The darkness before sunrise

Today, I thought about one of the best opportunities I had as a journalist.

Every June 6 since 2011, my mind has drifted to the day I knocked on a door and what I heard from the man who answered.

I couldn’t find the full original story I wrote so some of the details may be a little off, but what follows is the short version from my memory.

Walter Nichols opened the door, greeted me and Laura (who is an excellent photographer), said he didn’t have time to talk because he had an appointment and closed the door.

We stood on his porch and listened through the door while his wife yelled to tell him we were his appointment.

We were invited into the house then, with his apologies and instructions to yell if we wanted him to hear what we said.

For the next hour, Nichols — his friends called him Speed — told us why.

Speed was a soldier, like a lot of the greatest generation.

He’d answered his country’s call, and later he answered another one when he volunteered for a mission with nothing but a razor and a toothbrush.

Speed went to England, then. For months he studied, under guard, the plans for Operation Overlord.

The sun rose at 5:57 a.m. on June 6, 1944, but Speed’s part in the Allied invasion of Normandy was already well in motion by the time dawn broke.

Hours earlier, in the darkness before sunrise, he had parachuted inland from Utah Beach, oriented himself with a Sainte-Mère-Église sign and began ship-to-shore fire control for two battleships and two destroyers.

The shells fired throughout the invasion and the rest of Speed’s war service made it hard for him to hear by the day he told us his story, but his mind was as sharp as a tack.

D-Day details and the facts about many other wartime days flooded his mind.

He fought in France, Italy and Africa before he earned a trip back to England and then the states with his service time.

When Speed came home he married and raised a family, like many members of the greatest generation.

He died in 2015, but every June 6 I remember the day he welcomed us into his house and told us his D-Day story.

It’s been 76 years to the day he lived it and almost 9 years since I heard it.

There’s an entire segment of the movie industry built upon stories about superheroes who save the world, but every June 6 I remember how lucky I am to have heard a true hero tell the true story of how he truly helped save the world.

One of the coolest parts of the story Speed told me was near the end.

Time brought him back to France, inland from Utah Beach, for the 60th D-Day anniversary.

There, alone, Speed found the Sainte-Mère-Église sign he’d used years before to orient himself in the darkness before the sunrise.

This post is a response to Sue’s prompt, which is “sunrise.”

3 Comments

  1. Casey: Beyond a doubt they were the greatest generation and we owe them so much for their service. May we never forget their sacrifice, This post is a classic. Keep them coming.

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