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A day of triumph and tears

COLLEVILLE - SUR-MER, FRANCE — COLLEVILLE - SUR-MER, France -- Sixty years ago this morning, just a half-mile off the coast of Normandy, high winds tossed the flimsy landing craft in which Charles "Harry" Heinlein was riding. It was the first time the 22-year-old Army private from Baltimore would hit Omaha Beach. As the roar of German guns reached his ears, the rough weather seemed a reflection of his rapidly pounding heart.

"Let me put it this way," said Heinlein recently. "It wasn't a quiet place."

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Three days ago, when he returned to Omaha Beach for the first time since taking part in the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944, he arrived not in a landing craft but in an air-conditioned tour bus. He wore not an assault vest and helmet but a tie, a blue blazer, and the yin-and-yang symbol pin of the fabled "Blue and Gray," his 29th Infantry Division. And as he tottered from the coach into brilliant sunshine, he gazed across the sands and saw serene waters.

"A lot calmer this time," he quipped.

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But even 60 years later, even on your well-deserved day in the sun, you don't celebrate. Not here, where your buddies were killed in order to help begin the liberation of Europe. Not on the beach you couldn't imagine revisiting for six decades. Not on sacred ground. "The heroes are the ones up there," he said, nodding toward the American cemetery on the bluff above.

Harry Heinlein, 82, is not what he calls a "talker." But as the lifelong Baltimorean thought of the five-minute address he was about to give here before 400-odd friends of the 29th, he must have felt something close to what Lincoln did at Gettysburg. How do you consecrate, how do you hallow such ground?

He fingered the typed speech in his pocket. He thought of Capt. Walter Schilling, his company commander, killed before his boat even made it to the beach on D-Day, the father figure whose grave he would visit before the day was over.

Harry was one of the lucky ones. He had made it. His heart, once again, was pounding.

The fields of Normandy

In June 1944, after he survived the bloody day the French call Jour J, Pvt. Harry Heinlein took a sniper's bullet to the leg. He spent six weeks in a London hospital, then returned to ferocious fighting with his heavy-weapons unit, Company D, near the small town of Vire (pronounced "Veer").

Back in a hotel in that same town early Thursday morning, Heinlein's main concern was not so life-or-death. "He just can't make up his mind what he's going to wear," said his flustered wife, Irene. "He's changed four times already."

His hands disabled from 50 years' work in architectural sheet metal, Heinlein can barely button his shirts, leaving Irene the duty of getting him in uniform. They finally discard the 29er cap and bolo tie for the sport-jacket look.

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"She's always looking out for me, even more than for herself," he says. "It's one reason I was able to get over what happened here."

Heinlein is one of 72 veterans of the 29th Division who have made the trip to France for the 60th anniversary of the invasion. He declined to come for the 50th anniversary in 1994, but today he and the other 29ers will be among the hundreds of vets right up front at the American cemetery here when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., President Bush, and England's Queen Elizabeth II will pay tribute.

The Blue and Gray

Thursday, though, belonged to the Blue and Gray alone. Fran Sher-Davino, a Baltimore native whose late father, Melvin Sher of the 104th Medical Battalion, took part in the D-Day invasion, took it upon herself to organize a tour for more than 350 people - 29ers, their friends and families.

"It wasn't till the 1980s that I started to appreciate what my father did," Sher-Davino said. "It completely changed our relationship. I have always wanted to help others have that experience."

When he was catnapping in foxholes on the front, Harry Heinlein often fell asleep praying he'd just see Irene, then his teenage girlfriend, again. They've been married 58 years now.

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Their daughter, Darlene Gawel, of Florida, came along to lend support. So did her son, Michael, a Pennsylvania bridge inspector, and daughter Michelle, an Easton physical therapist.

"It means everything to him that his family's here," said Irene as the bus made its way through the wooded, emerald hills north of Vire toward Omaha Beach.

But this was also a time for vets to reconnect. Harry chatted up Arden Earll of Erie, Pa.. Earll was in Company H, another heavy-weapons outfit that landed in the first wave of the invasion. They compared notes on where each came ashore.

"There was a three-story house on the beach," said Earll. "That was our target." Harry remembered the house, which was leveled later that morning. "Germans were using it as an observation post," he said. "We had to take it out."

Passing through the village of Torigni-sur-Vire, Harry nodded toward an old stone church. "Hate to say it," he said with an expression of regret, "but whenever we hit a town, we hit the steeples first. They always had snipers in there."

The bus, which carried a dozen vets, grew silent as it passed a sign for St. Lo, the site of desperate fighting 60 years ago.

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The gold piping of Heinlein's blue overseas hat gleamed in the bright sun, as did the seven neatly arrayed medals on the left side of his jacket, including a Purple Heart, a Good Conduct Medal and the coveted Combat Infantry Badge.

"There weren't many paved roads like this," he said absently, gazing out at the rolling green terrain the locals call the bocage (literally, "grove").

"It's changed a lot, that's for sure. But these hills, and these hedgerows - I remember them."

Brief and to the point

The bus descended the road from the tiny village of Vierville-sur-Mer, atop the green bluffs, down to the water. This was one of the heavily fortified gullies the 29ers had to punch through on D-Day. They did, within hours, but at a bloody cost. The curve left, or east, along the road reveals new beachfront houses with high windows, a few restaurants and a museum.

"They didn't have bars for us back then," Harry said with a laugh.

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The coach pulled to a stop beside a small plaza that held more than 300 chairs, a makeshift amphitheater above the sands where the 29ers came ashore.

Harry was taken aback. He had had no idea that he would be speaking in such a formal setting, or that such a throng - soldiers, re-enactors in 1940s olive drab, family members of all ages - would be on hand. He settled into a seat near the back of the crowd, and as Sher-Davino opened the ceremonies, he clutched a white tissue.

A few other men spoke first. One, a choked-up Company H vet, told his tale of that brutal day, which included a vignette of Col. Charles Canham, the imperious commander of Harry's 116th Infantry Regiment, based in Virginia. "The colonel, God bless him, cut through some barbed wire right there on the beach," he said. "He hollered, 'Those of you who want to die, stay here. Those of you who want to live, follow me.' And did we ever follow him."

Finally, Sher-Davino called Harry's name.

"This is Charles' first trip back since D-Day," she announced before yielding the lectern. As the 82-year-old veteran made his way to the microphone, he got some encouragement. "Go get 'em, Uncle Harry," said his nephew, Ed Hullett.

Harry pulled out the speech, straightened it on the lectern, and looked out at the crowd and the bluffs behind them. He had worked on this speech for months, agonized over it at times, wondered more than once if here, in the place he'd put away for so many years, he'd be able to speak at all.

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When he did speak, it was brief and to the point.

He told of what he and his buddies called "the last supper," the steak dinner they were served on the eve of the invasion. He told of his original landing craft, which took on water in the English Channel as his unit boarded, forcing them to climb back off and wait for another. He told of running for what seemed like forever across a beach that felt like a scene out of hell. He told of men screaming to others, "Get off the beach!"

But his raspy voice stayed steady - until he got to the part about his buddy, Joe. A rapt audience listened as he told about Pvt. Joseph Walentowski of Michigan, who took shrapnel in the leg at a point just above the bluff that day.

"Joe later told me I helped bandage his leg," said Harry, his voice beginning to quaver. "I don't remember that. In that kind of chaos, you don't remember everything that happens."

And then, just like that, he was done. His heart, he'd admit later, had pounded as he'd approached the lectern, but a soldier remembers how to do what needs to be done.

Maybe the prepared text did the trick, or maybe it was that he didn't try to say too much. He avoided the kind of "gory detail" that might unnerve any descendants or his own family. But just as he had 60 years before, Harry Heinlein made it through in one piece.

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"I got a little shaky there when I talked about my buddy," he would say later. "But I guess I did all right. Maybe it was the situation. When I got up there, I guess I could tell I was among friends."

As he finished speaking, Sher-Davino asked Walentowski, 82, also back in Normandy for the first time, to stand. When he did, the crowd roared.

It was an emotional time for both, but the two vets had a time-honored formula for dealing with such moments: Toss a few barbs.

"Harry, when I stood up there, I got more applause than you did," said Walentowski in his Upper Midwest drawl.

"I sure was glad I could do that for my friend," said Harry. "But he tells me I used one of my sulfa pills on him that day. He still owes me."

'You are a star'

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His speech done, Harry, trailed by family members, strode along the paved road that parallels Omaha Beach.

It was crowded on the sun-drenched sidewalk, and Harry, accustomed to 60 years of a foot soldier's anonymity, seemed surprised. A jeepful of Brits in period military attire, honked, pulled over and made a big fuss. "Thank you, sir, for all you did," said the woman at the wheel. A bit embarrassed, Harry bowed at the waist.

Soon, though, he got the drift: Today was really his day, the 29ers' day. An Australian writer, two Italian soldiers and a young Frenchman in jeans and a military jacket stopped him on his way to the luncheon tent. One pumped his hand. Another saluted. A third asked whether the beach brought it all back to him.

"Sure, it does," said Harry. "Some of it's not too happy. But yes, I'm proud of what we did."

An Italian journalist, in heavily accented English, asked a few questions. Harry, his eyes narrowed, followed most of it. What, she asked, can later generations take from this week's events?

"It's not taught much in school," he replied. "Back in my country, somebody asked a school kid what D-Day was, and he said, 'That must be when I took my math test.' It's important that you all talk to the veterans and get their stories and pass them along, so no one forgets what a lot of men died for."

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A group of Italian soldiers held out a pen and asked him to autograph the a Jeep. Heinlein took the pen in his crippled left hand. He had been working on his left-handed writing for just this occasion, and the soft felt tip helped. Cameras clicked as he inked "29th Division."

The Frenchman in the army jacket bowed. "Today, sir, you are a star," he said.

For the first time all day, Harry smiled broadly.

The captain's grave

Months ago, when Sher-Davino contacted Harry to tell him of her D-Day tour, he remembered taking a pass on the event's 50th anniversary. "I just couldn't handle it yet," he says. "But I'm 82 now. I'm in pretty good shape, but who knows where I'll be in 10 years? I thought this could be my last chance."

A chance to see the place where somehow, against staggering odds, he'd survived. But also a chance to say a proper farewell to a man who did not.

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Late Thursday afternoon, as he and his family strolled toward Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery, his mind went back to those days in 1942 when he enlisted, got sent to Fort Meade and was assigned to Company D, run by a long-time National Guardsman, Capt. Walter Schilling.

He remembered Schilling's steady hand, his knowledge, the discipline he taught. Mostly he remembered his compassion. In 1943, he recalled, Schilling had hand-written Christmas cards to the families of each of the 180-odd members of the company.

"That was a great man," says Harry. "He taught us all what we needed to know, and he never got to take care of his men on the beach. I wanted to say goodbye."

In bright, warm, slanting sunlight, he made his way to the far end of Colleville-sur-Mer, the immaculately kept 172-acre shrine where 9,386 American soldiers are buried. He found the right headstone in the third-to-last row.

Harry's family stood back and let him approach.

As he stood at the gleaming white cross, he thanked the captain for all he did and wished him well. He saluted. And then, finally, the tears started to come, and they just wouldn't stop. "I don't think I've ever sobbed like that in my life," he'd admit later.

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Sorrow, fear and pride

For half a century, Harry Heinlein, Baltimore-born and bred, rarely spoke of the bloody events of D-Day, of all those personal memories, those nightmarish images from a crucial moment in the history of civilized humankind. How to dredge up thoughts that are just as searing to you as they are vital to the lives of millions?

For all that time, he carried with him a sorrow, a fear, a suffering and yes, a pride, that felt altogether like a great unanswered longing. But as Irene took her place beside him, wiped his glasses, and put her arm on his shoulder, Harry felt that his journey - from Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A., to this place on the shores of France that changed his life, and the lives of generations - had reached some conclusion.

Back at his hotel in Vire next morning, Harry Heinlein, former No. 1 machine-gunner of Company D, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, struggled to pour a cup of coffee as he grew thoughtful.

"I wish I could talk to everyone that was lost," he said, "but that's impossible. Where are they all? There's no way to know. I guess the captain stood in for everyone in the company - in the regiment, even. He was the best of the 29th Division.

"I guess I was waiting a long time to let go of that.

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"Whatever else happens, I'm glad I could stand there in that place and say goodbye."


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