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Students engrossed by veterans’ account of D-Day invasion

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
War veteran Gordon Warner of Levant tells tales of his days in Vietnam to high school students from Hodgdon on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, at the Galen Cole Land Transportation Museum.
By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — They sat silently, paying rapt attention and barely blinking as Harold Beal recalled being one of the first U.S. soldiers to slog through the water and up onto Omaha Beach on D-Day 67 years ago.

The Hodgdon High School seniors hung on every word as the 86-year-old World War II veteran recalled the hail of machine gun and artillery fire, constant explosions, smoke, screams of dying and wounded men, and din of chaos he found himself in the midst of as he and fellow soldiers simply tried to survive the initial stages of the historic Normandy Invasion.

To say D-Day was Beal’s singular coming-of-age moment would be a colossal understatement.

“As you’re training, and getting ready, and even while you’re loading men aboard an LCVP [Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel], you’re an 18-year-old kid and you don’t think too much about it,” Beal said. “But when you start in towards that beach with machine guns [firing] at you, you grow up fast.”

“I lost two boats on D-Day and most of the men on them,” he added. “I always ask kids if they saw ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ That is the real thing. That’s exactly what I saw.”

The Southwest Harbor native, who has only recently been able to talk about his experiences as a young U.S. Navy gunner’s mate during one of the most significant battles in U.S. history, spoke at the Galen Cole Family Land Transportation Museum on Wednesday. Beal was taking part in one of the 100 or so presentations and tours organized annually at the museum or school classes and groups from all over the state.

“I never could talk about it for 60-some-odd years, but for the last 12 years, I’ve been going to group meetings with a bunch of the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] fellas every Monday morning,” said Beal. “They have helped me to the point where last April, Galen wanted me to sit here and do one of these things. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did.”

Wednesday’s visit was by 30 members of Hodgdon’s senior class who took a two-hour bus ride south for a living history lesson.

“This is important because some kids don’t know what you’re talking about,” Beal said. “Once I had this girl ask me if I’d been in a battle. I says I was in one and that was enough. She says, ‘Which one?’ and I says, ‘I was on Omaha Beach in France. Do you know where that is?’ She says, ‘Yeah, that’s in Nebraska.’ So you see, you’ve got to tell them because they don’t know.”

This wasn’t the first trip to Cole’s museum for Kimberly Levesque and cousins Megan Fitzpatrick and Sara Fitzpatrick, but it was a first to hear first-person accounts of a war they had only been able to read about.

“I didn’t hear anything like that when we came here as sophomores,” said Megan Fitzpatrick. “We learn about it in school and it’s in the books and everything, but this is living history and it means so much more when it’s face to face.”

Levesque was fascinated by Beal’s stories as well as some of the war mementos he kept, particularly a miniature torpedo he made from the propeller of a Messerschmidt he helped shoot down over Normandy. Then there were the wooden bullets the Germans used. They weren’t very accurate but inflicted more injury and damage by exploding into splinters upon contact.

“I’d never seen or heard about those things before,” said Levesque.

Or “V-mail,” for that matter.

Victory Mail letters were smaller, microfilmed versions of 8½-by-11-inch or smaller sheets of paper. The letters were condensed to create more room and speed the delivery time in overseas shipments.

“Usually they just tell you what they do, but not always how it affects them and how it feels,” said Sara Fitzpatrick. “He really elaborated on it and told us about the emotional toll it takes on someone.”

Sharing his wartime experiences is important not just for its educational value to the students, but also its therapeutic benefit for him and fellow veterans, Beal said.

“Yes, it helps me, too,” he said, stopping abruptly as tears welled in his eyes.

Beal fought to control his emotion for a minute and, after regaining composure, continued on.

“It means a lot. … You’ve got to impress upon them the value of freedom,” he said. “It bothers me right this minute, you can tell. … But I enjoy it.”

Leland Burnham of Greenbush, a Vietnam and Desert Storm veteran with 25 years in the Army, was another one of the veterans talking with the students.

“I did a talk for a senior history class last year, but this is altogether different,” said Burnham, who was spat upon shortly after coming back from Vietnam. “Course, we weren’t treated real well when we came back, so for many years we didn’t talk about it for that reason. But it’s been really good. … It’s a healing thing. It really is.”

Beal has been one of the museum’s 60 “on-call veterans” since April, driving 100 miles to and from his home in Southwest Harbor to talk to students and take part in special memorial events.

He has marched or ridden in a vehicle in Bangor’s Veterans Day parade every year since the Veterans Remembrance Bridge was opened 25 years ago. And the father of two daughters, grandfather of nine, and great-grandfather of 10 will be riding in a bus during Friday’s parade as well.

Veterans Day has particular significance for Beal, who served nearly 3½ years in World War II.

“When they closed the beach in November [1944], there were 12 of us fellas left and we were taken back to England as soon as they opened Cherbourg up. They stove the hell out of Cherbourg in the war,” he said. “I was one of the first ones on Omaha Beach and I was one of the last ones off.”

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