70 years after D-Day, families remember area veterans who missed the big anniversary

06/05/2014 7:26 PM

06/06/2014 11:09 AM

D-Day veteran Hugh Painter didn’t want any attention from the schoolchildren who approached him when he visited the National World War II Memorial in Washington years ago.

“He was sullen and wouldn’t talk to them,” said Painter’s daughter, Linda Wilder.

“My father had been a salesman, a gregarious guy. I told him, ‘These kids have learned about the war in school.’

“And he finally said, ‘Linda, I just can’t talk about it because I didn’t do enough.’”

Painter, who died almost six weeks ago at age 91, no longer can discuss the reticence he always felt about telling war stories.

He is one of at least nine Kansas City-area veterans of D-Day — which happened 70 years ago today — who have died in the past year.

In the men’s obituaries, their families highlighted their roles in the Normandy invasionon June 6, 1944.

But just as important as their war stories are the family stories they built in the 70 years since then. They wed spouses, reared children and pursued careers.

Some of the veterans, like Painter, a longtime Liberty resident, long had been reluctant to offer D-Day stories.

But all had been proud of the small roles they had played in the huge historical event. Two of the area veterans, including Painter, returned to France much later in life, taking family members with them.

Now, their stories can only be told secondhand.

Only about 1 million of approximately 16.1 million World War II veterans still will be alive as of Sept. 30, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs estimate. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans estimates that an average of 555 World War II veterans die every day, and that by 2036 there may be no living veterans to recount their experiences.

If D-Day veterans had anything in common, it was their concept of duty, said Gary Swanson of Leawood. He spent 10 years conducting 1,050 videotape interviews with Kansas City-area veterans, almost all from World War II, as part of the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress.

Of those veterans, only about 10 played roles in D-Day.

“To me, they were guys who did what they were told,” Swanson said. “They were all scared, but that wasn’t exclusive to those who went in on June 6.”

Painter never would talk much about that day. But other veterans have, especially in war-related settings such as at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va.

“There have been several cases, either with myself or other staff members, when veterans who come here with their families will start talking,” said Felicia Lowrance, the memorial’s educational coordinator. “And then the family members will look at us and say, ‘He’s never said that before.’”

One pivotal element seems to trump this reticence: The Greatest Generation, as it turns out, is willing to open up to the country’s youngest generation.

“A lot of these veterans have grandchildren who want to know what Grandpa did in the war,” Swanson said. “I’ve been taking a lot of World War II veterans to middle schools.”

HUGH PAINTER

When Painter, a native of Cooper County, Mo., completed basic training in California in the early 1940s, an officer asked, “Can anybody type?”

“My dad raised his hand,” Wilder said.

“He later said he thought it might be the safe thing to do.”

On June 6, 1944, Painter was among the third wave of soldiers to arrive on Omaha Beach. When he struggled through the surf and onto the sand, he held a typewriter above his head with both hands.

As a member of a supply unit, hetyped forms coordinating the replacement of soldiers and supplies.

During much of his life since then, Painter never spoke about his experiences that day. He became a national sales representative for a shoe company. He got married and raised four children. He moved the family to Liberty.

Wilder, while aware that her father had served during World War II, was in her 40s with children of her own before she learned he had any connection with D-Day.

“I remember being so amazed,” she said. “He never spoke of it until the grandchildren started asking questions. With the youngest grandchildren, he started to go to their schools and take his memorabilia with him.”

The story grew no easier for him to tell, Wilder added.

“Dad said his job on the afternoon of D-Day was to find replacements for the soldiers who had been killed and injured. Of course, there were lots of casualties. When he walked up on the beach that day, there still were bodies everywhere.”

There were never enough men to adequately replenish diminished units, Wilder said.

“This is why he hesitated that day at the memorial in Washington,” she said. “Obviously the Normandy Invasion was a huge group effort, and no one person could do everything. But he felt he was never able to do enough.”

FLORIO SARGE’ PICCININI

Many of the homes on Pam Piccinini’s Lee’s Summit street are split-levels, featuring front-door staircases including several steps.

But her home has just two steps at the front door, which was how she and her husband, Florio “Sarge” Piccinini, designed it.

Her husband, a paratrooper who made 150 jumps, including one on June 6, 1944, earned the distinction of master parachutist. All of those jumps also left him with almost no cartilage in his knees, his wife said.

“So we only wanted the two steps,” she said.

On June 6, 1944, Piccinini arrived in France as a member of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne Division.

The 505th floated down about a half-hour after midnight. Although the American flag soon would be raised over Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a community just inland near a crucial transportation route, Piccinini had landed in a flooded field miles from that drop zone. Having lost his weapon coming down, he took another off a dead American soldier.

He walked for days before linking up with his unit.

Discharged in 1945, Piccinini enlisted again in 1947 and served as a jump school instructor. He also served in Korea and Vietnam. His nickname, “Sarge,” came from a day when he showed up at the old Crackerneck Golf Club in uniform.

He retired from the military in 1969 before working as an insurance company claims investigator and a bartender. He had eight children, all from his first marriage.

In 1992, he married his second wife, who was 25 years younger than him.

Both were avid golfers. Later in life, Piccinini resented the gold tees marking where senior citizens were expected to drive from and insisted on picking his own spot. He would allow his wife to drive their golf cart to the fairway for his next shot.

She worked more than 30 years as a phlebotomist at St. Luke’s Hospital before retiring to take care of him. He endured a variety of significant health challenges during his last years, including dementia. He died Dec. 13, 2013, at age 89.

“Near the end, when he talked with friends, he would talk about the war,” she said.

He sometimes would tell his D-Day story, including about the weapon he lost, how he found another, and how long he had to walk. Although those conversations often ended in tears for her husband, she thinks his emotion had nothing to do with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I think he just really enjoyed his years in the service,” she said. “He loved the Army and was very military. When he wanted to talk to me about something important, he would say ‘Pamela, front and center.’

“And I never called him anything but ‘Sarge.’”

BILL DAVIES

Late one night last October, Bill Davies started talking in his sleep.

“He was talking to people who weren’t there,” said his wife, Alta Davies. “About 10 years ago he had been head of the 635th Tank Destroyer Battalion retiree group, and it was as if he was talking to them.

“He said, ‘I served in World War II and Korea, I worked for 30 years at the Ford plant, I married a woman with five children. And I just had a stroke.’”

It was all true — even that last part. The stroke had just hit.

Davies, a Kansas City, Kan. native, landed on Omaha Beach with members of the tank destroyer battalion. He later served in Korea.

In 1972, divorced, he married Alta, also divorced and the mother of five children. He retired from the Ford Motor Co. plant in Claycomo in 1985.

It was not until later in life that both Davies and his wife had the time and money to re-explore his D-Day experiences. They made it back to Omaha Beach in 2002.

“He just said, ‘It wasn’t much like how I remembered it,’” Alta Davies said.

Her husband entered a hospital with back pain in early April, a few days before dying April 9 at age 90. Doctors blamed pneumonia.

He was glad, his wife said, that he had been able to spend so much of his later life with battalion comrades, even when so few were physically able to attend reunions.

At one reunion more than 10 years ago, several veterans gathered at the Davies home in Gladstone to watch “Saving Private Ryan,” which included a graphic dramatization of the D-Day landings.

One veteran had to leave the room, but his comrades stuck it out.

“When the movie was over,” Alta Davies said, “they said, ‘The movie got it all right except for the smell.’”

DON JACKSON CASEY

Don Jackson Casey didn’t talk much about June 6, 1944.

But twice, the date of June 5 proved memorable to him, said his widow, Louise.

The first was June 5, 1944, because of the excitement of preparing for the next day’s invasion. Casey was a Signal Corps-trained member of a unit whose responsibility was to maintain communications.

“They had no idea just where they were going, and nobody else did, either,” Louise Casey said.

Her husband didn’t enjoy sharing the details of what he saw the next day.

“He spent the day cleaning equipment and wiping the blood off it,” she said.

They married in 1949 — on June 5. That’s the June 5 Casey felt better about.

The couple soon became part of the postwar invasion of Columbia, Mo., by veterans eager to take advantage of their GI Bill benefits at the University of Missouri. They found an apartment in a large residence that had been subdivided into several units. Even though her husband studied electrical engineering, there was little he could do about the dodgy current there.

“Whenever I wanted to use the iron, I would yell downstairs to see if anybody had anything else plugged in or we would blow a fuse,” she said.

Casey earned an electrical engineering degree in 1952 and soon joined Western Electric in North Carolina. They later moved to Lee’s Summit. Casey stayed with Western Electric until a 1975 downsizing. After that he took a variety of jobs, one of which was tuning pianos.

“If it had been more lucrative, he would have done that from the get-go,” Louise Casey said.

He didn’t join any veterans groups, she added, but didn’t avoid the topic of his wartime service with his three children and three grandchildren. His funeral service included military honors.

“I think in later years he appreciated the recognition,” Louise Casey said. “When it got to where people said, ‘Thank you for your service,’ he liked that.”

But he always considered his real D-Day to be June 5, 1949, because it was his wedding day.

When he died July 10, 2013, at age 90, he and his wife had been married 64 years.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

By the Numbers

70 years since D-Day.

156,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy.

10,000 estimated casualties suffered by the Allies; almost 2,500 Americans died.

About 1 million of the approximately 16.1 million World War II vets will be alive as of Sept. 30 this year according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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