The heroes of D-Day — then just boys, now frail men in their 80s — are going to graveyards, one by one. They leave their D-Day stories behind in trunks and suitcases, letter boxes and jewelry cases. The reminders of what they did this day 65 years ago are small things enshrined in living rooms: medals and ribbons, maps of France and Belgium, shards of shrapnel, tarnished knives that once cut parachute strings. They stormed ashore in Normandy 160,000 strong. This long after, they show up with sad regularity in the obituary pages. There's usually just a simple line: "He fought and was injured at Omaha Beach." "He jumped into Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944." But by show and tell, the record of their sacrifices is passed from sons and daughters to grandsons and granddaughters. Each story invariably begins: "This is what Grandpa did when he was a 17-year-old boy."
Darla and Brooks Cavender have a sketch in their Tierra Verde home. It's on sepia paper, done in pencil. It shows the face of a pretty teenage girl with long brown hair. The girl is Darla's mother.
When Darla's father, PFC James Ward Stewart, slogged ashore on Utah Beach, he carried a snapshot of the girl he was dating. Her name was Verneta. She was just 16. He'd carried Verneta's photo as his 9th Infantry Division chased Rommel across North Africa, then rolled across the hills of Sicily, and finally landed in Normandy.
Shortly after D-Day, James found an artist among a group of German prisoners. He paid the POW a pack of cigarettes to draw a sketch from the photo. Then he rolled it into his uniform in his duffel bag and carried it through the Battle of the Bulge, and on into Germany. The sketch survived seven European military campaigns.
James liked to tell stories to Darla's husband, Brooks, but he hated glorifying war, or even watching war movies. He said he just made the best of things and tried to come home to Verneta. He mostly told just the funny stories.
Like the time he stood unshaven on the deck of a troop ship. A young officer named William Westmoreland wanted to know why he hadn't shaved. The buck private said he'd lost his razor. The future general went below decks and brought up his own razor. Darla and Brooks still have it.
Or like the time he got caught coming back to camp in a top hat and tails, or the time he roasted a goat and had to pay its Arab owner $50 — an enormous sum for a private — even though it was too tough to eat. Or the time he played a shrill little flute called an ocarina, that looks like a sweet potato with holes in it. His mates burned it in the fire and gave him a harmonica.
Shortly before James died last Feb. 9, he played the harmonica for his nurses at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center.
He played Amazing Grace.
The father John McMullen Jr. knew growing up was a dairy farmer, who had ranches in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and founded the Tampa Independent Farmers Association.
But John Jr. can visualize how his father almost died in a field on another continent. His dad once showed him.
In 1998, former Screaming Eagle paratrooper Jack McMullen took two sons and a grandson back to Normandy. He showed them the approximate area where he had floated to earth with the 101st Airborne, where he had broken his leg when he landed, where he laced his boot tighter and kept going.
He showed them where he was shot in the knee a day or two later.
Then he took them on to Bastogne, Belgium. That was the worst, where he fought again in December 1944 after his leg had healed.
He showed them the exact spots of two German machine gun nests during a night attack. He described how they fought in 3 feet of snow, how the Germans had encircled Bastogne and demanded the Americans surrender. He told them how his general had sent a one-word reply: "Nuts!" The Germans wanted to know what that meant. A courier told them, it meant go to hell.
Since Jack's death last July 8, his children and grandchildren have those visual memories to pass on. They also have his Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and the knife he used to cut away his parachute. He didn't bring home much more than that.
John Jr. said the paratrooper explained why:
"He got tired of carrying that stuff."
David and Diana Dumais have shrapnel and bullets.
They came out of David's father, Aldor, who lived with them in Pinellas Park from 2002 until he died on May 4.
At Normandy, they called him Frenchie. He was French Canadian, and spoke the language. He was shot in the neck in a field a month after D-Day, fighting in the 4th Division, 22nd Infantry. He always said his helmet saved his life. As he hid behind a tree, he was shot again in the hip and leg.
He told David and Diana how he dragged himself to a farmhouse, where a farmer and his wife patched him up until his rescue.
The war wasn't over for him yet. After his hurried convalescence in England, Aldor went back to the infantry, and was wounded again in the knee.
When he finally came home, he brought two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and his bullets and shrapnel. He came home on canes.
It wasn't a complete hero's welcome. His fiancee broke off with him after a priest told her he would be unable to father children.
Then he met and married Violet, 57 years ago.
Aldor and Violet produced seven children, 20 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
The living legacy
Photos of Ernest Nicks and Hugh Adcock IV rest side by side in a St. Petersburg living room. They look almost identical. Ernest was 20 when he landed at Normandy. Grandson Hugh is 20 now.
Ernest died a year ago last Thursday. He was 84. He had landed in Normandy with the 238th Engineer Combat Battalion. They built their first bridge across a bomb crater on Utah Beach and went on to build 65 more across France, Belgium and Germany.
He went on to become a motorcycle policeman and later a detective for St. Petersburg. He often talked to Hugh about the war, about getting sick on the transport ships, but not about the killing. "He wasn't a fighter," Hugh says.
He gave Hugh money for a car, which his grandson used to buy a Les Paul guitar instead. That was good, the grandfather said. A guitar was safer. The guitar now hangs in the living room, near Ernest's medals.
Hugh is the actual legacy. He has the same athleticism, the same dark hair and dark eyes. Hugh looks like his grandfather looked when he was a discus-thrower at St. Petersburg High.
Hugh tries to think like him. What would Grandfather do? This was a man who protected his country and his city, a guy people turned to when they needed help.
If only he could be just like his grandfather.
"It's his morality," Hugh says. "That's what he gave me."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.