On Facebook today, I’ve seen a number of posts celebrating Independence Day with the quote “the Home of the Free because of the Brave…”
So I thought I’d take this opportunity to honor my Grandpa Baach, a Doughboy in WWI; my Father-in-Law George M. Marincel, a bombardier and navigator in a B-17 Flying Fortress, who flew 36 missions over Occupied Europe in WWII; and, of course, my dad, Leonard H. Resch, who fought at Omaha Beach, The Battle of Normandy, Northern France, Huertgen Forest, Battle of the Bulge, and Central Europe, and liberated the concentration camp Nordhausen.
May you all rest in God’s peace after the horrors of war.
When the magnificent and dedicated WWII vets of The Fort Snelling Honor Guard presented my mother with my dad’s casket flag at his burial, their commander read these words:
“On behalf of the President, the Armed Forces of the United States and a Grateful Nation, I present you this flag, a symbol of our Great Republic, for which our Departed Comrade has Honorably Served.”
Another Memorial Day & […] still at war, decorating an ever-increasing number of graves. –Eleanor Roosevelt, Memorial Day 1944.
When Eleanor Roosevelt wrote this, my dad was a 24 year-old farm boy from Minnesota living in Selsey, England, training for the great Allied invasion of France that would take place the next week on D-Day, June 6. My dad would hear his first shots fired in anger in the midst of some of the worst carnage of the entire war, on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, later aptly nicknamed “Bloody Omaha”.
The United States had a lot more graves to decorate after D-Day, and in the months to come, until WWII finally came to an end with unconditional surrender of Japan in August of 1945.
My dad has been gone for over twenty years now; his generation, the World War II generation, is almost gone now. The day we buried my father, there were enormous patches of open land at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery; when I went out there yesterday to visit mom and dad’s grave, I noticed that it is almost full. Soon there won’t be any veterans left to tell their stories about Omaha Beach, or The Battle of the Bulge, or the day their unit liberated Buchenwald, or Dachau, or one of the numerous sub-camps that lurked throughout Germany. It will be left to us, their children and grandchildren, to keep their stories alive, to make sure their legacies are passed on to new generations so that their heroism is never forgotten.
But will anyone want to listen? Are people listening now? I’m not entirely sure. And that makes my heart hurt…because I know the price my father paid, not just by giving his country the best years of his life, but in blood, in sweat and tears, in heartache and grief and flashbacks and lifelong nightmares.
What these men did mattered, then and for all time. They saved the world from a terrible, incomprehensible evil. As President Bill Clinton said of the gathered veterans in Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the year after my dad died:
They may be older now, and grayer now,
and their ranks are growing thin.
But when these men were young,
these men saved the world.
They did. They really did. Guys like my dad never have thought of themselves as heroes, but that’s exactly what they were.
Leonard H. Resch U.S. Army Third Assault Wave, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France June 6, 1944
“They may be older now, and grayer now, and their ranks are growing thin, but when these men were young, these men saved the world” –President Bill Clinton June 6, 1994 Omaha Beach
Note: My dad served with an artillery unit rather than the infantry, which is why he lucked out and was in the third wave rather than, say, the first. The third wave took only around 50% casualties whereas the first wave sustained about 90% casualties.
During WWII, my dad’s outfit helped liberate a small camp somewhere in the Hartz Mountain. area of Germany, near the infamous camps of Nordhausen and Buchenwald. I don’t know anything more about it, because although he told me a few bits and pieces about D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge, and the push through Germany, the camps were the one thing he’d refused to talk about. Please, Daddy, you must at least remember the name of the camp, I’d coax. That’s when he’d bury his face behind the newspaper and mumble, Nope. Don’t remember. And I knew better than to press any further. (I’ve tried to find out which one of the camps it was, but apparently the entire area was simply crawling with them; I’ll probably never know which one it was.)
He did tell me one thing, when I was working on a paper about the Holocaust for a college course: It was a work camp, not a death camp, he said. But, he added, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of difference between them. My dad didn’t anger easily but I never saw him angrier that the night we watched an episode of 60 Minutes that featured Neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers. Eisenhower said this would happen, he sputtered. That’s why he made them take so many pictures.
After my dad died, I found his own snapshots. And finally understood why he never talked about the camps. Because every time I look at them I, quite literally, feel as though I’m about to vomit. And I wasn’t even there. (Somehow, probably because they were taken by my dad, they seem more real to me than the many other Holocaust pictures I’ve seen.)
So, now that we finally have a printer with a scanner, I can in my own small way honor my father’s legacy and be a witness to history, that those who perished, all six million of them, will never be forgotten. May their memory be a blessing.
My edit, March 12, 2017: In the years since, I kept researching and discovered a letter from an officer in my dad’s outfit who mentioned the camp the guys “stumbled over” i.e. Nordhausen, a subcamp of Buchenwald. Nordhausen was mostly corpses and had no sanitary facilities or food or water; it was where the slave laborers of Dora Camp (Jews and POWS) were sent to die. Thus I suspect these photos were taken at Buchenwald. The letter mentions that many of the men from dad’s battalion visited at Eisenhower’s request. Ike reportedly said that “many of our soldiers have said they don’t know what they are fighting for. Well, I want them to know what they’ve been fighting against.”
Here’s an excerpt from the Rush City Post, dated Friday, June 15, 1945:
Technician Fifth Grade Leonard H. Resch, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Resch, Harris, Minnesota, liason airplane mechanic with the First Army, captured two fleeing German soldiers yesterday from the rear cockpit of an artillery cub plane.
On a jaunt combining business and pleasure, T5 Resch spotted the enemy soldiers as they were sneaking through a clump of woods. The pilot of his plane, Lt. Robert H. Williams of San Antonio, Texas, immediately put his ship in a dive towards the running Germans as T5 Resch opened up with his carbine in a manner which would do credit to a P-38.
The enemy, upon being strafed in such an erratic manner, immediately waved a white handkerchief. Resch then landed and took his two customers in tow.
NB: My dad was actually promoted to T3 before his discharge in Sept. 1945. Also, Pilot Robert Williams, more commonly known as “Crazy Roberts,” liked to fly his Piper Cub under the Eiffel Tower, at least until his superiors, who for some reason frowned upon this practice, made it clear that he had to “cease and desist.” Dad would never admit to being with him–but he wouldn’t deny it, either.
62 years ago this morning, my father, along with other young men–just boys, really– from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, stormed the Normandy beaches to begin the Allied assault on Nazi-occupied Europe. When Eisenhower said the hopes of freedom-loving people everywhere went with them, he wasn’t kidding; WWII historian Stephen Ambrose called D-Day the definitive day of the twentieth century because it became the turning point in the European War and gave Hitler his first real taste of what he had so underestimated, what Eisenhower called the “fury of an aroused democracy.” If the landings had failed, there would have been no Western Front to relieve the pressure on the Soviets in the East, and it would have been at least another year before the Allies could have attempted another invasion of Occupied Europe.
A few of the troops landing in Normandy that day had some combat experience, primarily in North Africa and/or Italy. But the majority, like my dad, had never heard a shot fired in anger. For them, Omaha Beach would come to represent a hellish loss of innocence. There were five landing beaches: Gold, Juno, Sword (British and Canadian), Utah, and Omaha (American). Of the five, Gold, Juno, Sword, and Utah went relatively according to plan; Omaha, however, has been known as “Bloody Omaha” ever since. The first assault waves sustained tremendous casualties, as soldiers were mowed down by German mortar and artillery fire. Many drowned, wounded by German fire and loaded down by over 60 lbs. of gear, before they ever made the beach. The beach itself was a slaughter, littered with the bodies of the dead and wounded. There were body parts, blood and gore everywhere, along with the never-ending sounds of artillery fire and the screams of the dying. One soldier famously described landing on Omaha that day as a “descent into hell.” Did you ever see “Saving Private Ryan?” The opening scenes were set on Omaha Beach. According to WWII veterans who survived Omaha, the movie was horrifyingly accurate.
This, then, was what my dad, a farm boy from Minnesota, saw in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. An artilleryman, he came ashore with the Third Assault Wave, which took 50% casualties and lost all of their jeeps and trucks and howitzers, etc., in the bloody chaos on the beach–if they managed to get any artillery equipment of their landing craft at all. I don’t know very much about what he experienced, as he wouldn’t say much about it and, like all children of combat veterans, I instinctively understood that there were some things one simply didn’t push dad to talk about. But he did tell me a few things: he was in the third assault wave to hit Omaha; in response to my question “what was it like” he said vaguely “…well, you know, gettin‘ shot at a lot…bullets in the air, everyone in the boat was seasick goin‘ over….” Actually he got quite graphic about the the depth of the vomit; apparently not everyone made it to the side of the boat.My mom asked him once what he thought about while crossing the English Channel on his way to France, and after he reflected for a while, he said that he mostly worried that he might be a coward, that he’d let his buddies down, and the family back home.
After he died, my Aunt Marie told me a story about my dad and Omaha Beach. After he finally worked his way on to the beach, a lieutenant (I’ve read that most of the young lieutenants that day were useless idiots; for the most part it was the enlisted men–the noncoms–who saved the day) grabbed him and barked, “Soldier, dig me a foxhole!” To which my dad replied, “Dig your own goddamn foxhole!” And thank God he did…
Because as Colonel George Taylor yelled to the soldiers crouched on the shingle, “There are only two kinds of people who are staying on this beach, those who are already dead and those who are gonna die. Now get off your butts!” The rest, including my dad, somehow got off the beach–and won the day by knocking out the German defenses from high up on the bluff. That was their job. Pinned down on the beach, the men would have had no hope of survival.
WWII historian Stephen Ambrose wrote this about D-Day:
D-Day, June 6, 1944, was the climactic moment of the twentieth century. The outcome of the war in Europe was at stake. If Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s forces had thrown back the invasion of Normandy, Nazi Germany might well have won the war. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the American, British, and Canadian forces, was prepared to resign his post if the attack had failed.
Operation Overlord, as the invasion was called, had superb planning, training, and equipment. But no matter how good the commanders had been in preparation, it was the men on the beaches at Gold, Sword, Juno, Utah, and Omaha who counted. At Omaha Beach, the infantry was pinned down at the seawall, taking fire from German mortar, artillery, and small arms fire. The U.S. First Army Commander, Gen. Omar Bradley, was at one point ready to pull them off the beach.
But they were soldiers of democracy. They were not as good as the German soldiers at taking orders [as my dad so amply proved], but they knew how to take responsibility and act on their own. What happened along the seawall–over there a sergeant, down the line a corporal, over there a lieutenant–they all came to the same conclusion: if I stay here I’m going to die, but before I do, I’m going to take some Germans with me. So he would yell at the men on his right and on his left, ‘I’m going up that bluff. Follow me,’ and start out. One man would follow, then another, soon a dozen or more. They got to the top of the bluff to begin the drive inland, toward Germany… Their triumph that day against the best the Nazis had to put against them, ensured our freedom. There were eleven months of hard fighting ahead, but once the Allies got ashore in France, neither the skill nor the determination and the fighting abilities of the Germans could stop them. They put the Nazis where they belonged, in the ash can of history. (From D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, by Stephen Ambrose.)
In 1994, the year after my dad died, I remember watching the 50th anniversary celebrations from Omaha on TV. What I remember most, and what I wrote in my journal later, was what President Bill Clinton said to and about the veterans of D-Day that day:
They may be older now, and grayer now, and their ranks are growing thin. But when these men were young, these men saved the world.
My dad never wanted to be a hero, and certainly didn’t think of himself as one (I was just doing my job, he said once to sum up his service during the war) but a hero he was. As were they all, those boys who became battle-scarred men on the beaches of Normandy that day.
And as for me, my father has long since gone to his peace, and memories of D-Day have no more power to torment him. This I know. I know, too, that the beaches of Normandy have been quiet and still for 62 years and that Hitler’s Nazi regime and all of its evil was soundly defeated. But it still breaks my heart to think of my dad, a sweet, gentle farm boy from Minnesota, facing that beach the morning of June 6, 1944.
In Normandy, they have not forgotten. After 9/11, the French left thousands of notes and flowers at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in Colleville–sur–Mer. Many of the notes read, simply, We Remember.
Sometimes we learn of our loved ones deepest feelings by the things they leave behind, particularly if they have traveled lightly. My dad, unlike me, was a person of few words, not inclined to wear his emotions on his sleeve. He didn’t talk much about the war, except to share a few bits and pieces here and there, mostly funny stories; in fact the one time he really opened up to me about his experiences was the Memorial Day I wrote him the letter, when he told me about a good buddy of his who was blown up by a land mine in France–the only time in my life I ever saw my father cry, other than when my grandma died.
So, after he died, when I discovered the following prayer–along with an old missal, his rosary, my letter, and assorted old photographs, including a number from the war–it told me a lot about the the scars the war had left.
God of power and mercy, In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace. Your Spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together.
Protect us from violence and keep us safe from the weapons of war.
This we ask though the Prince of Peace, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Based on the Eucharistic Prayer for Masses of Reconciliation II) Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
My dad was once a crack shot; he qualified as a rifle expert in the Army and, being a farm boy, hunted frequently before he was drafted into the service. Yet after he came home he never picked up a rifle again. As he told me, “Once you’ve seen what a gun can do to a human being, you just don’t want to ever look at one again.”
It’s good to remember that all combat veterans sacrifice for their country; it’s just that in some cases, the wounds aren’t visible on the outside. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and that the suffering isn’t real. My father had nightmares and insomnia all his life, and when I was a chaplain intern I worked with WWII vets who, more than 50 years later, still had flashbacks of concentration camps and landings on Normandy Beaches, desolate Christmases in the Ardennes and firey Pacific Islands, haunted by unimaginable horrors that could not be put to rest.
So if you (if anyone is actually reading this) happen to meet a WWII vet–or any vet at all–say thanks. Believe me, it will mean the world to them.
In Flanders Fields the poppies grow Between the crosses, row on row That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amidst the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago We loved, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe; To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders Fields. –Maj. John McCrae, spring 1915