Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Father's Legacy

My father "earned this"... A quote from the movie "Saving Private Ryan".

My dad, Ernest P Doucette from Reading, MA., was a D-Day Veteran, a member of the 293rd Joint Assault Signal Company, part of the Army's 6Th Special Engineer Brigade. To me and my four siblings, he was just "Dad", but as a Corporal in the Army at 19 years of age, he was an Engineer, trained to set up communications once on Omaha Beach between them and The Navy and Air Force waiting in the English Channel for word to come ashore. Besides being an Engineer, he and others in his Unit were skillfully trained as some of the top "marksmen" the Army had in case things did not work out the way it was planned. And, that is exactly what happened.

I opened this Blog with a quote from the movie "Saving Private Ryan" for a reason. Dad never was able to talk much about his Army days, but, when asked if he had seen the movie, his response was: "Yes, I took a side trip to St. Lo too. My Sgt. and friend, John Kmetz asked me to help him find his brother outside of St Lo before that Battle broke out and so we did". So, my never ending yearning to find out more had begun a 6+ year long journey of research.

Knowing that my dad went to Omaha Beach in Normandy by way of the Coast Guard, I started with a plea to them in helping me find out exactly how he got there. After sending out emails, I received a response back from a veteran in Virginia telling me that my dad had been on the "passenger" list aboard the LCI 92. (landing craft infantry) That is where I began my search. Dad and 10 other of his buddies from the 293 JASCO were indeed aboard this Landing Craft heading toward Omaha Beach 6 June, 1944 at 0700 hours. From a distance, they could see, hear and smell the smoke from their intended destination but could not see the carnage they were about to embark upon. The English Channel had not been their friend that morning as it was extremely rough from the wind and rain, making many men sick before ever stepping foot on the sands of Omaha. Nor, did they have any idea what was just ahead for them as they entered the waters that had been thickly padded by teller mines set out by the Germans in anticipation of the American arrivals. I remember dad telling one of my brothers and I about suddenly being caught up in this moment of terror. "We had two landing ramps. One was blown off by the mine fields we were caught in. A soldier not far from where I was standing had just put his flame thrower on and a German bullet hit it and everything around us exploded. The poor kid never knew what had just happened. Both ramps gone now and our ship burning, we were all forced to jump overboard. We lost quite a few soldiers because of drowning. They tried to hold onto their gear but you had to think quick and drop all of it so you could get back to the top of the water." Never knowing the Veteran part of my dad when he was 19 years of age, all of this tore a hole into the very core of me. After all, he was "just my dad" ... I never knew the Veteran side of him until now.

There were very few conversations regarding the first 24 hours he spent fighting his way on to Omaha Beach, but one thing has always stuck in my mind, that being a talk he had with my oldest brother Paul on the way back from Virginia to Massachusetts. They stopped in Maryland where they kept old tanks, planes and so on. As they walked through the open area talking about the different guns and tanks, dad made one remark to my brother. As things began to quiet down some on Omaha that fateful morning. He said: "At the end of the day, there was no place to even sit down on the Beach .. it was full of bodies being washed up on the sand, body parts and red water. I found a small place on the sand, sat down and put my hand on the sand to rest a bit. I looked down and blood was coming up through my fingers." My brother told me that after he said that, his eyes just filled with tears.

The 6 year journey of researching, took me to many different places as I gathered information from across the United States to the help of an Archivist from England. I had secured information that was confidential during that time ... landing maps, questionnaires for the 293rd JASCO Unit, casualty reports, training in England, how the Invasion was suppose to have gone and how badly it ended up being. The Coast Guards account of the Landing Crafts (Infantry) 91 and 92 that were entangled in teller mines, gave a graphic description of what these soldiers, that included my dad, endured that morning, were in my possession now. For the first time, I was reading this from the eyes as his child and I wondered how he survived at 19 years old. Knowing the trauma, the carnage he witnessed, seeing your buddies killed beside you and fighting for hour after hour, wet..cold..and tired.. how was it possible for my dad to be such a happy, carefree person? We knew him as the one who played with us in the snow, took care of us, came home from work and played "fight" with my sister and I when we were little, helped us with homework and walked me down the isle on my wedding day. Ernie the 'dad' was a kind, gentle, loving person. I was just getting to know Ernie the 'veteran'. There was this deep ache now in the pit of my stomach because I never knew the other side of 'dad'.

On a bright, sunny morning, 15 July, 2000, the JFK Air Craft Carrier had been docked in Boston, MA. for a ceremony honoring D-Day Veterans from MA. It was on this day that I found out the French Government never gave any of these 'smaller units' their medals for their efforts to free France from the iron fists of the Germans. Not only was I appalled, I was angry because of what I knew. So, that morning in July of 2000, my dad and hundreds of other thought they were finally going to received what they had "earned" so many years ago, a Medal .. but instead, they all received a Diploma of thanks! Many veterans left Boston that afternoon in anger and disgust. A local newspaper stopped my dad and asked for a short interview. He was asked how he felt about being a hero and his words were this: "People think we were heroes but we weren't. We had a job to do and we did it, If we had to do it all over again, we would". He was a humble but very proud veteran his entire life. To think that these aging veterans of D-Day stood for hours in the July heat waiting for what they had hoped for their entire military careers turned out to be a piece of paper was horrific to witness. I witnessed quite a few throwing that "Diploma"...that piece of paper, away in the closest trash cans. These members of "The Greatest Generation" had been humiliated by a piece of paper from the French Government. Where was their medal they earned? That was a question I was going to get an answer to, if for no one else, I wanted an explanation as to how a piece of paper given to these veterans, my dad, was suppose to be a substitute for a medal they earned over 60 years ago. I don't think so! I was just begining now~


Adoucette said...

This is terrific -- Dad would be proud and honored -- A. M.

J said...

You touch my heart with your impressions an accounts of your father. Wish I would have had the pleasure of meeting him.

* Jess *

D-Day Daughter said...

What a perfect expression of love.

Anonymous said...

Mama-you have such a gift for writing! It's amazing. You have to go to Normandy to complete his journey for him, since he could never make it back there.