BANGOR — Each small group of students that interviews World War II veteran Harold Beal hears about the two boats the young gunner’s mate lost just off Omaha Beach on D-Day in June 1944, and sees the miniature torpedo he made from the propeller of a Messerschmidt he later helped shoot down over Normandy.
The youngsters look at V-mail letters and the German wooden bullets that the Southwest Harbor man, 87, explains weren’t very accurate, but were so damaging at close range because they exploded into splinters on contact.
No doubt many of the students caught Beal’s D-Day anniversary interview last month on the evening TV news without realizing what a miracle it was. Beal himself certainly knows it.
“I had 60-some years I couldn’t talk to nobody,” Beal recalled recently. He spent his working life as a truck driver, but it wasn’t just the independence of the road that appealed to him after the war.
“The reason I wanted to drive truck was I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” he said. If he could avoid talking about the war, it might be easier to avoid thinking about seeing 36 soldiers cut down by German fire in seconds as the ramp went down on the Navy landing craft at Omaha Beach.
A longtime sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing so many killed on D-Day, Beal knows that his PTSD has been hard on his family, too, especially his wife.
“It would break my heart to see him sit and watch war movies like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and cry,” Marcia Beal explained.
Harold Beal spent more than 15 years attending a PTSD group for 1½ hours every Monday morning at the Bangor Veterans Center to receive support from other veterans and a counselor. “I was one of the worst he had,” Beal said.
Another fellow had started participating in the Veterans Interview Program at Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor, answering questions about military service from groups of three or four youngsters in middle school or high school.
“The counselor said, I want you to go up and sit in a couple of times, see what they do, and try it,” Beal said, and so he did.
“When he first started, I thought, he’s going to break down,” Marcia said. “But he came home and he looked so contented.” And, she adds with a smile, “we’ve gotten closer since he’s been up there.” Her husband has begun talking to his daughter about the war, as well.
Museum founder Galen Cole didn’t realize early on that Beal had been struggling with PTSD, but for decades has had his own impression of Harold Beal as someone who “saved the day” when it came to business.
Cole remembers a day in 1949 when a couple of Coles Express employees “had rolled their rig over” on a little rise near Echo Lake on Mount Desert Island. “They were delivering potatoes to A&P and First National stores,” Cole said.
“I had just gotten in from Boston,” Beal recalled. “It was very cold. The state police got in touch with me at a basketball game, and they wanted to know if I would go up and take the potatoes off the Coles truck so they wouldn’t freeze and put them on my truck, which would fit in the garage.“
“The next morning they came down and took the potatoes, and that was the first time I met Galen Cole and his father, Allie Cole,” Beal said. “I also worked for Acadia Express, and at one time we had our office in Coles offices. After deregulation in the trucking industry, we didn’t have too much work, so Galen hired one truck from Tommy Newman, and I drove up through Unity and Thorndike, those places on Route 9 and Route 3, to deliver freight for Coles Express.”
Cole was happy to connect with Beal again at the museum, and pleased that talking with the youngsters actually helped his friend in healing from the war’s memories. He’s heard from other veterans with PTSD, as well, who have told him they have found some peace in sharing their war service with the students — and having that service appreciated.
Beal saves every thank you note and letter he receives afterward from grateful students, letters and cards from schools in towns around the state such as Holden, Pittsfield, Brewer, Gardiner, Oxford Hills and locales in Aroostook County.
A couple of years ago, Brewer High School student Whitney Seymour earned second place in the Cole Museum’s essay contest, “What I Learned About Freedom After Interviewing a Veteran.”
“Talking with Mr. Beal that day really put a lot of pride and admiration in my heart for All American veterans,” Seymour wrote in part. “Seeing his face cringe while recalling explicit images of his time at war gave new light to my thoughts on our precious freedom and what it costs to us. Young men and women willingly abandon their own lives and freedoms to protect ours. And the ones that make it back suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives thereafter. The toll that war has taken on our veterans, both physically and mentally, to secure our freedom is enormous. If there is one thing I learned at the Cole Transportation Museum that day, it was that freedom is most definitely not free.”
Harold Beal was one of the first Allies to land at Omaha Beach, and one of the last to leave. For more than 25 years, he has marched or ridden in Bangor’s patriotic parades, and he did so again on the Fourth of July.
Those interested in volunteering for the Veterans Interview Program at Cole Land Transportation Museum may call 990-3600, ext. 13, or visit www.colemuseum.org.