D-Day, WWII and the Queen Mary

06/05/2014 4:25 PM

06/05/2014 4:26 PM

When I found my Uncle Henry’s name on the ship manifest for the Queen Mary on Feb. 22, 1945, I figured it wasn’t him. Over the years as I’ve researched family on my father’s side, the Flono name will sometimes pop up as a misspelling for others with similar pronunciations – often of people from Italy or France.

Further evidence to me that this listing wasn’t my uncle was this: The person was traveling from Scotland to the United States. My uncle, a world traveler? In the 1940s? Hardly. My dad told stories of their hard-scrabble upbringing as share-cropping farmers.

At 26, Uncle Henry would likely be uable to afford a round-trip ticket to San Francisco, let alone Scotland. Then I remembered that Uncle Henry, my dad’s oldest brother, had enlisted in the U.S. Army in March of 1941. So I searched online for the document listing the Henry Flono who was on a ship bound from Greenock, Scotland to New York City.

What I found was a connection to D-Day and World War II that I had not anticipated. Stamped “RESTRICTED” with parts “CONFIDENTIAL,” the document was a troop movement orders list headlined, “Headquarters, Normandy Base Section, Communications Zone, European Theater of Operations, US Army.” My uncle, a corporal, was among 24 soldiers listed on one page – the highest ranking of six blacks named.

That page was one of more than 900 listing soldiers returning from war for, as the document noted, the “purpose of recuperation in the United States and upon completion thereof [they] will return to the proper overseas station by first available water transportation.” Uncle Henry would not be returning overseas. His Army release date was May 15, 1945. Germany had unconditionally surrendered on May 8.

I know no details of my uncle’s time in the war – nor of the Army service of my Uncle Tom or Uncle Robert. My dad was the only one of the brothers not to serve in the military. He was left to help at the farm and care for his dad who lost both legs to diabetes, his mother and the rest of the family.

But I’ve discovered Uncle Henry is part of a fraternity of Queen Mary veterans – including POWs, war brides and crew – who sailed or served aboard the ship during her time as transport for troops and others during World War II. The group has a Facebook page, and Queen Mary supporters are engaged in a campaign to preserve, protect and restore the vessel that has been owned and operated by the city of Long Beach, Calif., as a hotel since 1967.

The ship’s role in the war is fascinating. The Queen Mary was built in Scotland and made her maiden voyage in 1936. But it became a troop ship for the Allies as World War II began. It was such a thorn in the side to Adolf Hitler that he offered $250,000 and the Iron Cross to any U-boat captain who could sink her.

Nobody did.

Winston Churchill traveled on the Queen Mary three times during the war and considered it his headquarters at sea. He signed the D-Day Declaration on board.

Fast and big, it became the best troop transport the Allies owned. Known as the “Grey Ghost” for its coloring, it ferried 765,429 troops during the war. And it has the record for carrying the most passengers on one vessel – 16,082 American troops in 1942 as part of the build-up for D-Day.

How many, if any, of the soldiers listed with my uncle were in the first wave that landed on D-Day, I have no idea. African American soldiers were among them – as pictures, rarely shown, of the all-black 320th Battalion landing on Normandy that day attest.

I was struck looking at that troop transport document by the list of injuries and maladies many of the soldiers returning from the European theater were suffering from: paralysis, rheumatic fever, fractures, frostbite, trench foot, amputations, brain injuries, shell wounds – and the list goes on.

My Uncle Henry came back from the war and, as I recall, never talked about his service. It’s the same with most veterans. They live through hell, come back and go on with their lives.

Uncle Henry died in a car crash in 1970 at 52. My other uncles also all died before age 60. My dad died at 59 of cancer in 1978.

Today, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I will remember all of them for the sacrifices they made, both on and off the battlefield. I’ll also remember the legions who fought during World War II and in particular those whose blood was spilled and lives forever altered on D-Day. All of us owe them a debt we can never repay.

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