I’d heard about him in January from one of his neighbors. She said he was a D-Day vet who’d landed at Omaha Beach and had quite a story to tell. It would be worth my while, she said, to interview him for The Morning Call.
Intrigued, I called him. He told me that yes, he’d landed at Omaha on June 6, 1944, with the 7th Naval Beach Battalion as a radioman and the following year, he came in with the Marines at Okinawa.
I went to his house in February. It was along a winding road in hilly woods. His driveway was so steep, I double-checked that my car was in gear and the brake was on. At the door, his dog greeted me first – a 90-pound mastiff/boxer/terrier mix named Trey. Walter said the name came from the Stephen Foster song “Old Dog Tray” and the fact that his pet was the third dog he’d had in that house.
Trey stayed with his master, leaning against Walter’s leg or mine. We sat at the kitchen table. Walter served coffee and talked about his life, what he did in the Navy and his role in World War II. We looked at his pictures. He showed me his “radio room,” where he had a short-wave radio and a lifetime collection of memorabilia. Three hours.
Three more times I came to his house and always felt welcome. Walter always had coffee ready and Trey sat on the floor beside us. When Walter strayed from his wartime service, I’d say, “Yes, but what about…” and he’d say, “I’m getting to that.” He told stories that made me laugh.
After the second time, he called and told me he’d had a stroke and had been hospitalized but he was OK. He did seem all right. But after that third visit, he called and said I should come again soon to talk. I sensed concern and worried about his health. We agreed to meet the following week, and this time I arranged for a Morning Call photographer to come and shoot stills and video. Usually, I wait until I have the story done to call in a shooter.
We got the photos and video in April, and after that I worked on two other interviews with veterans, one for Memorial Day and one for June 1, on the run-up to the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Walter’s story would run on June 6. I finished it two weeks before the publication date and called him on the Friday before Memorial Day. I wanted to meet with him one more time to go over some aspects of his story. We agreed to meet the following Wednesday.
It was not to be. On Monday, Memorial Day, he left his house with his veterans cap and drove off in his red Cherokee, heading for a holiday event. A little more than 3 miles from his home, he hit a utility pole and suffered severe injuries. He died eight hours later in a hospital.
It seemed so unfair. He’d survived not only D-Day but Okinawa. He was 89. He deserved to die peacefully in his sleep.
I felt walloped in the gut. I’d spent only 12 hours with him over four months. Still, that seemed more than enough to make us friends.