I suppose the worst part of the video was a bull-Dozier rolling bodies into a giant pit. Other parts were not much better, people loading dead skeleton like bodies onto wagons and what looked like the walking dead wondering aimlessly around the camp. When I first viewed this video I thought about not showing it but realized it was something they needed to see. This was no movie it was real, racism to the utmost degree. By now you know I was showing video of concentration camps during WWII.
We had already watched videos of Adolf Hitler and his actions in taking over Europe. We saw old video clips of him interacting with leaders of Europe. I would point out how gentlemen like Hitler was, shaking hands, smiling and even allowing someone to take his seat. After the concentration camp video I would remind students of this. “You see students evil comes clothed in good. Hitler looked liked and acted like a regular guy even polite but behind that was an evil heart bent on death and destruction.” I could see the light bulbs coming on. Yes, they were seeing what it was all about and so did the soldiers who were fighting the Nazis in Europe. We would immediately go back to the day that began Europe’s liberation from this evil regime, D-Day, June 6, 1944.
I often told my students that D-Day was the effort of the allied forces to kick down a locked and secured door into Europe. To run the Nazi’s off and start freeing people from tyranny. But getting past that locked door was hell. Erwin Rommel had done his job in fortifying Normandy Beach. This was the big picture. Then we would get the details.
A few years ago the details of D-Day came alive for me in a special way from an unlikely person in my life. My great Uncle Bryan had been part of my life for as long as I could remember. From the time I was a little boy we would go to his farm in Moselle and pick peas and corn. I would sit around and hear him tell funny stories. I thought I knew all there was to know about this man. One day my dad was talking about working with Uncle Bryan at the shipyard in New Orleans. He mentioned something about a wound that often gave him problems. I asked him what wound and how did he get hurt? Dad replied, “He was hurt in WWII.” I replied, “Uncle Bryan fought in WWII?” Dad then went on to inform me of where he fought and then he mentioned D-Day. “Wow, I have an Uncle who was in the D-Day invasion?” For a world history teacher that was like striking gold. I could actually talk to someone who was there. Dad told me not to bother asking; it was something he didn’t talk about. I later learned why, he was on the second wave at Omaha Beach.
One day I mustered the courage to ask Uncle Bryan about that day. At first he only gave short vague answers. I called him on the phone one day and told him I would love to get his story recorded on tape to save it for prosperities sake so the family would know his story and his contribution to that great cause. He reluctantly agreed. When I mentioned him being a hero in my eyes he cut me short and said, “No, the real heroes are the ones who gave it all.”
I came to his farm one morning for our interview. I could tell he was uncomfortable but he begin to open up as the interview progressed. Time will not allow me go into too much detail concerning that amazing interview but I will share one detail that stood out the most.
Upon their departure towards the beach head, Uncle Bryan shared with me the sights, sounds and smells he experienced.
“Many were sick throwing up. We had bobbed in the water for hours waiting to leave. The sea was rough. Finally we left for the beach. As we got closer I kept hearing a bumping sound against our transportation craft. It became more frequent as we approached the beach. When the ramp dropped I realized what the thumping noises were. We were hitting dead bodies. Bodies were everywhere.” I’ll never forget that part of the interview.
Never once did my Uncle tear up or cry reliving that experience. He told me how he got his wound. He suffered a shot to his ankle while in the hedge rows of France. He dragged himself for about four miles when a British patrol found him. They put him on the hood of their jeep and took him to a field hospital. Later he was transported to a hospital in England where he recovered from the incident.
The only time my Uncle shed tears during the interview was when I asked him about his son Vernon. Vernon served in Vietnam and was killed. It was then I realized that the heroes he spoke of on the phone that day was not just his comrades who gave it all in WWII but his son. Uncle Bryan never saw himself as a hero just a simple man who did his duty.
I realized after that interview how the word hero is used too much today. We put that title on anyone who does the smallest act of sacrifice. Maybe these acts are just what we’re suppose to do because it’s the right thing, simply because we are to be our brother’s keeper. I think that’s the way Uncle Bryan saw it. To me my great uncle will always be a hero not just for what he did in WWII but because of his attitude concerning what he did. He never boasted about it and didn’t expect anything in return. He just did his duty to God and country.