Sixty-five years ago, my uncle Hal was somewhere in the fields of France. He had lied about his age to get into the Army, and at age seventeen parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Airborne. He almost never talks about his service, so the stories I had gotten were all second or third hand, but he was in the rare mood to do so at dinner at our family reunion last summer. I asked him if he had jumped in on D-Day, and he laughed a bit and said "D-Day minus 4 or 5." He wasn't just airborne, it turns out -- he was a Ranger Pathfinder, the guys who jumped in hours before in the dark to set up landing zones. "Weren't there Germans" -- I couldn't imagine jumping in as one of a handful into a region packed with German troops. "There were some, and then they weren't", is all he said. At a table full of children, it seemed far too rude to ask in more detail, though now I almost wish I had, because I doubt there will be another chance.
Nor did I ask him about the other stories; that converted to mostly ground troops, they slogged across Europe with the rest of the Army, including a concentration camp. Where, enraged by what he saw, he shot a German officer. I had always pictured this story with my Uncle Hal as I knew him; leathery, forceful, an expert engineer who set up NASA's tracking stations and helped send men to the moon. But of course, he wasn't; he was just a kid, not yet eighteen years old.
I did get one correction from him; the family version was that he was the only member of his tontine from his training camp to survive the war. He wasn't; three or four others did. Out of a dozen or so. And of course, they are all long gone now, and he is the last survivor.
Here's to you, Uncle Hal, and all who served with you.