By Tom Green
Editor’s Note: Friday, June 6, marks the 70th Anniversary of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy in World War II.
Death, destruction, confusion! This was the scene June 6, 1944, on the beach at Normandy. The invasion that day and the weeks that followed impacted people around the world in many different ways. The impact on me was delayed for 40 years.
Little did I know that May of 1984 would find me in the American cemetery in Normandy, France. It was just two weeks before President Reagan would honor the 17,000 men who gave their lives over a two-week period to secure the beach here at Normandy. The trees were trimmed, flowers were in bloom and thousands of white crosses stood at attention in neat rows. There was a spirit of quiet reverence. Visitors spoke in hushed voices.
An elderly couple paused for a long time in front of a cross. They held hands and cried a little. It had to be a mom and dad visiting their fallen son, maybe for the first time, and probably for the last.
My mind wandered back 40 years. I was a 12-year-old boy playing at a friend’s house across the street. While in their woodshed, an ax fell from a shelf and slashed a large wound in my right forearm.
I ran home, holding the wide cut closed with my left hand. Mom was horrified, but knew what to do. She went next door. Our neighbor was Dr. McLain. “Take the boy to my office. I’ll be right behind you,” he ordered.
At his office, as Dr. McClain approached the table where I lay, I noticed his eyes were red and swollen. He hand shook as he prepared the hypodermic to deaden the pain. I thought he was drunk. It was completely out of character for this kind old man. I was more afraid of him and what might happen to me than I was to have received that bad cut.
He sewed me up. It took 10 stitches and all I felt were a few gentle tugs on my arm. A three-inch scar is a constant reminder of that day.
Twenty years later my mother told me what happened the morning of my accident. Dr. McClain had received a telegram telling him that his son, Capt. William McClain, had been killed in action. Capt. McClain, a young surgeon, was coming ashore in the second wave when his landing craft took a direct hit from a German artillery shell.
Forty years later I would stand in front of a white marble wall at the American cemetery in Normandy. This incredibly beautiful memorial monument is nine feet tall, perhaps 150 feet long and curved in a semi-circle. You approach the wall down wide marble stairs bordered by tall sculptured columns. Into the wall are chiseled the names if every man killed in the Normandy invasion whose remains were never found, all in alphabetical order.
I went to the middle of the wall. Squinting from the reflection of the sun off the white marble, I located the “M”s. Halfway up, there it was. Capt. William McClain.
My throat tightened and my eyes filled with tears as I thought back to that day in the doctor’s office. For a short time, I shared Dr. McClain’s grief.