06 June 2017

The Longest Day

Allow me to tell this story of one of The Greatest Generation who didn't fall in battle ... because many, many of his buddies did. And we cannot recall the war dead without remembering the survivors.

I had the honor of knowing Charlie Grech, a gentleman who served as an ambulance driver in WWII. He was in the D-Day landing on Normandy Beach. He immigrated to the U.S. as a boy, from Malta. It was during the early days of the Great Depression, so he went right to work, earning a few cents per day. He couldn't speak English then, he said, and wound up eating pea soup at a diner every day for nearly a month because he didn't know how to order a sandwich.

When he finally learned to say "ham sandwich", the waiter asked him "white bread or wheat?" He answered, "Pea soup." But he learned, and kept working whenever he could, into the early 1940s. Then the draft notice arrived.

After basic training, his company was sent to the Mojave Desert to train for North Africa. That campaign was over before they got called up. But Operation Overlord was coming up,
"I've never been so scared in my whole life," he told me. "I thought I was gonna wet my pants. Some guys did, but we all got wet when we got out of the landing craft, so it didn't matter. The bullets sounded like mosquitos, except worse than you could imagine. Guys were getting chopped to pieces. Sometimes you couldn't even recognize 'em after they got hit."

Later, he participated in the Battle of the Bulge. "Every couple of hours, there'd be another rumor coming down the line that the Nazis had broken through, or that they'd infiltrated this unit or that one, or that we were cut off from the rest of the guys. I just kept picking up wounded guys, and driving 'em back to where they needed to go. If a Kraut wanted to shoot me, he was welcome to try. Whenever I was scared, I'd just drive a little faster."
Charlie was an inspiration to me: just a normal guy whose family came to the States in search of opportunity. He never finished high school, but when he got called by Uncle Sam, he went. He had a job to do, and he did it. No crying, no fuss; he got the job done, and came back home.
"I was lucky," he said. "A lot of guys didn't make it back." But Charlie did.
He came back and married his best girl, Marcella, right after the war. Charlie worked in a factory until he retired. Marcella was a cook at an elementary school. For all that they had little education, they provided for a son who literally became a rocket scientist, working at White Sands when I met him.
When they retired, they lived in a small but tidy double-wide, in an equally-small subdivision out in the country. Charlie spent a lot of time sitting on the front porch, waving at the cars as people drove past. He always had a kind word for anyone who'd stop to talk.
We lived across the street from Charlie and Marcella for nearly 12 years. Every day after work, I'd head over and have a long talk with him. Marcella would join us eight times out of ten. He always had a funny story to tell. The few times that he mentioned the war, he'd start to shake, even after all those years.
We moved away, nearly twenty years ago. My in-laws would mention him, from time to time, as they had mutual friends. I always wanted to go back and see him, but there never seemed to be time to travel all that way. Then we moved to Alaska, and that was the end of that.
Charlie passed away, about a decade ago. Marcella moved to a senior community after that, and was doing well, the last time I heard.
Rest in peace, Charlie. I'm richer for having known you.


12Paws said...

That's an American story for sure. Thanks for sharing it. Also for sharing The Word.

Rev. Paul said...

You're welcome on both counts, 12Paws.

Vicki said...

A true American hero. Our world needs more just like him. Thank you for telling his story.

Rev. Paul said...

It's my small way of repaying our debt to him & his generation, Vicki.

Ed Bonderenka said...

I lived with a Normandy and Bulge Vet for a number of years.
I called him Dad.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Thanks for sharing that story Reverend. A very good one.

Today on the radio show I was listening to the played Eisenhower's speech to the troops before D-Day and Patton's famous speech. I had never heard them live.

LindaG said...

Thank you for sharing that, Reverend. I believe I will share it, too.
God bless.

drjim said...

I think you just gave him the finest epitaph he could have asked for!

Rev. Paul said...

Ed - did he ever talk about his experiences?

TB - it was another time, in a better America. I still pray we can recover some of that attitude & spirit.

Linda - you're welcome, and please do.

Jim - that's less than he deserved, but sharing his story is the best I could do.