Atop an earthen hedgerow appeared the familiar form of the man they called “Bull,” his character carved from the hard timber of central West Virginia. The colonel stood now a world apart from the place of his upbringing, 5,884 miles away as the crow flies, at an air strip in Exeter, England, squinting into the darkness at the faces of young warriors gathered before him, armed for war and aching for it.
“Men,” the colonel began, “I am not a religious man, and I don’t know your feelings in this matter, but I am going to ask you to pray with me for the success of the mission before us.”
He had been raised on religion and its associated contrasts, his mother a devout Baptist and his father a whiskey-drinking railroad man who endured as much as worshiped. They spent Sundays in church, his mother immersed in faith and him in dreams of nights like this one, the first when he would lead soldiers into battle. Religion never took root, but the sense of a higher power stayed with him.
“And while we pray,” the colonel continued, “let us get on our knees and not look down but up with faces raised to the sky so that we can see God and ask his blessing in what we are about to do.”
They were about to leap from C-47 airplanes into the teeth of a German military machine that had cut through Europe like a scythe through wheat. It was a moment for which the colonel and his men had trained for more than a year, in the heat of Georgia and the drear of England. It was, as Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander, proclaimed it, “the night of nights:” D-Day, June 6, 1944.
As the men knelt in the grass, the colonel prayed:
“God almighty, in a few short hours we will be in battle with the enemy.
“We do not join battle afraid. We do not ask favors or indulgence but ask that, if You will, use us as Your instrument for the right and an aid in returning peace to the world.
“We do not know or seek what our fate will be. We ask only this, that if die we must, that we die as men would die, without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right.
“Oh Lord, protect our loved ones and be near us in the fire ahead and with us now as we pray to you.”
As the men rose, the colonel called for a reunion at the Hotel Muehlebach in Kansas City on the first D-Day after the war. Dozens of his men made it there. The colonel never showed.
He jumped with them into the fiery darkness over Normandy, his plane leading the battalion’s wave across the English Channel. Lt. Col. Robert Lee Wolverton, commander of the Third Battalion in the 101st Airborne’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was killed before reaching French soil. His men found him hanging from his harness, his body pierced by more than 150 rounds.
The colonel’s story is part of the lore of a regiment best known for Second Battalion’s Easy Company, the “Band of Brothers” of book and HBO miniseries fame. They fought on to Holland in Operation Market Garden and in the bitter cold of Bastogne, where they turned aside a German counteroffensive, Adolf Hitler’s last-ditch attempt to turn the tide of World War II.
Most of the paratroopers who made the D-Day jump are gone now as 75th anniversaries wash by, the latest for VE-Day signaling Allied victory in Europe. It’s easier for me than it is others to keep those men in mind. The colonel was my grandfather. This is the latest version of his story as I’ve shared it in one town after another in a newspaper career that has carried me to the middle of the country and back.
None of those other places was West Virginia. I can’t help but feel that it was more than mere circumstance that drew me here, that somehow a man gone 22 years before my birth had something to do with me landing in this place, just as I am sure he had something to do with me finally visiting France a year ago with my fiancé Candace and her son Calvin, hosted by our friends Ian Gardner and Rick Buckler.
Every time I see Joe Severino, a young Gazette-Mail reporter from Elkins, I think of where my grandfather was born and how that might have molded the man who stood upon that hedgerow.
Human greatness frequently is thought only to involve triumph or success. But greatness in character, the trait worthiest of admiration, is forged on the willingness to sacrifice all on behalf of others, what Christ described as the greatest of all love, that felt by one who “would lay down his life for his friends.”
To do it “without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right” represents the triumph not of human beings but of the human spirit.
Those soldiers who dropped from the heavens, sloshed ashore and scaled the cliffs in Normandy weren’t thousands but one, a singular force for good.
This moment in our nation’s history, a time of deep ideological division with America facing the twin perils of pandemic and Depression, calls for us not only to memorialize that spirit but to emulate it and give it life anew.