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69 years later, D-Day survivors ready for big trip

Fifty-six years passed and Alphonse Lara never let on, never shared. If he didn't talk about it, he figured, everything would be fine.

Still, he couldn't shut off the gruesome images completely. They crept into his dreams — the floating bodies, the explosions, the gagging as heavy weights pushed him beneath the bloody saltwater.

He kept all that deep within himself and quietly went about his life, a successful electrician, loyal husband, father to three children who never knew about his heroism.

"It was just better if I didn't talk about it,'' Lara says now at age 89. "I'm still not comfortable. It makes me remember too much.''

His daughter, Adele Werner, 54, recalls when she learned about her dad's World War II history. "He had a heart attack when he was 76,'' she said. "He and I were in the hospital room together and he started sharing some of his combat stories. It might have been the meds. I was shocked that I had never known.''

Since then, Werner has gathered more details about her father's role in the June 6, 1944, D-day invasion that liberated Western Europe from Nazi control. She worried that he might die without due recognition, so she helped secure medals from the French government, which last August led to a resolution from the Pasco County Commission.

Al Laezza, 91, read about it in the local newspaper. His eyes widened and he yelled across his Zephyrhills home to his son, Ed: "That's my company! I was in the 294th!''

What were the odds, he wondered.

They had been part of the 294th Joint Assault Signal Company, a select 300-man group representing all the branches of the military, specifically trained for beach landings where they would establish frontline communications. Only 80 of them survived the invasion on Omaha Beach, where 2,400 men were killed or wounded. Less than a dozen remain, two in the same Florida county.

Their families arranged for the men to meet at Applebee's in Wesley Chapel. They didn't remember each other, but they shared familiar details and photographs. Lara introduced Victoria, his wife of 59 years. Laezza lost his beloved Frances in 2007. They, too, had 59 years together.

After the reunion, Werner, a paving employee for the county, set about nominating the two men for a free trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. They were selected by the nonprofit Honor Flight Network to join 80 other veterans and their guardians for a charter out of the St. Pete/Clearwater airport on Sept. 17.

The network, founded just after the memorial was dedicated in 2004, operates 142 hubs around the United States and has transported more than 100,000 World War II veterans to Washington. James Haake, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who lives in Valrico, said the west-central Florida chapter was founded in 2011 and by the end of this year will have served 1,102 veterans and their guardians. The network relies on donations, "and 99 cents of every dollar go to making these trips happen,'' Haake said.

Laezza spent 20 years in the Army and 20 more in civil service. He and Frances raised four children. He served in Korea during that war and retired as a chief warrant officer. He has returned twice to Normandy and regularly attends reunions of the 294th. He seldom misses a chance to watch Saving Private Ryan, the 1998 Steven Spielberg movie that re-creates the chaotic landing on Omaha Beach.

Lara left the Army immediately after World War II and built a career as an electrician for new construction around New York. He traveled to Europe several times but never to Normandy. He has kept few mementos from his combat experience. He has never attended a reunion and has no interest in watching Saving Private Ryan.

The recent attention has forced a reluctant recollection. "I can still hear the cries for medics on the beach,'' Lara said during an interview at his home near Port Richey. "It was like the end of the world. I just dug and dug and dug and got down deep in the sand. And I prayed.''

Laezza and Lara are looking forward to another reunion, and to meeting the other veterans who will make the daylong trip to Washington. They are in a select club, one disappearing at the rate of 640 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. They are different in many ways, but bound by a duty they performed 69 years ago on what is now sacred ground.

We salute their bravery.

Learn more about the Honor Flight Network at honorflight.org.

69 years later, D-Day survivors ready for big trip 08/23/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 23, 2013 6:30pm]
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