Living in DC allows for an even more meaningful and contemplative Memorial Day than usual, and though I did a brief nod to our service members in my last post, I wanted also to honor my grandfather, who fought bravely at Omaha Beach and survived a German prisoner of war camp until its liberation in the spring of 1945. He truly lived the life of a warrior. He passed away this January at 86 years old. He was an incredible man.
My grandfather, whom we called PopPops, was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, one of thirteen children born to migrant farm laborers. He did not finish high school before signing up for the Army, and he was actually under legal age when he enlisted and was able to join only because he bribed a neighbor into signing for him. He was desperate to fight and really dug the uniform, so he said. After the war, he completed his GED and would later take several college courses at the University of Maryland.
Pops was assigned to the 29th Infantry Division, which is best known for its primary and heroic role in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. The infantry’s motto was ” 29 Let’s Go!”; PopPops would years later write that small but powerful phrase on letters he sent to my brother, who was stationed in Germany for two years. I’m sure he also wrote it on letters to my own father, who fought in the Vietnam War.
Pops’ role as a soldier defined him at that young age, and the warrior traite would be one he’d hold onto forever. Some men–such my Italian immigrant maternal grandfather–chose never to speak of the war experiences. Pops was not that kind of man, most often donning a POW cap. He was always keen on storytelling, and he could remember details like you wouldn’t believe. My family, and the Veterans History Project, have treasured tapes and transcripts of his wartime tales.
Of coures the 29th was sent to England to prepare for the invasion, and after years of training, stormed Normandy with quick success at all other beachhead sections. As we all know, Omaha Beach was, in the beginning, horrific. After Pops’ company invaded, he was shot in the leg while navigating a hedgerow near St.-Lo. He was taken prisoner and held captive for eleven months.
For his service and bravery, he was awarded a Purple Heart, Medal of Good Conduct, Victory in Europe Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal (yes, he signed up for more), Prisoner of War Medal, the Bronze Star, and four Normandy Liberation medals. He instilled in his family a sense of service, honor, and dedication. I am so grateful for his memory.