“OKAY. WE’LL GO.”

        I planned another story for this week when I happened upon this one, and I wanted to share it with you. I am in the process of organizing hundreds of stories kept from my newspaper days. It is an awesome task, but I hope it will be worth it when I finally see them once again in print. I shall never forget the man I interviewed for this story. It was originally written in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, which was the beginning of the end of World War II. It is an interview with Robert L. Mathias, who insisted on my calling him “Bob.” He was one of the one million soldiers who invaded Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944.

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It was the worst weather in four decades. Rain pelted the region for days on end, and the heavy seas of the English Channel were a watery death trap.

The army meteorologist in England forecast a 36-hour break in the weather. It wouldn’t be clear sailing, and at best the Channel would be treacherous.

Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, called the leaders of all the armies together and asked their opinions. They stared at the table in front of them and said nothing. Eisenhower knew the final decision rested only with him.

“Okay, we’ll go.”

Those three words spoken on June 5, 1944, launched the most massive invasion by any army in the history of the world. This week is the 50th anniversary of that invasion.

Beginning in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the Allied Army landed forces on the beaches of Normandy; they would number a million men by July 1. The attack marked the beginning of the end of World War II.

One of those men was Bob Mathias from Granville, Ohio.  He was detached from his tank unit to the invading army as a chemical warfare expert. “We didn’t know what we would run into,” says Mathias, remembering The Longest Day.

“They wanted a man in each unit who understood chemical deterrents in case the Germans were using mustard gas or something like that.” Mathias worked in a chemical plant before he was drafted in 1941, and the army made use of his civilian training in assigning him a military job.

As it turned out, there was no evidence of chemical warfare in Normandy, but Mathias saw plenty of action anyway. His tank unit rolled onto Omaha Beach, where the bloodiest battle of the invasion took place.

“The first troops landed at 4:30 in the morning on June 6. My unit came ashore at around 10:30. After six hours of fighting they had only pushed inland about a quarter of a mile. There were bodies everywhere. The mortuary crew hadn’t even had time to. . . .”

His voice cracks and he looks away. The gruesome picture seen by the young technical sergeant is still sharp, now seen by the mind’s eye of the aging veteran 50 years later.

After a moment he continues. “They had to remove the bodies from the beach, so the tanks dug a long ditch five or six feet deep and pushed them, Germans and Americans together, into it. They put the soldiers’ dog tags in their mouths. It wasn’t until much later that the mortuary crew could get in there and put them into caskets. They notified the German Army where to find their dead.”

By the next day, June 7, Mathias said the Allies had managed to advance only four miles inland. The beach was fortified with miles of steel and concrete barriers and bunkers. To disrupt enemy communications, Eisenhower dropped paratroops inland behind the reinforced beachfront embankments. Along with the 5,000 Allied ships that pushed onto Normandy that morning, airplanes towed gliders that were released to float inland and deposit more troops behind the lines.

The Germans, led by Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt, had foreseen such a strategy and erected tall metal posts just behind the barriers. As the wide-winged gliders were set free from the aircraft, most of them crashed into the poles.

Sergeant Bob Mathias saw it all, being constantly on call to inspect each German stronghold for lethal chemicals as it fell to the Allies. Ironically, he only found poison gas one time during his four years in the armed forces. “It was two days before the war ended,” says Mathias. “We were making our way across Germany. They knew we were coming, and they abandoned the towns as we approached.

“We came into one village that was full of green canisters marked with three rings around them. There were pipes running all over town hooked up to the canisters. The German army had left one officer behind with instructions to turn on the gas when we pulled into town. He couldn’t do it. He said he just couldn’t bring himself to kill all those people.

“We didn’t know what the gas was, so we named it Three Ring Green. Some of it was sent back to the states to be tested, but we dropped most of it a mile deep in the Blue Danube. I guess it’s still there today.”

By this time, Mathias was back with his old tank unit that was part of General George Patton’s famous Third Army. He was a gunner in one of the Sherman tanks that rumbled from the beaches at Normandy to the Rhine River, liberating Europe and conquering Germany. He was with Patton at the Battle of the Bulge.

He was wounded once when the turret was blown off his tank. “I was the only guy who made it out of that one alive, and I just broke 11 ribs. I had the straps off my helmet and wasn’t buckled in my seat. When the explosion happened, I was thrown out the top of the tank. The other boys were strapped in;  it broke their necks.” He pauses again, and looks away as he takes a deep breath before he goes on: “I was lucky.”

Bob Mathias was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism and outstanding service. He came home just before Christmas in 1945. Listening to his graphic descriptions and heartfelt memories of World War II, one feels a strong sense of being incapable of grasping even the faintest notion of what it was like for Bob Mathias and the million soldiers who fought on the beaches of Normandy.

“Yes, I was scared,” he answers when asked if he was afraid on that morning so many years ago. “But you can’t think about it. You know you have to keep going and do whatever you have to, or you’ll wind up like all those other boys lying around you.”

Or as General Patton put it in a letter written to his grandson on the evening of June 6, 1944, “The most vital quality a soldier can possess is self-confidence, utter, complete and bumptious.”

Robert L. Mathias had all that and more. He was truly an American hero. Mathias died in 2002 at the age of 90.

SURVIVING THE HAZARDS OF HOE MEK

Sorry, Dear Friends, for staying away so long. I have spent the past  seven weeks enjoying four frenetic ambulance rides up and down the Interstate scattering less attention-craving vehicles thither and yon. After as many hospital incarcerations, it was decided to dose me with a new med, and now all is cool at least for the time being. Thanks for your concern and your patience. 

SURVIVING THE HAZARDS OF HOE MEK

Being a female teenager in the 50s, it was expected I should “learn to cook and to sew; what’s more, you’ll love it, I know.” (From a popular song of the period.) I think classes in Home Economics, as they were called in the 50s, no longer exist. It’s a good thing, too. I have a strong suspicion I am partially responsible for the demise of what I nicknamed “Hoe Mek.” If that is true I’m not ashamed to admit it. It is one of my proudest accomplishments. And believe me when I tell you, it wasn’t easy. I barely escaped Hoe Mek with my life, but not without bruises and spilled blood.

My first sortie into the heady atmosphere of classroom domesticity scarred me for life, but I had no choice in the matter. Back in those unenlightened days, at least in Nashville, Tennessee, 7th grade boys took “Shop.” Girls took Hoe Mek, which was considered too sissified for boys just as Shop was too dangerous for girls.  My father and I had worked together on small building projects for years. I knew my way around a coping saw and a tack hammer with the best of them, but Bailey Junior High’s curriculum was sexually explicit. No exceptions

The Hoe Mek teacher’s name was Mrs. Wray. She was an acquaintance of my mother’s. Mother told me I must be very attentive in class, and I was to take care to not give Mrs. Wray any trouble. It seemed she had a “nervous condition.”

But try as I might, I managed to give her grief practically from the first day of classes. I never knew the answers to the simplest questions: “How does one starch a shirt?” “Why is the tip of an iron hotter than the rest of the iron?” “How do you boil an egg without breaking the shell?” I hadn’t the slightest idea. Still don’t.

The first hands-on activity was sewing. We were told to buy two yards of a nice cotton print, and bring it to the next class. We were going to make a skirt. I announced the coming purchase to Mother, and she said we would go to town and pick out my fabric on Saturday. I was not in the least interested in sewing, and even less in owning a cotton print skirt. But Mother was excited about it, and promised to answer any questions I might have at home. She would even introduce me to her own sainted sewing machine. I didn’t even try to appear interested.

I took my fabric to school as instructed, and followed Mrs. Wray’s direction. We did some cutting, none of which I remember, and set about basting the seams. I was happy to discover I understood the directions, and “with a song in my heart” (another popular song of the period) I proceeded to take long hand-stitches.

I soon noticed Mrs. Wray hanging out near my seat at the sewing table. At one time, I managed to glance unnoticed up at her, and she had a quizzical look on her face as she studied my stitching.

Suddenly, she yelled, “Mildred, you’re stitching backwards.” I nearly jumped out of my skin. “You’re sewing backwards. You’re using your right hand, but you’re sewing in a left-handed direction. Stop it this instant!” I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was on about. I asked her, but she was becoming more and more distraught.

Oh no! I had activated Mrs. Wray’s nervous condition!

She quickly wrote a note and told me to take it home to Mother just as the bell rang releasing me from her frenetic note-writing and material- gathering. She literally shoved me out the door.

This incident was the first in a long series of similar occurrences that continue to this day, which seems to indicate there is a wire crossed in my brain. I use my right hand, but somehow I do things in a left-hander’s direction. It’s caused no small amount of consternation, mostly among those from whom I have taken instruction, such as square dancing, pottery making and horseback riding. The first two caused amazement, but the horse didn’t seem to notice.

It soon became obvious to me Mrs. Wray thought I had some evil intent to send her over the edge by sewing backwards. Little did she know what lay ahead. When the skirts finally reached the sewing machines, I was terrified. My machine looked to me as though it was the one with evil intent.

My first day at the machine began surrounded by an aura of unaccustomed calm. Mrs. Wray took her usual position standing over me. My confidence built slowly and before I knew it, I was busily  pushing my skirt gathers underneath the presser foot. I may even have been humming a little ditty, as I happily ignored the sinister watchfulness of Mrs. Wray.

“No, Mildred!” she suddenly shouted, successfully destroying the mood. “You’re doing it again! You’re sewing back…”

I looked up at her while the sewing machine continued to gobble up gathers. Mrs. Wray screamed again just as I felt a jab of pain. I looked down to see a logjam of gathers under the needle. The fabric was rapidly turning red, and I realized underneath the fabric my finger was impaled on the needle.

Mrs. Wray’s hands flew to either side of her head as she quickly backed away from me. Some of the girls helped her to a chair; some ran for the school nurse; and some helped me get my finger out of the sewing machine. Blood was everywhere. Mrs. Wray, whose nervous condition had her in its grip, continued to scream.

I’m not sure about the order of events after that. I do know Mother came to pick me up. She took me to the doctor, who told me how lucky I was. The needle had only grazed the outside of my index finger. It looked, he said, a lot worse than it actually was. He added I should be more careful when operating a sewing machine.

The photograph you see below was taken the following Monday. During the ensuing weekend, Mother called Mrs. Wray to ask after her health and to apologize for my behavior, after which she went to the fabric shop and bought another two yards of a “nice cotton print.” She sewed it up into a gathered skirt, put a clean band-aid on my finger and sent me off to school. She suggested I might want to avoid Mrs. Wray, if at all possible.

The picture was taken for Bailey Junior High’s annual. Its purpose was to show off the 7th Grade Girls’ sewing skills. I showed off my mother’s sewing skills. The photographer showed off his people-arranging skills by placing the Giant Girl (me) in the center of the shot and placing the cute, short girls in descending order by my sides, making me appear even taller, but what the hey! Given the indisputable fact I was already the star of the show, like it or not, I guess it was appropriate. Oh, by the way, that was the first and LAST time I wore that skirt.

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