On the morning of June 7, 1944, the excitement among my classmates at my school in Dundee, Scotland, was inescapable. My fellow 10-year-olds were talking and laughing about the huge invasion of the day before — the day that forever since has been known as D-Day.
I didn’t join in the celebration, and a friend wondered why.
“Lots of lives are being lost in that invasion,” I remarked, glumly.
It wasn’t that I didn’t welcome the long-anticipated invasion. The war, after all, had dominated our lives since September 1939, and we were tired of air raid shelters and gas masks and all the other intrusive appurtenances of war.
No, my glum attitude that otherwise happy morning arose from the fact that my mother had patiently explained to me over breakfast that there is always — and she stressed the “always”— a dark side to such military missions.
My mother had reason to be especially conscious of that dark side.
By June 1944, my brother, Richard, had been a prisoner of the Germans for two years; he would not make it home. And my father was the skipper of an American Liberty ship and had been lucky to survive the deadly North Atlantic convoys, especially the always-risky convoys to Murmansk in the north of the Soviet Union.
With my father gone, my mother ran our family business, Scotland’s first American-style gas station, but, of course, the war meant there were few customers. In fact, I can remember only two trips I ever took in private vehicles during the war years.
A neighbor — a traveling salesman — who took me with him one day, believing I needed something to lift my spirits, owned one of them; the other belonged to an uncle who had an important government job. I remember he would shift into neutral going downhill, hoping that doing so would save fuel.
Somehow the gas station survived the rationing and the absence of private cars (it had a scale that brought in money from trucks that needed to be weighed, and there were military vehicles that needed fuel), and it certainly kept my mother’s attention on the job and less on her worries about her husband and her son.
But back to D-Day: Keep in mind that in April and May, just in the preparations for the invasion, Allied air forces lost nearly 12,000 men and more than 2,000 aircraft.
The National D-Day Memorial Foundation, an American organization, has carefully recorded the names of 2,499 American D-Day fatalities and 1,915 from the other Allied nations. The total — 4,414 — far exceeds the level that previously was generally accepted, 2,500.
So, my mother’s attitude on the morning after the invasion was justified. Yet it also served to deprive me of a chance to join in the elation that dominated my school day. I remember feeling almost estranged from all my friends. But I have no other memories of that day.
Years later, though, I would befriend two people who actually participated in Operation Overlord, as D-Day was called by its military masters. One is Bob Davis of Plainfield, Vermont, who parachuted into Normandy, and the other is Morley Piper of Essex, Massachusetts, the longtime executive director of what then was called The New England Newspaper Association. He waded ashore as a second lieutenant.
I’m in awe of these two friends. I’ve never served in the military (as a sole surviving son, I was turned away when I tried to enlist during the Korean War), and my only exposure to the hazards of war came during the early days of World War II, when the Germans bombed Dundee several times.
Bob and Morley came home safely from the war and went about their business. They were both successful in their civilian lives. And I’m extremely proud to call them my friends.
My mind still reels at the loss of life that happened as a result of the D-Day invasion. Let’s celebrate the 70th anniversary of the event that proved to be the beginning of the end for Hitler and so many others of his ilk. But let’s also think about those who died. My mother did.
Al Hutchison is a retired newspaper executive who lives in Citrus County.