By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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“That was the day when it all turned around,” said Robert Heer of Sequim, who was a 22-year-old prisoner of war in Hokkaido, Japan, on D-Day.
Seventy years ago today, thousands of young men invaded Normandy to free France from Nazi control in the largest seaborne invasion in history: D-Day.
The number of Allied combat casualties on D-Day was more than 10,000, of whom 2,500 Americans died.
As veterans of D-Day and World War II age into their 90s, the 70th anniversary comes with the bittersweet realization it will be one of the last times those who fought will be able to share their stories.
“Seventy years . . . I can't believe it,” said 91-year-old Thomas Knee of Sequim, who was a radio operator in a B-26 bomber, which followed the front after the invasion to take out Axis targets.
“I've lived three lifetimes since then.”
A 19-year-old “country boy” from Savona, N.Y., Richard French was one of the first who saw lines of German soldiers waiting for the Allied Forces' arrival on Normandy beaches.
“I didn't really have much to think about it. I was a 19-year-old kid who got drafted and put in this situation,” said French, now an 89-year-old naval veteran living in Port Angeles.
“I just prayed like hell and did what I had been trained to do.”
For the generation of children who had grown up in bread lines working to help their families through the Great Depression, the war was just another duty to fulfill.
“That was life. And we accepted it. We did what we had to do,” Knee said.
“But I wouldn't do it again.”
“I was sitting in the English Channel 70 years ago right now,” French said in an interview at his Port Angeles home of 54 years Wednesday.
French spent the stormy nights of June 4 and 5 in the English Channel on a LCT-809.
“I don't know what we were doing out there for two days,” French said while recalling D-Day in his Cherry Hill home in Port Angeles.
“It's not that big a stretch of water. For crying out loud, Florence Chadwick swam across it.”
The LCT-809 was a 209-foot-long landing craft that carried 35 Sherman tanks and hundreds of infantry soldiers and Navy support sailors.
On D-Day, the craft delivered Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., his jeep and his dog to Utah Beach, where he led the 4th Infantry Division's charge.
Gen. Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, was said to be the only Allied general to land with the first wave of troops on D-Day.
French spent the next three months transporting troops between England and France.
“It felt like a lot longer than that,” he said.
“We never heard about Normandy at all. We never heard a word,” Heer said of D-Day.
Heer, an Iowa native, was working forced labor as a stevedore on the island of Hokkaido.
“[Japan] had made a newspaper up telling how we lost our aircraft carriers and they were superior and we were going to lose the war because we had lost this number of ships,” Heer recalled.
“And this Navy chief started to laugh. He says, 'Hell, we never had that many ships before the war started.'
“And everybody started to calm down.”
Heer had been a prisoner of war since hundreds of Japanese soldiers overtook Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines in May 1942.
For 3½ years, Heer and other members of the 61st Field Artillery group were shuttled between camps in Formosa, now Taiwan, and Japan, working as stevedores and in coal mines to fuel the Japanese military's operations.
He was awarded the Purple Heart in 2002 for injuries he received as a prisoner of war.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a 20-year-old Gail Elliot, now of Sequim, was towing an FM-2 Wildcat fighter plane across the island of Boca Chica in the Florida Keys — with a mule.
“They had taken all the big stuff over to Europe by then,” said Elliot, a “handcuff volunteer” with the Navy.
“That's what we were left with.”
On D-Day, Knee, a native of Pennsylvania coal country, was flying north from Savannah, Ga., through Canada, Greenland and England.
“I was on my way,” Knee said.
“I was probably pretty miserable, if I remember right.
“People don't realize the back of a plane is cold and dark and nasty.”
Knee was in the back of that 9th Air Force plane for more than 50 missions with the “Howlin' Wolves” squadron.
He and his crew knocked out bridges and concentrations of Axis tanks and soldiers in France, Belgium and Germany.
While most of Knee's missions were aimed for the front of the war, Allied planes didn't station in Europe until after the ground forces had secured the continent.
“You can't have an airfield with a ground game going on,” he said.
Knee's plane was shot down once. During the crash landing, the plane scooped French dirt into its torn-up fuselage.
“I had to dig three guys out” of the fuselage, he said.
For his service, Knee was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the European Theater of Operations medal and the Jubilee of Liberty medal.
After the war, French was stationed at Port Townsend, where he met Mary, his wife, at a dance.
They later married and, after he served in the Korean War, settled in Port Angeles.
They raised six children while he worked as a letter carrier. His wife worked in the circulation department at the Peninsula Daily News until the late 1980s.
Knee worked for the Hudson Motor Co. and as a salesman in the pharmaceutical industry in Detroit and Traverse City, Mich., where he and his wife of 63 years, Marge, raised their three children.
The couple moved to Sequim after retiring. Marge died in 2011.
Now 90, Elliot, a Kansas native, is among a group of World War II veterans who meet for coffee Wednesday mornings at Stymie's Bar & Grill. Heer, 92, is another member of that coffee klatch.
Last October, Heer and his wife, Karen, took a 10-day tour of Japan with three other former prisoners of war.
“There's no hard feelings left after this many years,” he said.
Heer stayed with the Air Force until retiring in 1965. He later worked 18 years with the U.S. Postal Service and moved to Sequim in 1990.
Despite their local gatherings, the veterans said they had trouble over the years maintaining contact with those they served alongside as they spread out across the country following the war.
“You know, I look at this, and I can't tell you where these guys are,” Knee said while looking at a picture of his B-26 crew inside the office of his Sequim home.
“I saw the skipper once,” French said. “I stopped in Sunbury, Pa., one time and called him at 4 o'clock in the morning.
“He was a salesman. He didn't get up until 10 a.m. So I told him to put the coffee pot on and I'll be right over.”
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at email@example.com.