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Out of the Woods / D-Day: 70 years later, a Westporter's remembrance of historic event

Updated 2:52 pm, Wednesday, June 4, 2014
  • Woodrow "Woody" Klein, columnist and former editor of the Westport News. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News contributed

    Woodrow "Woody" Klein, columnist and former editor of the Westport News.

    Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Friday is the 70th anniversary of D-Day -- the landing of Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy and the largest seaborne invasion in history

The June 6, 1944, landing began the invasion of German-occupied western Europe and eventually led to the restoration of the French Republic and contributed to an Allied victory in the war.

This writer was too young to have served in World War II, but I will never forget that day in 1944. I was a 14-year-old kid, and D-Day changed everything around me -- from the daily routine of our household in the Riverdale section of the Bronx to conversations with my fellow students at our high school nearby.

What does this invasion mean? Will I be "called up" if the war stretches into years? The event shook up my life. I remembered the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor only three years before and wondered if my country could fight a world war successfully in too very distant parts of the world.

I guess it was the first time in my life I ever worried about anything outside of my little protected circle of friends in school. I felt overwhelmed by the daily headlines and maps, which, in those days were the only visuals tyhat told us where the Allied troops were and the progress they were making.

For me and my friends, Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich were no longer abstract threats to our lives. The Nazi war machine suddenly felt a lot closer to home. As a teenager, I had -- up until D-Day -- felt protected by the three thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean between America and Europe.

No longer. My thoughts were focused on the daily maps in the newspapers depicting the line between the Allied troops and the German army. I began to wonder. Could the Nazi military build-up, which began in the 1930s, include long-range bombers that could reach our eastern coast and bomb New York? My knowledge of geography was limited in those days of my early education so, naturally, questions like that could not be easily answered.

My worries increased that summer of 1944 when, along with a group of high school classmates, I spent the summer in a newly built camp in Bridgeton, Maine, appropriately named "Camp in the Woods." Paul Robeson Jr., son of the famous signer, actor and political activist, taught us a few things about survival, including how to cut down trees, clear brush and cope with wild animals. It was a sudden awakening for most of us who had wallowed in the good life, our hands soft, our bodies not used to physicallabor.

By far the most traumatic experience we had was studying and memorizing the silhouettes of the fuselages and wings of the German and Japanese bombers and fighter planes. At night, we'd stand atop a 25-foot wooden platform, binoculars in hand, awaiting the drone of approaching planes. I heard a few planes overhead during the summer but breathed sighs of relief when I discovered they were U.S. commercial airlines or private planes.

By the time I returned home at the end of the summer, my father had signed up as an air-raid warden, equipped with a white hard hat with an insignia on it, armband and a flashlight.

Like the other middle-aged family men too old to join the military, he took his assignment very seriously and directed me to dim or turn off the lights in our apartment, depending on the wail of the sirens outside. I responded to his orders as if the raids were the real thing.

To lighten up the drama, we adopted two cats, one black whom we named "blackout," and the other gray with white spots, named "dim-out." That seems a bit trivial now looking back on what was a scary time for us, but I remember it gave us a little respite from the tension of the time.

That summer of 1944 will remain in my mind as a singular epiphany. Today it makes me profoundly appreciate all the more the servicemen and women who gave their lives to protect this country.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com