Explorations in Storytelling


Stories mostly

June 6, 1944 -- Fred


This photograph was part of a collection of 50 photos distributed in 1994 by the Associated Press in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of D-Day. The 50 photos were culled from thousands in the National Archives. The photo was chosen by my fellow editors at the Akron Beacon Journal who were putting together a special section on D-Day. There was no identification of anyone in the picture. 

It seemed an impossible coincidence. Ghostly even.

It was June 5, 1994. For several days I had been sick and banished to the attic room in our house in Akron, Ohio; quarantined, as it were. The world was approaching the 50th anniversary of D-Day and the TV was filled with stories and remembrances and old grainy footage and images. By Saturday, June 4, my mind was overtaken with a fever-induced fantasy of seeing my father amongst the black and white images of the beaches, of the French towns, the visages of pain and fear and hardship of that day.

My father, Frederick C. Gevalt, Jr., had died seven years previously. My search was irrational. I knew that. But just the same I stayed up late and kept watching, waiting, imagining, switching channels, wildly, until finally I fell asleep. 

Sunday morning, I awoke late. My wife and children had gone to church and I went downstairs for water and the Sunday paper, my paper, the Akron Beacon Journal. I sat down and began reading a special section on D-Day put together by my colleagues.  I turned the page. There he was. There was his picture, taking up a half page, him staring straight at me, the man on the far right, arm in a sling. I recognized him immediately and fell into a  heap, overcome by his absence, by the fact he'd never told me the story of that day, by the realization I no longer had the opportunity to ask him about that day. 

What we knew: He was a doctor in the U.S. Navy. He was part of the second wave of the invasion at Normandy. He was wounded early on but did not evacuate; he was 29 years old.

I had to write a story. I immediately called one of his close friends, Dr. Joseph Foley, who was a neurologist in Cleveland. Foley, too, was ill so our conversations were brief; I focused on asking him for sensory details. He had the most vivid memories of sounds, the shells, the men with "shell shock," paralyzed and screaming from fear.

My story appeared the following Sunday, in the Beacon Journal; it was also carried by the Knight-Ridder News Service and appeared in papers all over the country. A story of coincidence, a story of a story found. But there was more.

The following Monday a man called from Chicago; he, too, was a friend of my Dad's and had been the beach commander, an usher in my parents' wedding. 

Here's what we now know: Fourteen minutes after the first wave, my Dad set out for Omaha Beach in a crowded, small LCVP. General Eisenhower sent in the docs to boost morale on the theory that if everyone saw that the docs were being sent in, they'd think the invasion couldn't be that bad; they wouldn't risk killing all the doctors would they? On the way in, a teenager from rural Indiana in the bow lost it and started screaming. My father went forward and settled him down and stayed with him. When they landed, when the front of the LCVP flopped down, he and the kid jumped out together. The kid was killed instantly by a bullet to the head; my father dragged his body to the beach and yanked his dog tags. (Later, when my Dad returned stateside, he took a train to Indiana and gave the tags to the boy's parents and told them he'd died bravely.)

In the first hours of battle, the Americans finally knocked out the German guns. At least almost all of them. As a new wave was landed, an 88 mm shell whistled in and hit one of the vessels. Bodies were everywhere. My father, close to a protective cliff, leapt up, yelling "medics!" and rushed down to the wounded. Another 88 landed, hurtling a piece of shrapnel into his shoulder; knocking him out face down in the water. A medic pulled him out.

Later, Foley was ordered down from another section of the beach to fix my father's shoulder and get him off the beach. Foley couldn't remove the metal so he dressed the wound. My father refused to be evacuated. "Your dad could be kind of stubborn," Foley told me. Yes, I know.

Why, I asked him, did you guys never talk about it? "Talking about yourselves was, well, like bragging," he said. "Besides, anyone who wasn't there wouldn't really understand what we went through." 

Foley thought it was time for a little "Billy Shakespeare", so he quoted the soliloquy from Henry V, in its entirety, including these lines:

"From this day to the ending of the world,
We in it shall be remembered:
We few we, happy few, we band of brothers;"