the reasons why it's important for veterans to file a copy of their DD-214 (discharge paper) with their county of record.
"I wish we had a mechanism in place to bring this up on the screen for us ... get an update of living war vets and also peacetime vets. I'm told manpower plays a big part in this. Records go to Ft. Indiantown Gap and unless an individual opens a claim for benefits, he's lost to us."
Slowly, we are finding more names, however, as families come forward.
Following are a few of the people who have called or written the newspaper:
* William I. Hahn of Tamaqua, who was attached to a support boat group making numerous runs on Omaha Beach. He reports he, like many veterans, is very ill, but his letter recalls vividly the horror of that day;
* Joseph Scherr of Catasauqua, who was a 29th Division Sergeant directing artillery fire with the 175th Infantry. Scherr, who spoke German and served as an interpreter, was wounded and suffered 40 percent disability for the rest of his life;
* Lewis Milkovics, formerly of Allentown, whose sister, Margaret Magyar, brought in a book he wrote, "The Devils Have Landed," on the role of the U.S. Airborne in the war;
* Albert Calabrese of Wind Gap, a Seaman First Class on the flagship of a minesweeping squadron. He went into Omaha Beach, then Utah, and then by August went around to the underbelly of France for the southern invasion;
* John Umlauf of Allentown, who was an ensign on a gunboat off Utah Beach;
* William Benn a much decorated soldier from Easton who died and is buried at Normandy, whose sister Ruth Kneebone wanted him remembered.
These stories and many others just scratch the surface of our local history. Every name I receive will be sent to McHugh and the Veterans Affairs Office for further exploration. And, as we move toward the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, The Morning Call plans to bring more stories to print of the local men who changed the world.
For today, however, after the public ceremonies, I just want to spend some time in my yard ... thinking about the poppies.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun