The anniversary of D-Day is always the occasion for an interview in my series War Stories: In Their Own Words for Allentown’s The Morning Call. This year, I’ve been interviewing an 89-year-old World War II veteran. His story will run in the newspaper on the D-Day anniversary, June 6, 2010.
When I interview a vet, I find it helpful to take along maps and photos to jog the memory. Over the years I’ve amassed a good-sized library* of material on the Normandy invasion. This year,my interview is with a man who had been with the 1st Infantry Division, called the “Big Red One.” He was in the 26th Infantry Regiment, which was held in reserve and didn’t hit Omaha Beach until late afternoon; the two other regiments of the “Big Red One” hit the beach earlier in the day. While leafing through my copy of Stephen E. Ambrose’s D-Day, June 6, 1944 I found a map of the position of my vet’s battalion on Omaha Beach on the evening of June 6th. I showed him that page. Sure enough, it jogged his memory.
It wasn’t until I had Ambrose’s book back home that I remembered where I had gotten it. For my D-Day anniversary story five years ago in The Morning Call, I interviewed 1st Infantry Division vet Harold Saylor of North Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, who hit Omaha Beach in a hail of German gunfire at 7:30 a.m. carrying a pair of Bangalore torpedoes, long metal pipes packed with high explosive and used for blowing up barbed-wire entanglements.
Always eager to see me, Harold would have scraps of paper for me with notes of some detail he wanted to make sure I knew. One, giving an idea of how much he was weighed down when he went ashore, was typed out: “170 pounds of equipment, including the clothing.” Another typed-out note to me read: “I could not swim either, and to this day I still cannot swim.” One day when I arrived, he handed me seven pages that he’d scrawled brief notes on. “I talked to Ernie Pyle,” he’d written on the first page, referring to the famous war correspondent.
In his small home office crowded with books, files and photo albums, Harold knew where everything was. Sometimes he would shake his head and say that he didn’t know what would become of this stuff when he was gone.
His story ran on June 6, 2005, under a headline that was a quote from him: “On the beach, there was no place to hide.” An e-mail I got from a reader said: “I’m at my desk at work and crying my eyes out.”
In the months after Harold’s story ran, his health declined. The last time I saw him, he was in a hospital bed in his living room and didn’t seem to know who I was. I rested my hand on his and our eyes met. He died a few weeks later, at age 81, before another D-Day anniversary came.
One day his widow, Anna, called and asked me to come over. Harold had left something for me, she said. It was Ambrose’s account of D-Day. She said Harold wanted me to have it, as well as any other of his books I’d like to have.
Perhaps he hadn’t recognized me in the end, but he did remember me.
On Sunday, June 6, my newest D-Day interview will be in the newspaper and I’ll be going to the annual picnic held in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, by the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge to honor D-Day veterans. I’ll be bringing 90-year-old Dan Curatola, one of Harold’s fellow infantrymen in the 1st Infantry Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment who also hit Omaha Beach that day 66 years ago. And I will think of Harold again.
*Venditta’s Pick of D-Day Photograph Albums
Time-Life editors. THE SECOND FRONT, Time-Life Books World War II 39-book series
Life commemorative edition by Richard Holmes. D-DAY EXPERIENCE, a photo-filled magazine to mark D-Day’s 60th anniversary, 2006
Time special issue, D-DAY: WHY IT MATTERS 60 YEARS LATER, 2006
National Geographic’s issue, “Untold Stories of D-Day,” 2002 which has the most detailed map of the invasion beaches I’ve ever seen
American Heritage‘s issue “D-Day: What It Took, What It Meant, What it Cost.”1994