Why its important to hear stories from WWIIs last living survivors

20.11.2020
Why its important to hear stories from WWIIs last living survivors
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2020/06/




First Lt. Robert C. Etnire, one of nearly 160,000 Allied troops who landed on Normandy beaches on D-Day. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY GEOFFREY C. ETNIRE

 

To mark the 75th anniversary of the wars end, people who lived through ita dwindling populationrecount their experiences and memories. 

BY SUSAN GOLDBERG,  EDITOR IN CHIEF

 

As a journalist for 40 years, I have had the unfortunate duty from time to time to own up to a mistake I made and to write a correction about a fact I got wronga wrong date, a misspelled name, a number not quite right. All of these errors made me feel bad; this one has saddened me as well.

As our June issue went to print, we learned that after all those years of keeping his memories at bay, my father-in-law, Robert C. Etnire, apparently remembered the timing of his arrival on Omaha Beach incorrectly. On D-Day, his unit, the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized), was among many in the English Channel, enduring heavy bombardment while waiting to be ordered ashore. But Bob's boat did not actually reach Omaha Beach until June 8, two days after D-Day began. According to a history of the 102nd Cavalry, written by Maj. David M. Russen, The route to the beach was strewn with still burning ships that had run upon sunken concrete pilings or mines The beach proper was littered with demolished vehicles and American and German soldiers unrecognizably intermingled in death. It must have been a searing experience; it is no wonder he never spoke of it until he was 85 years old.

My father-in-law told me he had been there, and indeed he was. But I got the date wrong, and it is our policy, and my determination, to always be transparent with our readers. To that end, we are putting this correction on top of my original letter to you, so you can see for yourself the difference. I apologize for this error. 

In 2005, my husband, Geoffrey Etnire, and I went with his parents to visit Normandy, France. We knew that Geoffs father, Bob, had been involved in some way in  D-Day, but like many men of his generation, he never spoke of it.

When asked for details about what happened, Bob would only say that he went over later. No one pushed the point, and the family came to assume that later meant days or even weeks after the first D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. 

Standing on Omaha Beach, we found out how wrong we were.

I knew I wasnt supposed to press Bob about his experiences in World War II. But on that windswept beach, amid what remains of German bunkers and with the steep cliffs towering behind us, my reporters curiosity got the best of me. 

Bob, you went over later, but when was that exactly? I asked. 

Oh, about 11 oclock in the morning, he replied. 

On D-Day itself? 

Yes.

 And that is how we found outincredibly, when he was 85 years oldwhere Robert C. Etnire was on that fateful day. A first lieutenant in the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized), he was among nearly 160,000 American, British, and Canadian troops who took part in the largest seaborne invasion in history. He landed on Omaha Beach.

 

   


Bob and Joan Etnire in 2012. In London during World War II, Bob attended a dance sponsored by the U.S. Army and met a charming British woman, Joan Walmsley. After they married in 1944, Bob brought his war bride back to the United States.PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ETNIRE FAMILY 

 

Thinking about it now, I can understand why this modest American patriot didnt want to talk about D-Day. By the time he arrived at 11 a.m., he must have stepped over the bodies of any number of the hundreds of American soldiers killed in the earlier waves of the Omaha assault. Perhaps he thought that, by comparison, he didnt have much to add. 

Despite his silence, he never stopped thinking about that day. 

After Bob died in 2015, at the age of 96, we found a yellowed piece of paper in plain sight in the top drawer of his desk. No one in the family could recall seeing it before. It was an official, typewritten list, dated May 31, 1945, of the officers and enlisted men in his squadron who participated in the assault which secured the initial Normandy Beachhead, and are awarded the Bronze Service Arrowhead.