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To some, today is a footnote in history. A day on the beaches of Normandy 74 years ago when an event codenamed Operation Overlord was launched, beginning what many say was the beginning of the end of World War II.
It will always be more than history to me, because in that first wave was a 21-year-old Private First Class from Henry County, VA by the name of Allen Homer Sink. He would survive that initial wave, participate in battle until it ended in August, then come home to marry and raise a family of four, including two daughters after the war ended.
He would also become my father-in-law until his death in 2006.
His nickname for some reason was “Hank” and when I asked him how he got it, he said some guy in the Army said he “looked like a Hank.” From the time I first met him, he was a salt-of-the-earth man who was never afraid of anything. He was a carpenter by trade, and he’d stand up on the tallest roofs, grab bumblebees with his bare hands when they tried to persuade him to move elsewhere, and never be bothered by anything.
His hands were tough and leathery, but he was a softie. He spoiled his children, complained when my mother-in-law would gripe about something involving one of his alleged misdeeds, and always thought he was fooling everybody when he snuck around the back of the house and lit a cigarette, a habit everyone opposed but he could never part himself from.
He could talk your ear off for hours at a time, and I always suggested he become a greeter at Wal-Mart when he retired because then he could talk all day to strangers and none of them would – like his wife and daughters often did – tell him to be quiet for a few moments. Yet for all his love of talking, there was one subject he just wouldn’t discuss.
June 6, 1944. Omaha Beach.
In 1998, when he was 76 years old, the subject came up again. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” came out and the beginning was gruesome. Reviews said it was incredibly realistic to what really happened that day. I asked Hank if he wanted to go see it.
“No,” he shook his head. “I don’t ever want to see any of that again.”
He did offer that he remembered the night before when troops were loaded into the boats for the amphibious assault. He said it was raining and that once everyone was in place, they gave everybody ice cream and told them to try to get some sleep. Then the next thing he knew, they were waking everybody up telling them to stay low and head for the beach.
No, that doesn’t sound like somebody drugged the ice cream. Not at all.
That’s all he would say about the subject, and he never said another word about it until the final months of his life. Alzheimer’s would gradually rob him of his mind, and as his condition deteriorated, memories of the past would briefly spill out. One evening he thought I was his commanding officer and he was back at Normandy. It is the only time I ever saw him where he appeared to be scared. Ever.
It immediately reminded me of something I had unknowingly taken for granted. The greatest generation did fight in and win World War II, then did incredible things over the next 50 to 60 years after the war. But many carried unspeakable memories from the War, ones they would never talk about and carry inside them to their graves. Those veterans lost a piece of themselves in battle they would never, ever, get back.
I mean, how can you at the tender age of 21 storm a beach, see friends die only a few feet from you, wonder each night if you will wake up alive the next morning and then return home a year later and try to pick up on the same normal life you had before you left? I told him once that after seeing “Saving Private Ryan”, I understood why he was never afraid of anything; after you’ve made it through something like that, everything else pales in comparison.
So today for me is not a historical footnote. It’s a day to remember and thank the 150,000-plus men, who like my father-in-law, were very young, very scared, and still charged that beach, paying a price that even for the survivors would last the rest of their days.
Especially a man who meant the world to me. A guy the Army nicknamed “Hank.”