Friday, June 8, 2012

D-Day Tribute to my Grandfather

This morning my Dad called me after he got my message yesterday asking about my grandfather. In case you are not a war buff or historian, yesterday was the anniversary of the D-Day invasion in WWII. I couldn't reach Dad yesterday to write up this post, but I figure today will do just fine.

I've heard war stories about my grandfather before; some of which he told me himself before passing away when I was an undergrad. However, my father has a much larger arsenal of stories my Pop-Pop told him over the years. So when I forget something, I immediately call Dad to be reminded. A terrifying fear of mine is forgetting details from my Pop-Pop's life... even things that happened well before I was born. It's important for me to remember the details and remember every bit of him.

So in the honor of the D-Day anniversary, I wanted to share a few things I relearned about my grandfather, Albert A. Latwinas Sr.

Albert enlisted in the Army as a Private, First Class at the ripe old age of 18 and was swiftly sent off to Georgia for training.

My grandfather made his debut in the war on D-Day in Normandy. Though Albert was part of the 100th Infantry Division, they were not completely united and verified until October of 1944. However, various regiments derived from the 100th were set to invade Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. Thus, he arrived on the beaches as part of a segmented regiment from the 100th; most likely the 399th regiment. The battles later in the year are documented as part of the 100th (to give you context).

Albert's account (learned third person) of his D-Day landing is reminiscent of The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan. I even remember going to see the movie with my family and Pop and he couldn't watch more than a few moments of the Normandy invasion. He said, "I saw it once. I remember it just fine without having to watch again." He remembers vividly peering over the side of the landing craft he was on to one next to him. He crouched back down at the sound of mortars and when he peered up at the neighboring craft, it was gone. Completely decimated.

Thankfully, Albert was not part of the first two waves onto Omaha Beach. Those suffered the most devastating casualties. Pop was on the fourth or fifth wave (uncertain as to which). However, his introduction to World War II was just as bloody. He was hit in the neck and scalp with shrapnel from a German mortar not long after landing on the beach. However, he kept fighting. After the invasion he never got the injury treated. Thus, years and years later, until the day he died, he was still finding pieces of shrapnel that was finally working its way out of his body. He kept the pieces in a pill bottle.

Following Normandy, Pop-Pop continued through France to Germany. He was part of many well known battles in 1944/45 including the Ardennes-Alsace campaign and Bitche.

Once, during patrols, they made their way into a small village in France. Bodies of soldiers from both sides littered the streets. However, only one image remained burned into Albert's mind. He came upon a young, blonde haired girl. No doubt a local to the village who got caught in the fray. He said he saw no marks on her, yet she lay still in the street, appearing as though she was merely asleep. The dead girl haunted him for years because all he could do was imagine she was one of his own young children back in New Jersey.

Another story to note was during the winter months of 1945. Albert was trapped behind German artillery with one of his superiors Staff Sergeant Richard Trapani. During a break in the attack, Trapani charged the German machine gun and destroyed the nest. Within the same battle though, he was struck down. Much like the history books, Pop called him a hero. More on Trapani: United States Army Staff Sergeant, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with Company F, 399th Infantry Regiment, 100th Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 15 March 1945, in the vicinity of Reyersviller, France. My grandfather recalled the devastation Trapani's death caused in the regiment. The soldiers respected him and felt it impossible that Trapani could die. I am so glad that his family now knows of his bravery and sacrifice and that he has been honored for it.

A few more items to note before I turn it in for the night... I just don't want to forget.

Pop-Pop crossed the Atlantic on the converted Queen Mary and returned to the States on a Constellation (a very large airplane). Talk about riding in style. When he returned safely home, he was ranked as Staff Sergent. Aside from the first day in battle when he received the neck wound, Pop Pop came home unscathed. Of course he carried around every piece of the war with him, but unlike so many who could not recover, Pop Pop made a promise to himself that he wouldn't waste his life. He saw his closest friends blown to pieces and held men in his arms as they bled out. When he returned him he was determined to work hard and to never go a day without a kind word or a smile. And that is certainly how I remember him. An honorable man with a great sense of humor and a love for life despite not living through the best circumstances. He was a strong and stout Lithuanian-American with the most beautiful blue eyes you could imagine. As I write this I am looking at a framed photo of Pop in his uniform. It sits on my desk every day. If I could be a quarter as honorable as my grandfather, I would feel I've lived a full life.

To me, he can never die. Though he's been gone for over five years now, I still think about him every single day. Every opportunity I get, I find a way to tell a story about him or reuse a saying I used to hear from him. I have a great determination to keep his memory alive, as do my mother and father. Though Pop was my mother's Dad, my own father saw him as a father figure. My Dad lost his own father when he was very, very young. So growing up from a late teen to his fifties, he referred to Pop-Pop as "Dad" or "Pop," even after my parents split. He loved him so much and still does. You can tell... he tells even more stories about my grandfather than I do. :)

To all the vets, old and new, alive and passed on... thank you. God bless you and thank you.

The Greatest Generation is fading away. I can't let the memory of them fade as well. 


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