June 6th, 2014
During the 70th D-Day Commemoration, I looked upon these old men, these veterans of World War II.
The camera shows their faces softened, rounded, and wrinkled by time. Their hair is white and sparse, and the head and hands of some shake subtly and uncontrollably. They wear medals earned in battle on their tired, sagging frame. None are able to stand for very long, most use hearing aids and almost all have canes. Their eyes, however, their eyes look sharp with remembrance.
I see beyond what the camera shows. I see young men in their teens and twenties, with hard angular faces, and lean, hard bodies standing erect, proud and prepared for battle. They have heads of thick, rich hair, and eyes of stone, quick and ready. The things they experienced and did, formed their character, affected their lives and stayed with them always.
To me these young-old men are heroes. As much as those who gave their all during the war, and the ones who have since passed on. This The Greatest Generation, saved the world from tyranny in the greatest conflict mankind has ever known. With luck, it will remain that way…
CNN did a segment on a man named Jim “Pee Wee” Martin. On June 6, 1944 he parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Airborne, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Company G.
His company landed right in the middle of German reinforcements heading for the coast. He said it was a “slaughterhouse”. To commemorate that historic day, at the age of 93, Pee Wee suited up, boarded a C-47 Dakota and jumped out of a plane over Normandy one last time.
One of the things I took away from that segment was when Pee Wee said after the jump, “I just wanted to show everyone you don’t have to sit and die just because you get old.”
Jim is a Certified Bad Ass!
The other thing that stayed with me from the segment was when they were giving Jim a tour of a D-Day museum. In one display they had an American helmet with a hole in it. The correspondent said, “This was the helmet of Don Francis, he was right next to you…” and Jim finished, “When he got shot.”
I wanted to know more about the young man who wore that helmet
At 4:30 am, on their way to secure a couple of bridges, Cpl Donald B. Francis and Jim found themselves pinned down in a field near the River Douve. Their only cover was tall grass. In the dim light of the early morning, a German soldier saw the white painted ace on Don’s helmet and used that as an aiming point. The bullet entered the left side of his head and exited through his right forehead. Don Francis never regained consciousness and died in the Fortin Farm Aid Station on June 7th.
Donald Francis grew up in Rochester, New York. When he died he was not married and had no children. He was only 23. This is the house in which he grew up. I imagine that one day he gave his worried mom a hug and a kiss, said goodbye to his family, walked out that front door, across the porch, down the steps and into history – never to return.
When the telegram about his death arrived a few days later, it’s hard to imagine what the Francis family went through.
Don was the same age as Jim. One got to go home fall in love, raise a family, have a career and live to be an old man. All the hopes and dreams of the other ended on a field in a foreign country, 70 years ago. Don never got to know what it was like to fall in love, and know what it was like to have a family of his own and experience life to the fullest.
Now Corporal Donald B. Francis, G Co 506th PIR, forever lives in Plot E, Row 17, Grave 18, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Colleville-sur-Mer, France
It’s good to see that someone still remembers young Don Francis.
It’s my hope that we never forget the young men who gave their all to defeat a tyranny we never had to know.