June 6, 2019
Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. But it is also my grandmother’s birthday. On the day one of my most loved, admired women turned 38, hundreds of thousands of young allied troops stormed the beaches on Normandy, and tens of thousands of them died that day.
On this day in 1944 she was 13 years younger than I am today, and four of her five brothers were at war. She had heard on the radio that we had invaded France. My mother remembers being at the top of the stairs getting ready for school and there was her mom at the bottom of the stairs telling my not quite 13-year-old mother about D-Day.
I think of my grandmother and of how she spent her 38th birthday. It must have been frightening. It must have been fearful. All I remember about my 38th birthday is that I bought a red sports car. And that I was hoping it might impress a guy. And I don’t remember why I wanted to impress that guy. I do know I loved that car longer than I had a crush on that guy.
My grandmother’s youngest brother Mike served on the Lexington from April 1943, when he was 21, through June 1945.
The Lexington, dubbed The Blue Ghost, was an Essex Class aircraft carrier. With my Uncle Mike as part of the crew, The Blue Ghost participated in nearly every major operation in the Pacific Theater, her planes destroying 847 enemy aircraft, her guns shooting down 15 aircraft, and sinking 300K tons of enemy cargo. She was decommissioned in 1991, and is now a floating museum in Corpus Christi, Texas. Uncle Mike survived the war and died in 2006 in California where he’d lived his entire adult life. I worked as a salad girl in his restaurant when I was 16. He’d hold court during dinner service at a poker table in the corner of the bar, giving away far too many free meals than his wife would have liked. He loved people and people loved him.
My Uncle Sam enlisted in the Coast Artillery Corps in 1940 when he was 21, serving first protecting the Panama Canal more than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Later he fought in Europe after the US joined the war. According to family history, he had served honorably in Panama, had won awards for bravery and could have gone stateside during the war. But two of his brothers were in Europe, so that’s where he chose to go. Uncle Sam married a girl from Missouri and lived there after he retired and until he died in 2000. I only saw him a few times when he came home to visit family, but I remember a happy, cool dude who put salt in his beer and laughed a lot.
Uncle Frank enlisted in January of 1942, when he was 26. He once told me a story of being sick as a dog, hunkered down in his foxhole during a battle. I also have a vague memory of him telling me about being briefly captured by the Nazis, but he jumped off the truck and ran to freedom. I seem to remember family history that Uncle Joe fought in the same unit as Uncle Frank. Uncle Joe died before I was born, and I couldn’t find his service records on Ancestry. But I know he was over there. My mother adored him.
My Uncle Pat had a family, so he served the war effort at the Seneca Ordnance Depot, transporting bombs for detonation. Of all my great uncles, I knew Uncle Pat and Uncle Frank the best as a young girl because we saw them often. I idolized them. They were always happy, and just like their brothers, they laughed a lot. Uncle Frank died in 1993, far too young. Uncle Pat died in 2011 at 97, sharp as a tack till the end.
This is why my grandmother and her brothers, and all of her generation were truly The Greatest Generation. It’s days like today that put my whole life into perspective. I’m lucky and blessed beyond belief because the worst that has ever happened in my world is nothing like what they lived through. And they survived so we would have what we have now.