Archive for June, 2014

June 25, 2014


Readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time wondering. As I spend more time and gain more experience with the topic at hand, I offer up my two cents. But sometimes conclusions are seemingly far afield until they just hit like a lightning bolt. So it was today. The wonder of it all.


I think it is pretty clear that I have one foot planted in another dimension,  and right now I’m straddling a time warp. And it is so interesting to be able to look down and note what is unfolding in time, and maybe how things are related. The “other” dimension changes from time to time, but right now it is firmly rooted in the happenings of seventy or so years ago.


I’m writing a story about a band of Marines, local guys, who went off to war together to fight the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.  Out of the sixteen or so I am aware of, I’ve met and interviewed at least half. And all but three now have passed. So I recently got an email from a daughter looking for me to talk to her dad. He had read some of my stuff, saw that I had talked to his buddies, and was ready now to say something, for the record.


Glens Falls Post Star. Dom Fallacaro, bottom row, third from left.

Glens Falls Post Star. Dom Fallacaro, bottom row, third from left.

It probably hit me midmorning, looking at the newspaper clippings from 1942-3. Seeing the scrapbook pictures of Marines who were going off to fight the war together. Young guys just out of boot, all spiffed out in their new uniforms. Greenhorns with no real idea of what they had gotten into. Some did not return.

I sat across a table from a 91 year old who was telling me the story of World War II from the perspective of a kid growing up in the Great Depression.
So he began to speak, with his wife of six plus decades by his side. Dom was starting stories, and I was finishing them. Not in a rude way. But in a sense, it was like I had been there too. And I think it made his day, in a way. All of Dom’s buddies have died, or the few who remain are dying. It’s a tough time in a veteran’s life.


But here is a “young” guy who knows, before it comes out of Dom’s mouth, that the fellow Marine he meets for the first time aboard a huge LST ship (bound for the battle of Iwo Jima), discovering that Dom is from Hudson Falls, NY (like him) is now taking Dom back to the huge winch on the ship, and proudly showing it off because it was made in their hometown, at the Sandy Hill Iron and Brass Works! (I had heard this same story from another Marine from our hometown, bound for another battle. His father had made that winch.)


Dom's cousin Dom. KIA June 1944.

Dom’s cousin Dom. KIA June 1944.

Or when Dom began to tell me about his cousin, who shared the same name as he, from Buffalo, NY, who  was killed in 1944 in Europe. His wife Grace pulled a tattered newspaper clipping out of the scrapbook, one that Dom carried in his wallet for years. Dom told me that he was lying down and one of his tentmates from Buffalo was reading the newspaper from home, and tossed it over to him, telling him that “he” had died. Shocked, he clipped his cousin’s death notice and carried it in his wallet for the rest of the war. When Dom started to tell me the story, I knew that a WW II era New Yorker with the same name from Buffalo had died, as I had done some on-line research on Dom before coming to the interview. So I told Dom his cousin had been in the Army Air Corps. He nodded and then we connected the cosmic dots.
About nine months later, Dom suffered an extreme appendicitis attack as the fight for Iwo Jima wound down, and wound up being operated on as they sailed away, nearly dying. The ship he was on had even altered its course to save the young Marine (the doctors demanded the ship stop shifting and zigging and zagging so much during the critical operation. As Dom said, his buddies did not realize he was so important!) He was on Guam returning to his truck driving duties and preparing for what would have been the Nov. 1945 invasion of Japan-his outfit was scheduled to be in the first wave-when the atomic bombs ended the war. So you can guess how he felt about that.

I sat with him and his wife Grace for two hours. Turns out the grandmother I never knew-she died before I was born-would clean and mend the curtains of the family and for the mom and pop store that Dom and Grace ran for forty years, seven days a week, fourteen hours a day.
After the camera was put away, four generations from our little town had lunch at the table at their camp on Glen Lake. For a kid who dropped out at age sixteen-“are you going to be a professional student, or are you going to work?” was the question of the day, in the Depression era-Dom looked around and fairly beamed at what it all meant to him.

He saw things that he put away for many years. Grace knew, from the naps he would stir restlessly in. He might not have shared everything with his family, but his family kept him going and together, they prospered. Now, here, as the old war buddies who survived pass on, maybe it is time for reflection. Dom is a survivor too, and he knows it. What blessings he shared with me today. And I think that is what he really wanted to say to me today, why he wanted to talk. How blessed he is, for his family, for their love, and for the love of his buddies.


After 91 years on this earth, the wonder of it all.




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So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty years ago I watched as the American president honored  the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

Thirty years have passed. I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions  a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there. When they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventieth. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here for the 70th. Another president spoke today, and the 75th will bring fewer who were there back to Normandy.


Today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”


Video games.



They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

A  couple weeks ago this article popped up. So glad to see Bill’s name.


D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.


– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

Bill Gast, Silver Star citation.

Bill Gast, Silver Star citation.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget but you try to hide things somewhere.”



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