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A D-Day Story

June 6, 2011
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When asked what he was thinking during the choppy boat ride across the channel to Normandy,  my grandfather said, “That I was already dead.”

Papa Fitz was one of 160,000 men to land on those beaches 67 years ago today. He was a good Boston Irish Catholic boy, so when the fighting was over and he found himself alive, the first thing he did was to walk inland, seeking a place to pray, to thank God for sparing his life. He found a tiny chapel a mile or so off the beach, where he prayed, and gave thanks, and because he was young and scared and far from home, took with him a cross he found by the altar, tucking it into his uniform for protection.

He was an army engineer and went on to participate in several more campaigns throughout France and Germany, including the Ardennes-Alsace campaign (better known as the Battle of the Bulge), as well as the liberation of one of Hitler’s concentration camps.

He survived all of it, returning after the war to marry the girl who worked at the soda shop down the street – my grandmother – and attended BC under the GI Bill. He raised my father and six more kids after him, and was a hero to a dozen grandchildren and at least a dozen more kids who loved him as if they were his grandchildren, too. He wasn’t always a perfect husband or a perfect father, but the balance at the end of his life was weighted to the good.

As a grandfather, well, I reserve the grandchild’s right to believe he was perfect. He had a unique relationship with each of us. My brother Ryan, when he played football in college, would get into game mode before his games. The entire family could walk right by him and he wouldn’t even acknowledge we were there, save for one short nod – to Papa Fitz. My cousin Christian, today winning Junior PGA tournaments, learned to love golf playing when he was tiny with his father and Papa Fitz. When my grandmother died, I was seven, and Papa Fitz was the sole person at the reception who saw and understood my fury that everyone could be laughing and celebrating on the day we buried my Nana. He sat down beside me on the front stoop and told me that from then on, whenever I saw him, I had to give him two kisses, one for him and one for Nana. He and my aunt would take me for walks around Castle Island, then out for fish & chips and fried ice cream at Amrhein’s. Each of us had our own relationship with our grandfather, and we each have our own stories.

55 years after D-Day, my grandfather, who had been battling cancer, returned to France for the first and last time, accompanied by my father, two of my uncles and a family friend. He wanted to see it one more time, before he was too sick to travel. He returned to Paris and stood on the exact center of France, just as he had as a young man on his way home from the war. He returned to Normandy, to see the landscape again, to see the beach and the memorials and the cemeteries, and on the way there he spoke of trying to find that chapel again, too. For more than half a century, he had been carrying a feeling of guilt over stealing the cross, and he wanted to make up for it. They urged him not to get his hopes up and none of them expected to find it, but there it was. He recognized it immediately, and got to make his amends.

It wasn’t long after that that he died, just days before I was due to fly to Ireland, where I visited the farms where his parents had been born, the churches where they were baptized, and met the branches of our family still there. There were half a dozen eulogies at his funeral, because a lot of us had something to say.

He’s been gone 11 years now. I think of him often, but I am telling his story in honor of D-Day. I could give a more general tribute to the veterans of that generation, but in this case I think it is the details that make it universal. Papa Fitz’s story could be the story of thousands and thousands of those men who crossed the English Channel on this date in 1944. They were ordinary men who did an extraordinary thing because it was right and because it had to be done, and then they returned to their ordinary lives. My grandfather was ordinary. He was extraordinary.

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Many thanks to Caitlin for sharing this. One of my grandfathers was in the vicinity of Normandy on D-Day, though safely ensconced on a ship somewhere off-shore (and based on a recently-unearthed scrapbook of his photos from that time, he was having a pretty good war). In a long-ago trip to Pointe du Hoc, my father explained the gory details of the landing and the Rangers’ assault to my disinterested 8th grade self while I wandered in and out of German pillboxes; I’d give a lot to go back to that moment and pay attention. Instead, I’m reading this account of Omaha Beach out of the Atlantic’s archives and trying to fathom what sort of internal fortitude it took to get out of the landing craft. Unreal. – Diana

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