75 Years and Three Generations Later: D-Day Remembered
It was June 1944. My grandfather, Robert Patrick McNamara Sr., was set to land on Utah Beach on D-Day Plus 2, June 8th. When the Third Battalion, 90th Division waded waist deep amidst choppy waters to reach the French beaches, they found ruined boats and shell holes. There had been hundreds of vessels extending as far as the eye could see. The 90th Division Association Battle History reported that along the sandy road that the soldiers followed inland there were empty ammunition cases, discarded packs, helmets and pieces of clothing.
The “Morning Reports” from L Company (my grandfather’s company in the 90th Division), reported that the day they’d landed on Utah Beach the men had marched six miles, eventually making their way north and east to Turqueville, France. Two days later, the first two men in their battalion were killed. By June 14th, six days after landing on Utah Beach, 26 more had died. That same day, Robert wrote a letter home. “Oh love, it will be the happiest day of my life when I can hold you in my arms for good. I pray every day for this terrible thing to end.” Within a few weeks, nearly 90% of the men in Company L would be killed, himself included.
As the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaches, the stories of those who fought point to the tragic mark of a whole generation of boys and men lost to war. These stories contribute not only to monumental world history, but also comprise many American personal family stories. My grandfather stormed the beaches of Normandy and lost his life soon after, and I grew up hearing those stories and longing to know more — until I miraculously met Bill Rhodes in 2011, his friend who was next to him in the foxhole the night he was killed by a German mortar shell. Bill was one of the few survivors of Company L who would not only share his personal account of the Normandy invasion, but who would also tell me the story of the final weeks of my grandfather’s life, and share the poignant story of a last-minute foxhole switch that meant death for my grandfather and life for another soldier, Private Alfred Sheridan, who remembered this fateful moment for a lifetime.
After a 15-day boat ride across the Atlantic, Robert and Bill had been training in Southern England with some 200 other soldiers who were part of the L Company, 358th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division. Robert was a strapping young man, 21 years old and a Golden Glove boxer from Cleveland, Ohio, where he’d married his high-school sweetheart Rhea in May 1942. The spring of 1944 had found him on a short visit home from training in Camp Wheeler, Georgia. During the visit he said good-bye to my grandmother and his one-year-old son. Only one photograph remains from this last visit; it was taken by my great-grandmother Anne on a sunny day before Robert Sr.’s deployment to England and France.
During the span of November 1943 and June 1944 Robert had sent his wife Rhea over 50 letters, and my grandmother had saved them all. When she passed away in 2015, the letters were found at the back of one of her dresser drawers, neatly bound and still in their envelopes. June 1944 had ushered forth a flurry of final letters with news from the frontline in France. On June 7th my grandfather wrote, “Well that was sure grand news about the invasion. Just keep praying, honey. I hope it will be over soon.”
His final letter was written from a foxhole on June 28th, 1944 — just nine days before he was killed during the bloody battle of Hill 122 near the Foret de Mont Castre, a forest on the Cherbourg Peninsula, France. He wrote: “How awful the French are living with no clothes and wooden shoes. The Germans took everything from them. To be an American is the most wonderful thing in the world. Darling, if anything should ever happen to me, feel free to marry again. Don’t get excited. Nothing is going to happen. They can’t hurt me, I’m Irish. Keep our son in shape. Give Mom a kiss for me. Remember, I love you more than anything.”
It was August 3rd, 2011 when my phone rang at 4:30 in the afternoon. Sixty-seven years after the death of my grandfather, I was about to meet the man who was with him the night he died. On the other end of the line was Bill Rhodes, a soldier who had been in training with my grandfather in England and who had landed in Normandy with him as part of the D-Day invasion. Not only had they traveled together during the final weeks of my grandfather’s life, Bill had also been immediately next to him when Robert was killed by a mortar shell on that fateful night of July 7th, 1944 on Hill 122.
I’d been researching my family history for years, looking for clues about my grandfather and his family when I came across a series of war memoirs posted online telling the story of L Company, Third Battalion, 358th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division. Daniel Sheridan, the son of Private Alfred Sheridan, had created the site in honor of his father and had given my phone number to Bill Rhodes after I’d inquired about my grandfather. Bill was 93 years old at the time and one of the few remaining survivors of Company L.
“Hello, is this the granddaughter of Private Robert Patrick McNamara?” Bill asked when I answered the phone. A series of remarkable conversations ensued, where I received a first-hand account of my grandfather’s final months, weeks, and moments of life.
Bill Rhodes and Robert McNamara met in England, and they went through several months of training together before pitching a tent on the downward slope of a hill overlooking the English Channel. When it was time to attack the Germans in Normandy, they climbed down rope ladders from a larger ship into a boat, side by side. They were part of Company L of the famous 90th Division, who in the span of just over a month, would only have 27 men left on the battlefield from their original group of 200. By July 15th, 1944 they would tragically lose nearly 90% of their men.
Just before the D-Day invasion, they’d been sleeping eight men to a tent on cots. Water was scarce. According to Peragimus: A Brief History of the 358th Infantry, daily the men were required to carry full combat equipment on fast road marches. In April, my grandfather had written home that each soldier had a “canteen cup of water to take a bath in and that guys pay five cents to bathe.” Bill Rhodes recalled, “They only gave us half portions to eat. We looked for English teahouses to get bread and tea at night because we were so hungry.”
After the regiment had moved to Newport, Wales, the invasion was no longer a secret. D-Day had been announced. Paratroopers were fighting in France and Allied troops had begun landing on the Normandy coast. Prior to debarking, chaplains held final church services for the soldiers in the mess halls and compartments on the troop ships.
“We rode the train from camp to the boat and each of us got bullets. Then we realized we were going to war,” Rhodes shared with me during one of our many phone calls. “We didn’t think we’d go to war so soon. We landed on Utah Beach together in assault boats on June 8th, also known as D-Day Plus 2. After landing we dropped our packs, never to see them again. There was no way of knowing if you’d be alive the next day.”
Bill Rhodes wrote a war memoir titled Which Way Is the Enemy? Memoirs of World War II, where he recounted walking single file towards the enemy lines in June 1944. “It was so dark I could scarcely make out the shadowy outline of the soldier ahead of me,” he wrote. Aside from the enemy, he described how combat soldiers had three major problems to deal with: fear, exhaustion and cold, wet feet. “You don’t really know what hardship is unless you have had to live in a foxhole 24 hours each day, day after day,” he shared.
By June 24th, long-awaited replacements had finally arrived. A few days later, Robert wrote one of his final letters. “Hi Angel, Here’s your hubby again. When I get home I want to have steak, mushrooms, shrimp salad, strawberry shortcake with all the whipped cream I can eat and good coffee… I kiss your picture goodnight every night no matter where I am. Keep smiling dear and don’t worry, I’ll be ok. I’ll dream of you tonight.”
On July 4th Pvt. Bill Rhodes and my grandfather walked down a steep embankment across railroad tracks, lining up along a first hedgerow facing the enemy. The famous hedgerow country of Normandy brought forth bitter hedge to hedge combat, with each hedge forming another line of defense. The rains had begun falling, with damp, dismal weather prevailing. “The enemy clobbered us with mortar shells,” Rhodes wrote in his memoir. He remembered a mortar shell nearly killing him. If it had landed two feet to the left, it would have been him who was hit.
By July 5th, Company L reached the town of St. Jores. On July 6th they were ordered to engage with a small German pocket of about 30 men near Lithaire. That same evening, and throughout the night, a sizable enemy force was engaged. The battalion had now moved into position on the southern slope of Hill 122 in the Foret de Mont Castre, a deeply wooded 400 foot rise where Caesar’s Legions had battled an enemy on this same spot nearly 2000 years earlier during the Gallic Wars. According to Battle History, Third Battalion 358th Infantry, it was here that the Allies ran into one of the toughest fights it had in all the time it was in Europe and the one that earned it the Presidential Unit Citation. It was bitter hand-to-hand fighting in the thick woods of a hill forest. Bill Rhodes recalled in his memoir that every minute or two a German artillery shell would come zooming in to crash and explode — followed by voices crying out for the medic. He hugged the ground and prayed. When the shelling stopped, the Lt. Commander directed him to take over his squad as his sergeant had been hit. There were only five men left alive of their original 12 man rifle squad. My grandfather was one of the seven of this squad who had been killed that night.
On the night of Robert McNamara’s death, each of the 12 men in their rifle squad were fighting side by side in their foxholes. Robert had visited Bill Rhodes in his foxhole and took a swig of water out of Rhodes’ canteen. They talked briefly about the old boxing days in Cleveland, and about how my grandfather had been a Golden Glover. Private Alfred Sheridan was nearby and asked my grandfather if he would trade foxholes as he had wanted to be closer to a friend. McNamara agreed — and this last minute foxhole switch, a quick twist of fate — would determine the course of life and death for these two soldiers.
“Robert was walking around in the dark — pitch black — the night he died. He drank some water from my canteen. I don’t know how he saw. A mortar landed in his foxhole shortly after he’d switched with Private Sheridan. It killed him immediately,” remembered Bill.
It was Pvt. Alfred Sheridan’s son Dan who had connected me with Bill Rhodes in 2011. In 1999, 10 years after his father’s death, Dan had found an old cardboard box with his father’s wartime papers. He decided to put together a website piecing together the story of the 90th Infantry Division — which led him to befriend many of the surviving veterans, and which ultimately led me to making these remarkable connections. Dan shared with me that his father had mourned the fateful foxhole switch throughout his entire life. He’d talked about my grandfather with his family well until the 1980s when he died.
“During the Battle of Hill 122 my father switched foxholes with your grandfather so he could be with his buddy Whitey who had taken him under his wing. Whitey taught my father things such as not to clip the chinstrap to his helmet so he wouldn’t choke during a concussion as a result of shelling,” Dan Sheridan shared. “In telling me about the foxhole switch, my father got very choked up. I had never seen tears well up in his eyes before. He said ‘It should have been me, not McNamara.’”
“Whenever I asked my father about his Bronze Star or Bill Rhodes about his Silver Star, they told me, ‘The real war heroes are the ones that never came home,’” Dan shared.
After his father’s death, Dan connected with members of the 90th Division Association and for many years asked veterans if they had known Robert McNamara. “I often asked the question, did you happen to know McNamara? Time and again the answer was no. Then one year, Norm Richards of the 90th Association told me to call Bill Rhodes. It was extremely difficult to find a surviving member of L Company, even more difficult to find one who was in the Battle of Hill 122. Bill was this person,” he recalled.
Dan included an image with my grandfather’s name listed on his website. “I posted this page as a sort-of ‘candle in the window’ for a lost soul wandering the road on a dark night. This was back in 2005 in the vain hopes that a relative might perchance find this webpage. I seriously doubted it. Then 2011 came along and the rest is a bit of a miracle,” he shared.
During that year when our families first connected, Dan sent photos of his father and asked me to share the story of my grandfather. “Could you tell me a bit about Robert P. McNamara? When was he born? What town? His family? How did he become a Golden Glove boxer?” Our families began sharing a flurry of stories.
When my second son Braeden was born in 2012, Dan gifted us with a baby blanket and a note about the marvel of connecting in unexpected and profound ways.
I corresponded with Bill Rhodes for several years before he died in August of 2013, sharing stories via many letters and phone calls. My father and grandmother also had the opportunity to connect with him before he passed, and my father met Bill’s son in 2013. It was one of the greatest gifts of a lifetime to have connected personally with a man who played such a vital role in the legacy of the WWII generation — as well as who served to play an important role in my immediate family. I knew time was of the essence. As a whole generation of veterans was approaching a century old, it had been important for us to speak as quickly and deeply as possible.
During one of our conversations, Bill shared that he didn’t talk about the war for 50 years. “It was in the 1990s that we started talking. After nearly seventy years of silence, now we are talking!”
I was a most grateful and humble recipient of Bill’s stories and his wisdom. He was a poet, and in one of his letters he wrote, “Closer than a brother, a friendship like no other… The men who we found in the infantry know so very well the price of liberty.” In his memoir, he shared that “Men who have lived through these experiences form a bond of friendship that extends to the children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and widows of veterans.” Indeed this had become true. Bill had brought my family closer to the father and grandfather that we never knew and who had died a tragic death at so young an age.
In one of Bill’s last letters to me he wrote, “A granddaughter’s love is a precious thing — like the beautiful flowers that bloom in spring.” Through meeting Bill, and through poring over the heartfelt war letters left behind by my grandfather, I’d been gifted with a rare and precious glimpse into the final wanderings of a most remarkable man. And while I never knew him, the stories, letters and serendipitous connections across generations had reminded me that certain things can mysteriously endure, and transcend time.
Private Robert Patrick McNamara Sr. is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France along with over 9,300 others who lost their lives during the war. In 2005 my family and I decided to make the journey across the ocean to his gravesite, which is just over the rise from Omaha Beach. Normandy welcomed us with green rolling hills, knobby trees and small villages with old stone walls. I wondered what my grandfather’s impressions had been as he had marched toward enemy lines. My parents, brother and I stood on Utah Beach on a cold January morning, speculating about what the landing must have been like. We stared at bullet-holed walls and craters where bombs had fallen. It was hard to imagine that such a battle had been fought there. It was quiet, and winter birds were chirping.
My father, Robert Patrick McNamara Jr., recalled his initial visit to the cemetery in 1968. He had been 26 years old, paying his respects for the first time to the man whose name he carries. Someone from the cemetery had come to meet him at the train station and personally took him to the gravesite. As my father neared the grave, he noticed a man on his hands and knees, tidying up the site, placing an American flag beside it. The man was older, with “tanned, weathered skin lined like barn wood,” my father recalled. He said how sorry he was for my father’s loss. His family had been liberated by the Americans and he was grateful for the sacrifice, and wanted to make a point to say so in person — even so many years later.
Today, 75 years after my grandfather’s death and the D-Day invasion, I look at my father, my brother, my two nephews and my three sons — several of whom carry on the name of Private Robert Patrick McNamara Sr. I quietly marvel at the powers that be, the ebbs and flows of life and the connections and chance that brought me to a phone call 67 years later with Bill Rhodes, one of the last survivors from Company L. Looking at the stack of letters saved by my grandmother for all the years of her life, I reflect on how this story points to a truth for so many who fought in or lost loved ones during World War II. The war has shaped so many families, the impacts rippling through generations. For some of us, the stories and memories have a way of weaving themselves throughout the years, with points of reference emerging slowly across lifetimes.
The stories of D-Day point to a significant turning point in world history, yes — but these are also the stories of the last wanderings of an individual soldier’s life. Here is the story of the father my dad never knew. Here is the story of the man who was my grandmother’s first love, and whose love letters remained tucked away in a top dresser drawer for over 70 years. It’s the story of a young man who kissed his wife’s photograph nightly and dreamed during the war of being home to eat strawberry shortcake and whipped cream. It is one particular story, a human story — a reminder of the deeply personal faces of wartime and its effects. It is the story of who came and went before. It is a story of grueling hardship, the trauma of war, and of love, loss, fate and friendship.
This story is a testament to memory, and the indelible mark of death on our lives. It’s a story offering an uncanny and unexpected chance for my grandfather to speak through the words of a veteran who was by his side. It’s as if he were saying, This was a slice of my life. This was the end no one knew about but always pondered. These were my actions. This was the tragic close — so normal: a drink of water from a fellow soldier’s canteen and a chat about the good old days. This was war. It all ended in a foxhole, some four weeks after crossing the English Channel into France.
A quick foxhole switch and twist of fate meant life for one, death for the other. A simple changeover at the last minute determined the course of history for at least our few families. And somehow, all these years and several generations later, life afforded us the connection. We were granted the opportunity to share the gift of stories, converging in a rare moment of remembrance and homage. We all agreed: something had come full circle. It had been a story that was waiting to be told.
From Soldier to Poet — a poem by Pvt. William Rhodes
So I put down my rifle
And I picked up a pen.
I’m no longer a soldier
But I remember when…
We climbed down the rope ladders
On the side of the ship
To get into the assault boats
To take a quick trip.
A quick trip to the shore
Where the cannons roar
And you can’t help but wonder
Who started this war?
No words can describe it
So why do I try?
Because those memories still
Can make me cry.
And we can still remember
As time passes by.
A few veterans still come back
To that peaceful shore.
They bring their sons and daughters;
They talk about the war.
Friends they still remain.
And they’ll keep in touch
As they go home again.
They have so much to talk about;
On and on, they never run out.
No friends will ever be
As close as these men
Who fought in the Infantry.
Deborah is the author of The Invitation of Motherhood: Uncovering the Spiritual Lessons of Parenting. Learn more at www.debmcnamara.com