A few years ago I was in New Orleans on my first trip to the National WWII Museum (also known back then as the D-Day Museum). If you haven’t been there, when you visit you will be immersed in World War II history, given the opportunity to browse through areas dedicated to several theaters of war.
The museum was relatively new when I stopped in, and the primary attraction was an engrossing pictorial and audio display illustrating the timeline of the Normandy invasion (June 6, 1944). As I studied the photographs on the wall, I noticed an elderly gentleman standing next to me, staring at a picture of Point du Hoc.
We struck up a conversation. He had been there, landing on June 7th near the famous cliffs that were so high and steep that the Rangers had to scale them with rope ladders the day before. He was wearing a Chief Petty Officer’s hat and I asked him about his experience. He had been a young Navy Corpsman. A replacement.
I tried to find out more, but in typical WWII veteran style, he artfully redirected the conversation away from himself and back to the boys who took Point du Hoc. “I still can’t figure out how they did it,” he said.
I wanted to learn more. Why had a Navy Corpsman been sent in as a replacement? What did he do? What did he see?
But before I could ask the questions, the quiet Navy veteran, humble and self-effacing, moved on. His story was meant for someone else’s ears.
The replacements filled a vital role in the days following the Normandy invasion. They had the unenviable task of filling in for others who had already fallen. Because they lacked sufficient training they were considered to be liabilities by many of the more seasoned front-line troops. And because they had to learn through on-the-job training in combat situations, they often suffered from extraordinarily high casualty rates.
Sixty-six years after D-Day, it is almost impossible for most of us to imagine the horrors of the day and its aftermath. But hundreds of thousands of young Americans went in, “just doing their jobs,” as they always say. And they saved the world.
One of them was a young Navy Corpsman who lived to see it all again on the walls of a museum.