D-Day: 71 years ago

memorial kirkpatrickBarbara Lawlor, Peak to Peak. On June 6, 1944—71 years ago—Western Allied Troops stormed the beaches of Normandy during Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious invasion to ever take place. Known as D-Day, the battle included combat forces from Canada, Free French forces, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The Normandy campaign led to the loss of the German position in most of France. It was the beginning of the end of World War II, but for many veterans it was the beginning of their struggle to deal with the mental and physical impacts that war wrought in their lives.
Charles Kirkpatrick, Jr., of Reagan, Texas, never talked about the war with his family. He didn’t share stories, didn’t express his feelings about what he had seen, what he had done. After the war he married and had a family—three children, Beverly, Donna Sue and Charles—who grew up with questions about their father’s  time in the service.

When Charles died in 1975 at the age of 51, from lung cancer, the Kirkpatrick siblings realized his death was caused from the asbestos and chemicals that servicemen dealt with in combat; they discovered that many men from their father’s group suffered from the same type of cancer.

This realization led the siblings to learn more about their father’s military career—to understand who their father was, to hear the stories he never told.

Kirkpatrick got out of basic training and joined Darby’s Rangers, an elite fighting group, that later became part of a Canadian group to form the First Special Services Force, dubbed the Black Devil’s Brigade. FSSF was organized in 1942 and trained at Fort William Henry Harrison near Helena, Montana.

The 1st SSF was sent to North Africa, where it began preparing for the mass invasion to push the Germans back. Out of l,800 in Kirkpatrick’s group, only 200 survived. The 1st SSF  pushed to Italy, where Kirkpatrick’s knowledge of demolitions helped clear the German mines and explosives that had been wired to blow everything up after the Germans left.

Donna Sue Kirkpatrick says it is hard for her to imagine that her father was one of the Black Devils. “They had big daggers and it was their job to go in at night and slit the throats of the Germans. They left cards with their insignia. When my dad’s group got to Rome, the Germans had cleared out, leaving everything behind. He told us that he rode a motorcycle up and down the steps of the Vatican.”

When the war was over and Kirkpatrick returned to the United States, there was no work, so he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Forth Worth, Texas, where he married. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for dragging a wounded soldier to safety even though he had been shot in the leg.

In 1974, Donna Sue enlisted in the Army. She hated war, but she was patriotic and believed it was everyone’s duty to serve their country; that everyone should put in a couple of years. Her brother was in Vietnam; her father had served; and now it was her turn.

She became a WWII equipment photographer, working with 4” by 5” slides. Her first assignment was in Thailand in April of 1975, where she found that everyone hated the Americans, yelling at them as they walked through the villages.

After three years of active duty, Donna Sue joined the Army Reserve for four years. Using her GI Bill, she worked for the Veteran’s Administration while she studied art and social work in college. She treated World War II, Korean, and Vietnam veterans and was devastated at how “messed up” her patients were. “Old white men get us into these wars and our guys come back mentally and physically damaged. I have grown to hate our warmongering government. Our wars are fought by young people who don’t see what’s real. It is so bad that veterans don’t want to talk about it.”

She remembers that after she left Thailand, she flew into LAX and as she went through the airport, someone spit on her from the escalator above her. She says today’s veterans are not hated like the Vietnam veterans were, but they are ignored and not given the treatment they need.

Donna Sue and her husband Rich moved to Gilpin County in 1986 and own and operate Nederland Feed and Supply. She has been active in the Nederland Veteran’s Association. Over the years, she has looked back on her father’s time in the service and her own and always felt like there was more to be done, something unfinished.

When she and her brother and sister heard that, in 2013, The United States Congress passed a bill to award the 1st Special Services Force the Congressional Medal of Honor, they looked into getting one for their dad. They discovered that many other children of 1st Special Services Force veterans were involved with keeping the memory of their fathers’ alive and they met at regular reunions. Two Congressional Medals of Honor are given out each year and on February 3 of last year, one was given to the United States 1st SSF unit, with a copy minted for each sibling in the veterans’ families.
Donna Sue and Beverly traveled to Washington, D.C., to the Congressional Hall at the Capitol where hundreds of veterans’ relations congregated. The veterans and their siblings were all in their 80s and 90s. Representatives from the 1st SSF of Canada and the United States were presented the authentic gold medal and the audience was shown a documentary slide show of the battle sites.

“When we talked to other kids of veterans, we heard the same story as ours. Many of their dads died of cancer at a young age. We also learned that when most of them were drafted they weren’t married, had no children, and the 1st SSF was considered a suicide unit. My dad was only 51 when he died and it makes me sad that there is so much he didn’t see. He wasn’t there while his kids grew up. But knowing he earned this medal is a good feeling. To know how special he was; he was always special to me, but we didn’t know how special he really was.”

On June 6, as the nation remembers the day that US troops stormed Normandy Beach 71 years ago, to bring in Allied Forces, Donna Sue will know with pride that her father was part of the force that opened the gate into Europe. And she will understand why it was difficult for him and other veterans to share their memories of the price of waging war.

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.