My wife asked me, “Can you take my Uncle Ricky to lunch?” Her Uncle Ricky is in his mid-90’s. We were at the hospital, visiting his wife.
“Yes” was the right answer. I knew that, so I said yes. But I wasn’t really sure what to talk about. Ricky (born Phil, but I’ve never heard anyone call him that) and his wife Carm attended our wedding, but I was never really close to them, so I wasn’t sure what to talk about.
We sat down in the hospital cafeteria, and I noticed that he was wearing a hat that said “World War II Veteran”. I asked him if he fought in World War II, and he said he had. I asked him where, and he said, “I landed in France on D-Day”.
D-Day was the landing on the beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944.
World War II started officially in 1939, but the causes of it started much earlier. By 1944, Germany and Italy occupied most of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa. Japan occupied large parts of the Pacific region. The Allied Forces (U.S., England, Canada, Australia, and many others) needed to be on the ground in Western Europe in order to be able to eventually reach Germany and topple Hitler.
In order to do that, the Allied Forces needed an entry point into Western Europe. The beaches of Normandy, France were chosen for several reasons. One reason is that those beaches were relatively close to England, across the English Channel. At the narrowest part of the English Channel, England and France are only 21 miles apart.
But there were several challenges with landing on those beaches. One is that the Germans were heavily fortified in the hills above those beaches, in concrete bunkers. Another is that the surf was incredibly rough there.
On June 6, 1944, English and American forces landed on 5 beaches in the Normandy area- Omaha, Juno, Gold, Utah and Sword. Over 4400 American and English men lost their lives that day on those beaches. Many died as they set foot in the water. I visited Omaha Beach last year, and I understand why. The Allied Forces landed on low ground, and had to wade through water, up the beach, and then uphill in order to capture those beaches. It was a life threatening task for all of the soldiers involved. If you’ve never seen “Saving Private Ryan”, see it. I’ve read that the D-Day scene is supposed to be pretty realistic. It’s painful to watch.
I asked Ricky what happened after D-Day. He noted that he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
The Battle of the Bulge took place from December 16, 1944-January 25, 1945. In the six months after D-Day, Allied Forces pushed east through France, towards Germany. They reclaimed about 300 miles of French territory. By December 1944, Germany decided to counter-attack. The German counter-attack took place in the Ardennes Forest, stretching across parts of Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The Germans attacked right into the middle of the Allied Forces, with the intent of separating the forces and causing havoc. It almost worked.
I’ve been to the Ardenne region, and the Battle of the Bulge Monument. It was supposed to be desperately cold and very snowy that winter. Anyone who fought in the Battle of the Bulge lived outside for at least 40 days, in the freezing cold and snow.
I asked him what happened after the Battle of the Bulge. He said “we headed towards Berlin, trying to capture Hitler”.
It is about 550 miles from the Ardennes Forest (Battle of the Bulge) to Berlin, Germany. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, so it took about 4 months to reclaim the last 500 miles of France and Germany.
I asked Ricky what was next. It turns out that he was deployed to a Russian air field someplace in Czechoslovakia (now both the Czech Republic, and Slovakia).
He explained that after the German surrender, Russian forces held Czechoslovakia. But at one Russian airfield, German forces would not surrender, and were shooting at Russian planes. So American forces were deployed to this area, trying to end the German resistance.
How do you come back to a normal life after experiences like that?
Ricky and Carm did pretty well, it seems. They got married, and had three children. They worked, and they played. They owned a luncheonette in Manayunk (named “Ricky’s” of course). They owned beach rental properties.
They worked really hard. Ricky had a full-time job, and then cleaned the luncheonette every night. Together they ran the luncheonette with my mother-in-law Rose. They cleaned their vacation rentals every weekend.
They lived, and they prospered. They had a wonderful life together.
We were finishing up our lunch, and I thought I should say something to Ricky.
What do you say to a man who spent a year of his life living outside, fighting the enemy, in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia? What do you say to someone who risked his life every day, for the freedoms that we now enjoy?
What do you say to a living, breathing hero?
I leaned over to him, and I told him that the lives that he and I both had, and the freedoms that we enjoy, were made possible by him and his comrades. I told him that I thought that the history of the world changed on June 6, 1944 on Omaha Beach.
Without those D-Day landings, I’m not sure who would have won that World War. Without the bravery of the soldiers who gave their lives on those beaches and those forests, our lives might be totally different today.
I thanked Uncle Ricky for his service. On behalf of me, and behalf of you, too.
I thought I should.