Normandy veterans honored on Memorial Day

Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Lt. Donald Cook landed on the ravaged beaches of Normandy in 1944 with an eerie assignment: the 24-year-old was replacing another Lt. Cook, killed the day before, on D-Day.

''As far as I was concerned, there were only two ways out of it,'' said Cook, now 82 and a longtime Fairbanks resident. ''You were either dead or wounded. So I was lucky. I was wounded.''

Cook would spend 1 1/2 years in a hospital, recovering from a German sniper's bullet that blew apart his right arm. He later spent 30 years teaching mining engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He didn't attend ceremonies in France marking Normandy's 50th anniversary eight years ago.

He wasn't ready to go back, he said.

But Cook was ready to remember Normandy on Monday. He was one of six Alaska veterans who gathered at the American Legion Post 1 to receive the Normandy Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty, an honor for veterans who served there between June 6 and Aug. 31, 1944.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens gave medals to Cook; Oliver ''Porky'' Bickar of Sitka; Daniel Furlong of Kenai; John Hastie of Anchorage; Clayton Helgeson of Soldotna; and Lenard Reel of Homer. Ernest Glanz of Anchorage received a medal but was unable to attend.

Stevens praised the veterans, shaking hands and returning salutes as he passed out certificates and medals. He discussed ties between Normandy and Sept. 11 -- both decisive moments, he said, amid long battles surrounding the threats against American freedoms.

''This is a remembrance of what went on over there,'' Cook said.

The Normandy invasion had Allied forces overtaking the western European coastline in a cross-channel assault that required getting ashore and busting through the Atlantic Wall, about 2,400 miles of concrete bunkers, barbed wire, tank ditches and land mines. After the beaches were secured, it took almost a year to reach and defeat Germany in spring 1945.

The six men honored at Monday's ceremony sat in a straight-backed line in the front row, sometimes shutting their eyes or gazing thoughtfully ahead.

''This is the day we all huddle up a little bit and think of the people we left behind,'' said Stevens, a World War II veteran and a Post 1 member. ''It is important for us all to remember not just what World War II meant to us, the survivors, but to generations to come.''

Some of the men briefly addressed the crowd.

''I'd like to accept this medal for the friends we left in Normandy,'' said Furlong, a sergeant in the Army's 508th Parachute, 82nd Airborne Division. ''They're the ones who really made the sacrifice.''

Hastie used his moment at the microphone to ask Stevens for a favor.

''I want to hit you up for an appointment with my 17-year-old daughter to get her into one of the (military) academies,'' said Hastie, pulling rousing laughter from the crowd.

Hastie arrived in Normandy as a private, first class, several weeks after D-Day.

''The German air force was still active, bombed us,'' said Hastie, who has grenade fragments buried in his legs. ''Our baptism by fire was in the hedgerows in France. The Germans were vigorously trying to cut us off. They were unsuccessful.''

Bickar arrived on D-Day at just 19 years old.

''What do I remember? Very little,'' he said. ''It was all a dream. A big dream. I was seasick and so scared and mixed up. After I hit the beach, and got my feet settled, I came out of it -- and became the man, the soldier, I could be.''

Bickar was 21 when he returned home, stronger, wiser, more obedient and responsible, he said. And he returned with memories.

''I remember how you treated one another, our buddies,'' Bickar said. ''Like one buddy of mine, laying there. His last ounce of blood going out and he said, Tell Mama I said hello.''' Bickar paused and nodded slowly. ''Things like that.''



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