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Bringing War Home: "If today is my last day..."

D-Day, June 6, 1944. Waiting in the waters of Omaha Beach, a soldier asks his commanding officer what's on his mind.

Original air date: November 2, 2023
KATIE WHITE: This is Bringing War Home, the show that connects listeners with the history of war through sharing wartime objects and the personal stories that surround them.

This collaborative project is led by Utah State University professors Susan Grayzel and Molly Cannon at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. I’m Katie White, producer of the series.

The World War Two D-Day operation of June 6, 1944 is the largest land, air and sea invasion ever executed. The invasion’s success marked the beginning of the end of Hitler’s regime. On that day, more than 160,000 military forces from the United States, the British Commonwealth, and their allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. Within 24 hours, over 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded.

World War Two Veteran Thomas MacElwee had just graduated college when he joined the U.S. Navy. MacElwee was in charge of communications and gunnery on the ship he served on. At one-hundred years old, MacElwee has held onto his naval cap, epaulets, and commission pennant for nearly 80 years.With his daughter Gail Griswold beside him, he shared memories of the days leading up to June 6, 1944 and his arrival at Omaha Beach.

MACELWEE: For getting rid of classified material we had a large canvas bag and if we were in danger of being captured, put those in that bag, which was weighted with heavy weights, and then throw it overboard so it could never be captured by the enemy. That was the standard procedure.

And before we went to the invasion — before we left the port in England — I had to take just about everything we had that was that type of information, in that bag, and take it up to a place by truck where the US Navy had a supply depot and hand it to them and they would seal it and give us the receipt. And so we left the secret stuff there and we could pick it up later.

When we went to that port we're told, 'Well, it's going to be the fifth of June,' but because of bad weather they postponed it one day. We were only told all the details just a couple days before the invasion itself.

When we got there early in the morning — probably about five o'clock — we had to wait until the soldiers got into the landing craft before we started in. It was very cold, although it was June. It was heavy cloud, fairly windy and kind of rough — not very summery at all.

I remember just as we approached, knowing that the enemy was there waiting for us, we kept wondering, ‘When are they going to start shooting?' And fortunately for us, they didn't bother much with the ships. They waited until the soldiers got on the beach and that's where they did their dirty work. And they're the ones that took the beating. But all of those things are quite vivid in memory as naturally they would be.

GRISWOLD: So Dad, how old were you at Omaha Beach?

MACELWEE: Twenty-two — I was one of the oldest.

GRISWOLD: And you were talking with the commanding officer just above you, Dale Gallis, I think right?

MACELWEE: He was 25. As we were approaching the beach, we were standing there on the flying bridge and I said, 'What are you thinking?'

And he said, 'I'm thinking that if this is my last day, I've had a good life.'

GRISWOLD: At 25.

MACELWEE: And I thought, 'Boy, that's pretty great.' You know, not to complain or say, 'why did it happen to me,' or anything like that? He just said, 'I've had a good life.'

We were friends from then on. So you know, I couldn't complain about anything. My experience in the Navy it was - it was good. And you know, anybody who didn't get shot or killed, it's probably the biggest thing that ever happened to them.

GRISWOLD: How do these artifacts attach? Yeah, I don't think they do to dad, very much. He just sort of put them away — forgot about them. You know? But as his child, I found them fascinating. And this pennant hung in our family room all my life as a kid. And I was able to see dad's hat and his epaulets and some other things. And it was an opportunity for me to ask dad what these meant and get the stories that way. In that sense, they were a conduit for me to understand that about dad's life.

WHITE: Support for Bringing War Home comes from Utah State University, the National Endowment for the Humanities Dialogues on the Experience of War, and Utah Humanities. More resources available at upr.org

Katie White has been fascinated by a multitude of subjects all her life. At 13-years-old Katie realized she couldn't grow up to be everything — a doctor-architect-anthropologist-dancer-teacher-etc. — but she could tell stories about everything. Passionate about ethical and informed reporting, Katie is studying both journalism and sociology at Utah State University.