70 years after D-Day and Normandy, they remember

Each June 6, Walter Dickens of Monroe knows he’ll hear from his six grandchildren.

It is not his birthday, but a date more important to Dickens.

His grandchildren grew up on stories about that day. About when their “Paw-Paw Walt” was a 25-year-old Army medic, a first sergeant attached to the 29th Infantry Division and was a part of the first wave to launch the epic invasion known as D-Day.

On that day and the months that followed, thousands of Americans stormed into Normandy, France, sent to liberate Europe from the grip of Nazi Germany in one of World War II’s – and history’s – most pivotal events.

Like Dickens, they were young and scared as German bullets rained from bluffs above the beaches they invaded. Most were untested in battle.

Now 70 years later, his grandchildren still call to thank him for his service on that day. For years, men he served with in Europe would call, too. His clerk, Winston Morris of Boston, always called at 6:30 a.m., H-hour, the start of the invasion on June 6, 1944.

“Sarge, you know what day this is?” Morris always asked.

But Morris is gone. So are the others, except for one in Texas.

And as Dickens fights his last battle – this one against time – he fears one thing:

He points to his 20-month-old great-grandson and namesake, Walt, running past him in the house on U.S. 74 he and wife Clyde built 62 years ago.

“That little fellas like him will forget what an awful lot of people sacrificed for their freedom,” he said, a stern look growing. “Everybody in that war, men in battle or people back home on the homefront, suffered.

“I had friends who died on that beach and all the way to Germany. As my generation disappears, it bothers me a lot that people won’t remember why they’re free.”

Success at a cost

Here’s what Walter Dickens doesn’t want you to forget: That day ended with 10,000 wounded or dead, 6,603 of them Americans.

More than 156,000 Allied troops (including Americans, British, Canadians, French, Greeks, Dutch and Polish) landed on a 50-mile stretch of coastline that day and began dismantling Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

In early June 1944, America had been at war for 2 1/2 years, since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Ground troops learned to fight in campaigns against the Germans in North Africa. Germany had failed miserably in its invasion of Russia.

But Adolf Hitler still had a stranglehold on Western Europe.

For months, more than 2.5 million men – pilots, paratroopers, infantrymen and sailors – had trained for this moment. It would take an Homeric event, kept secret and code-named, to open a new front into Europe.

D-Day for most Americans conjures images of young men storming off the bow ramps of boats onto beaches, getting shot up or evading withering gunfire from Germans atop daunting cliffs. That is the opening scene of the motion picture “Saving Private Ryan” and the subject of famous photos of that day.

But it wasn’t just that day, men like Walter Dickens will tell you. It took months and mounting casualties before Allied troops could liberate France and the rest of Europe on their way to Germany.

Last major mustering

This Friday on the 70th anniversary, surely the final major mustering of survivors of the Normandy campaign and the leaders of the former Allied nations – including President Barack Obama – will gather on French soil at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer that overlooks Omaha Beach.

There, where 9,387 Americans are buried, they will pay tribute to those who didn’t make it home.

And they will toast the campaign’s success.

Two among them will be Charlotteans Henry Hirschmann, 93, and Larry Michal, 90.

Hirschmann is a Jew born in Germany who was released from the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1939, months before Hitler’s army invaded Poland to start World War II. He immigrated to America and ached to join the U.S. Army so he could return to Europe to fight the Germans, who killed his parents and two brothers during the Holocaust. He got that chance, wading ashore at Utah Beach with a field artillery battalion a month after D-Day.

Michal, Chicago-raised, was a 20-year-old paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne when he jumped into Normandy. He and son Steve, of San Mateo, Calif., leave for France Sunday.

In their own words

For two weeks, Observer photographer Todd Sumlin and I have traveled the region to interview and photograph many of the last Carolinians who survived the Normandy campaign.

Each day this week, you will see the results of those interviews, starting with Walter Dickens.

You’ll read in their own words about their months, sometimes years, of tedious training and their anxiety as the battle awaited.

Andy Andrews, 90, of Black Mountain, a former mayor of Montreat, will tell you how he trained as a machine-gunner with the 1st Infantry Division, dubbed the Big Red One. As the division moved closer to the British coast and English Channel, he and others began to comprehend that “all the training was not just an exercise.”

Helmut Deussen, 89, a German who immigrated in 1955, was a 17-year-old high school student in Monchengladbach when the Nazis pulled him out of school to fight in the army. He was assigned to the signal corps attached to an armored division. In the German retreat, he was captured and would spend two years as a prisoner of war.

Former paratrooper Harold Eatman, 28 when he jumped into Normandy, was a veteran of jumps into Sicily and Italy when his unit was sent to England for the Normandy invasion.

‘Get down! Get down!’

All these men and others I’ve interviewed came home after the war and got on with their lives.

They went to work and contributed to the postwar baby boom. As a group, they are gracious, humble men – grateful for the attention.

Many rarely talked about the war, unless they were prodded. Never did they brag about the audacious courage they showed during those months in Europe as young men.

Yet all these years later, their battles are etched in memory – images that make them appreciate all the more their lives at home.

Walter Dickens was discharged and returned to his bride Clyde on June 15, 1945, and two weeks later went to work for Carnation Milk in his native Galax, Va. In 1948, the company transferred him to Albemarle to manage a plant, then to Monroe to manage a new plant there.

He retired after 37 years.

He and Clyde had three children; they have six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

He never talked about D-Day until his grandchildren started asking him about it. He couldn’t watch war movies. In the 1960s when the TV show “Combat!” came on, he’d quietly get up and the leave his family to watch it.

He’s had eight major surgeries. Often when he was sedated he’d dream of that day on Omaha Beach.

“They are always so real,” Dickens said, his voice trembling. “I’d hear the screams, the boys praying and asking for their mamas. My family tells me that when I woke up I’d be yelling: ‘Get down! Get down!’ ”

“I’d be as shook up as I was on that day.”

They were just dreams, but they are echoes of a horrific day 70 years ago that changed our world.

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