Storyworth: Did anyone in the family play a part in History with a capital h?

| March 21, 2022 | 0 Comments

When I was about 10 years old, I asked my father what he did in World War II. He told me he landed at Normandy on D-Day plus 1, June 7th, 1944. He said he was a mile from the front. To my young brain, filled with TV shows, like Combat and 1950’s war movies, his answer was a disappointment. There were no movies about the guys that showed up the next day. All that mattered was what was happening on the front lines. For me, my father was a day late and a mile short.

My father, Bill Black, on the right, in his machine shop during WWII

What an idiot I was (or maybe I was just a ten-year-old boy). To my lifelong regret, I didn’t say, “Wow! That’s amazing! Tell me more.” Knowing what I know now, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to land on Omaha Beach the day after D-Day. A more recent war movie, Saving Private Ryan, was a more accurate depiction of war, specifically what happened on that day. The beach must have been littered with dead soldiers when he arrived. I suspect the surf was still red with all the blood. It must have been horrific.

A number of years ago, my cousin, Bob Black, sent me a trove of letters my father wrote to his sister, Ann, during his service in World War II. One letter refers to his arrival in France from England. Here’s what he wrote to Ann on July 22, 1944 after restrictions on letters home were lifted:

    “They have eased up on the censoring enough to so that I can say that we came to France the hard way – landed on the beach. There was no interference. It was quite a thrill tho as we approached the beachhead, to think that we were landing in another foreign country. I kept thinking about how Pete [his brother] had come to France + comparing the circumstances. As for the beach itself, at high tide, it might have been any part of the Cape. Boy, how it reminded me of it. Of course, at the Cape, you wouldn’t see a lot of destroyed barges laying about. For the next four or five days, it was kinda rough. I lived in the truck + ate K rations.”

That’s it. He was 26 years old. I’m sure his goal was to reassure his sister. I have to believe his landing was a bit more traumatic than he described.


Since beginning this post, inspired by the question, I have systematically gone through all of my father’s letters to his sister during his service in World War II. There are 31 letters. The first letter was written from Aberdeen, Maryland on July 2nd, 1943. The last was exactly two years later, on July 2nd 1945. All were, of course, handwritten. Fortunately, he had pretty good handwriting and the letter’s have held up well. Some were so-called V Mails, which were like postcards that enjoyed expedited delivery, though they were short. Reading these letters was an extraordinary journey through the war experience through my father’s eyes. They are such a gift.

For the most part, they are very personal accounts of his experiences, his concerns and expectations. After getting bounced around quite a bit, he landed in the job that he truly wanted, that of a machinist. He had a girlfriend named Dottie Jayes, who was in the Coast Guard. She dumped him in January of 1945. In a letter on February 4th, 1945, he expressed anger that she also wrote to his mother, my grandmother, announcing the breakup. He was concerned that his mother would worry that “they might be sizing me up for a straight jacket” upon his hearing the news. Amazingly, I googled “Dorothy Jayes, Coast Guard” and she came right up. She died in East Yarmouth on the Cape in 2008 at age 86. She was married twice and had a career as a PR executive in NY. Incredible what you can find on the Internet.

Of course, the letters raise an infinite number of questions, most of which will likely never be answered. By their nature, they leave huge gaps in his experiences during the war. The main locations from which they were written were Aberdeen, Maryland; San Antonio, Texas; England and France. The locations in England and France were a bit vague due to wartime censorship. As noted above, he landed on the beach in Normandy as part of the Ninth Air Force. For years, I’ve tried to find some independent verification of his wartime service, particularly some documentation that he landed on Normandy the day after D Day.

Recently, I discovered a document entitled “A Condensed Analysis of the Ninth Air Force in the European Theater of Operations,” published in 1946. It describes the role of the Ninth Air Force in softening the Nazi resistance in advance of the invasion of Normandy. The Ninth Air Force dropped the paratroopers behind the lines the night before D Day. They also bombed bridges in northern France that prevented German troops and armor from getting to Normandy after the invasion started. The report quotes Herman Goering as saying about D Day, “The allies owe the success of their invasion to their air forces. They prepared the invasion; they made it possible; and they carried it through.” That was the Ninth.

As to D Day plus 1, the report says, “The first units of the [Ninth Air Force] Engineer Command landed on Utah Beach on D Day and on Omaha Beach on D Day plus 1.” My father may have been part of that landing. The Engineer Command were the people who built the air strips as soon as they secured the beaches. My father was with the Service Command, the guys that keep all the machinery operating. I could imagine that the engineers would need men from the Service Command with them when the landed. If so, Omaha Beach must have been quite a sight that day.

After his arrival in France, his letters described a number of his experiences touring the countryside. He spent some time in Paris, which he LOVED. His next three letters had multiple variations of “Did I tell you how great Paris was?” He had another weekend in Paris when his brother, Franny, which was also very special.

His final letters were particularly interesting. He wrote one on May 9th, the day after VE day. He was pretty frustrated that he was in some godforsaken base in the French countryside when the war ended. He said he would have loved to have been in Paris for the celebration. The fact that he was writing a letter the day after the war ended in Europe suggests there wasn’t much of a party where he was. In the letters after that, he was very anxious about getting home. In one letter, he’s optimistic. In the next letter, a month later, he’s worried that he would be assigned to “the occupation.” The letters stopped on July 2nd, so I don’t know when he got home.

So, my detective work continues….


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