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On The 68th Anniversary Of The Invasion Of Normandy, I Can’t Help But Think Of Family

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(Photo by M. McNeill/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

On this anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, I was thinking of some family members. Some I knew, and some I didn’t get a chance to. Such as my grandmother’s first cousin Keith Jeffries, who died several years before D-Day at Pearl Harbor. He was among the dead on the U.S.S. Arizona. He was only 23 years old. There’s now a street in Cranford named after him. I thought about my Uncle Bill, who served in Korea years after D-Day and nearly died when he was trapped in a tank that had been fired upon. Perhaps the most interesting thing about that was my uncle who grew up in a different time in this country held some prejudices in his heart before the war. All that changed when a black serviceman whose name he never did learn risked his life by climbing onto that doomed, fire engulfed tank and getting the hatch released, reached inside and with one arm pulled my uncle to safety, seconds later the tank was gone.

Mostly I thought today about my Uncle Murph. He was among the first to storm the beaches at Normandy. The stuff you saw in the long opening battle scene from Saving Private Ryan. There was another young man that Murph had grown up with, gone to school with, and was his best friend. Through total blind luck (or perhaps blind bad luck) they just happened to end up serving together in the same unit and were on the same landing vessel that day. His friend was in front of him, charging as fast across that beach as he could possibly run being weighed down by weapons and gear. My uncle (he was actually my great uncle, it’s just what I called him) was about a hundred feet behind. He watched in horror as his friend’s head literally disappeared, apparently from a shell exploding in midair, into a thin red spray. His friend’s body from the shoulders down remained intact. As my uncle told it, that headless body which a moment earlier was his lifelong best childhood friend, continued running up the beach. Just as fast for a second or two, then slightly slower, then spasmodically for a moment, before pitching forward, gone. I suppose the brain’s urgent signal of run!-run!-run! had sent those signals to the body and its nervous system was still reacting to only that. It’s said that my uncle was a fun-loving, generous guy before the war. When he came home, he was nervous all the time. Worried constantly. Never slept through the night for the rest of his life. Would snap at people inconsistently. I guess they didn’t have a name for it then. They certainly didn’t have anxiety medications the way they do today. He suffered in silence. All we knew is that he was one of the lucky ones on D-Day, and he came back home. But certainly part of him died on that beach. Just not the part you can see.

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