Sixty-one years ago today, armed with a rifle, Lester Lease was part of one of the most significant military invasions in world history, and what he remembers of D-Day would sober any man. The blood in the frigid waters, the screams of dying men, the all-enveloping smoke of a massive beach bombardment - all was the stuff of nightmares for a 20-year-old platoon sergeant.
"We did what we had to do," Lease, a lifelong Baltimorean, says of June 6, 1944, the day that marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe in World War II. "I'd do it again. But for a long time, I didn't talk about it too much."
The paradox was typical of D-Day veterans. Witnesses to history, many were too traumatized to talk about what they'd seen. Grateful countrymen were too polite to ask. As Lease and others reached their 70s and 80s, that respectful silence was poised to trump history.
This afternoon, Lease and 11 other veterans will do their part to put that problem to rest. They're gathering at the governor's mansion in Annapolis for the premiere of In Their Own Words: Maryland Veterans of D-Day, a short documentary in which each man shares his memories of that momentous day.
None has seen the finished product, which Comcast Corp. produced in partnership with the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs. In Their Own Words will be shown to public school ninth-graders across the state beginning this fall.
It wasn't that hard for Lease, a Middle River grandfather, to participate. Over the years, he has told stories at reunions and re-enactments.
"I'm glad to be a part of this," says Lease, 81. "When I was in school, we learned about the Civil War and World War I. It's just as important for these kids to remember D-Day."
That's what Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. thought when he dreamed up the project a year ago. A self-described history buff and an outspoken booster of the Maryland National Guard, Ehrlich went with dozens of World War II veterans to Normandy, France, last summer to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
"That's not just a major chapter of American history," Ehrlich says, "but also a major chapter of world history. And let's remember, it was a Maryland unit that led the invasion."
He's referring to the 29th Infantry Division, the fabled Blue and Gray outfit made up mostly of Marylanders and Virginians, that was based in Maryland as the war began. The 29th was one of the two divisions that led the beach assault; nearly 10,000 29ers took part.
Just before the trip, Ehrlich invited D-Day veterans from across the state to a meeting in Annapolis. "Those guys literally changed history," the governor said afterward, "yet so many of them are so unassuming. Many are well into their 80s. It's important we not lose their stories."
Lease was one of several veterans who approached Ehrlich to share a concern: that today's schoolchildren know too little about World War II, including D-Day. "They're not taught this stuff now," says Lease, who also went to Normandy last year. "I didn't know the governor, but I went right up to him and said that. We didn't talk long, but he was paying attention."
For Ehrlich, who makes numerous visits to public schools each year and has long felt that young people should know more about American history and world events, conversations like the one with Lease firmed up his plan to commission a film. He assigned Col. Robert L. Finn, assistant secretary of veterans affairs, the task of choosing Marylanders who were D-Day veterans and getting their stories on film.
Finn rounded up 14 former pilots, paratroopers, sailors and infantrymen. Comcast furnished facilities, conducted the interviews and put together the finished product, all at no charge.
"It's a worthwhile idea to capture the voices of these vets," says Comcast's Noah Kodeck, the documentary's executive producer, "and we were glad this would benefit" Maryland students.
Three years ago, Lease's granddaughter, Krista, invited him to speak about the war to her fifth-grade class at Our Lady Queen of Peace School in Middle River. He showed the class his Purple Heart, shared a photo album and told a few somber stories.
"I was honest," he says. "I told 'em what it was like. They pulled up their chairs and sat around me in a circle. The whole time I talked, nobody made a sound, except to ask questions."
Lease hopes In Their Own Words will have a similar effect.
"Teach it to the children," he says, "and they'll soak it up."
'Full of worldly advice'
When veterans such as Austin Cox of Crisfield (29th Division, 115th Infantry Regiment), Bill Bladen of College Park (82nd Airborne) and Sheldon Bosley of Baltimore (Navy, Squadron 34) arrived at the Comcast studios during the film's making, Kodeck says that he felt as if he were getting a visit from his own grandfather. "They were great to work with," he says. "Open, supportive, full of worldly advice - if you asked for it."
He found them to be self-effacing, a characteristic that shows up clearly in his film.
"We asked them to come in uniform if they wanted," Kodeck says, "or to wear medals or a military hat. Some of them did, as you see in the piece. But you got the feeling they rarely paraded around in those things. There was no flaunting at all."
In Their Own Words develops the story of D-Day - the events leading up to it, the horrors on the beach, the epic scale of the combat, the lost innocence of the young men - in the simple, well-chosen words of those who were there.
Against a backdrop of archival footage, the veterans invoke the human-scale details that made up such a huge event. Joseph Heinlein (29th Division), on why he enlisted: "It was a social affair. We got a dollar a night. We could spend that." Charles Heinlein (29th, no relation), on crossing the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary: "Our bunks were built in a swimming pool; that's how crowded it was." Lease (29th), on D-Day: "The shell smoke was so thick, you couldn't see nothin'. Guys was hollerin' for help." Bladen: "It was awful, all the people getting blown to pieces. War is hell. In fact, it's worse than hell."
Occasionally as they speak, their eyes well up briefly. Says Billy Forbes (29th): "I hadn't volunteered, but once I was in, I was going to do my job to the best of my ability." Joseph Heinlein: "You talk about heroes. The people who did it were out of this world."
The right audience
To Ehrlich, early teens are the right audience for In Their Own Words - just starting to mature intellectually, they're likely to absorb its lessons. Jay Ward, an assistant principal at Woodlawn Middle School, showed eighth-graders an early version and says the children bonded with the veterans. "The kids know the big picture of WWII," he says, "but not so much about the role Marylanders played. They gave a huge clap at the end."
Mindful of MTV-era tastes, producer Kodeck keeps his action taut, intercutting image and music to build drama. "It's terrific," the governor says. "It does just what it sets out to do, which is to educate."
In the fall, the documentary will be shown at selected public school assemblies and then distributed to history departments across the state. When it is, teachers and ninth-graders, and veterans like Lease, are likely to be glad that Kodeck never lost sight of the heart of his film.
"It's one thing to see Hollywood films about what happened in Normandy," he says. "It's another to hear these vets talk about it in their own words. That's hard to forget."
For the 60th anniversary of D-Day last year, The Sun published a five-day series on the wartime experiences of Baltimore soldier Charles "Harry" Heinlein, one of the D-Day veterans featured in the film. This series and a photo gallery can be found on The Sun's Web site at baltimoresun.com/d-day.