He Didn’t Like To Talk Of War: Veteran’s Recollections Shared
Note: R. Donald Simison died on September 30, 1991. Before his death, he was among the scores of Northampton veterans of World War II who were interviewed by Allison Lockwood for her upcoming book, “Touched With Fire: An American Community in World War II.” The following was written by his daughter, Union-News reporter Cynthia Simison, after she listened to a tape recording of her father’s wartime recollections that he shared with Lockwood.
He was a proud, but private, patriot. The American flag still flies on the makeshift pole he built and erected year ago outside the back door of the family homestead. A couple of Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin books sit on a table where he placed them in the weeks before his death, still waiting to be read by his inquisitive daughter who had told him she’d be writing about his war. The notice of his receipt of the Bronze Star, tightly folded and browed by age, is still stuck in a corner of his wallet.
“It was no big deal,” he told me from his hospital bed in early September when I discovered it while retrieving his Medicare card. He never joined a veterans group. But he kept on wearing his Army jacket to work in the yard on cool spring and fall days, his cap while painting or wall-papering, and those natty green A-shirts until they finally wore out.
Drafted into the Army
Robert Donald Simison went off to war in May 1942, drafted into the Army at 26 and leaving behind the job he would eventually hold for some 40 years at the First National Bank of Northampton. He slogged onto Omaha Beach sometime in the early morning of June 7, 1944 – D-Day Plus 1. And he was with the 175th Infantry Regiment as it swept across Northern France and into the Rhineland. He returned to the United States in 1945 on the Queen Elizabeth, a different man aboard the same ship that had taken him to England three years earlier.
He seldom spoke of his service to his county. “I didn’t do anything,” he would say.
It was about three years ago, though, that he befriended Northampton historian Allison Lockwood and decided he would talk about his wartime duty. An amateur historian of his hometown of Northampton, he had been impressed by Lockwood’s chronicle of growing up in their city, “Children of Paradise.” He agreed to share his memories of the war for her upcoming book, “Touched With Fire.” Over the years, he had made it clear to his children he wasn’t a hero. He was just one of thousands of young men who wound up in the service, he would say.
War ‘booty’ packed away
The pistol that came from the body of a dead German was kept locked away. Photographs, including the ones that show him washing up outside a tent, sitting with buddies on a stairway somewhere in France and walking the streets of Paris with a woman who obviously wasn’t my mother, were packed away in a drawer, infrequently seen and never explained. The only visible signs that ours was the home of a war veteran included a cigarette lighter made from a bullet and emblazoned with Army insignia, and the line of books by authors like Pyle, Mauldin and Shirer.
The tape recording of his wartime recollections, shared by Lockwood after his death September 30, provides another facet of the man whom a friend described at his memorial service as a “crusty old Yankee.” It was a facet I had never seen. He remembered being “marched down Main Street,” taking the train to Springfield where the new recruits had lunch bought for them before heading off to basic training. He remembered all the Northampton men who went with him – Bud Arnold, Johnny Cantwell and John Wall – names we came to hear over the years but never in the context of war.
I never knew my father had been to Florida, where he spend the winter of 1942 at Camp Blanding before being shipped to England with the 29th Infantry Division. He remembered his leaves in London, joking with his questioner about what he had done. “What does a serviceman do in London – I don’t want to say,” he told her, much to my amusement. Stamp shops and a flea market, two of his passions later in life, did get mentioned.
It is his recollections of making his way onto Omaha Beach that are most moving. On the tape, Lockwood noted that Omaha, one of several beachfronts involved in the D-Day invasion, was “the bad one.” “We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. He stops, and then adds, “I don’t know what to say. We knew the other had gone in, and there’d been a lot of casualties.”
He remembered his feet were “hardly wet” when he went from ship to landing craft and then to shore. He remembered that he didn’t see anyone drown. And he remembered the bodies. “You can’t believe it. They were like cord wood.” I could visualize the tears as I heard my father choke up. My only other memory of him crying is when my mother died.
He didn’t speak freely. Lockwood had to question him repeatedly as he worked his way through the memories of hedgerows, being holed up on the beachside for days and sleeping in a foxhole when a bomb fell nearby, leaving one soldier “pretty cut up with shrapnel.” But the there was talk about supplies and he marveled about how the Army had watchmakers who “could make one watch out of two” or create new parts to ensure the soldiers were outfitted with timepieces. Anything that kept time would later become another of his passions.
It’s after he recalls being in Germany, seeing burial details, smelling the odor of dead bodies and witnessing a German woman begging for ice to help preserve the body of her loved one that he explains why he’d kept the memories to himself for so long.
“I think it’s one of those things you just want to forget.” Reticent as was, it is clear that he did not forget and that he wanted to tell someone. I’m sure he knows now that his war will not be forgotten and that he is my inspiration.
Originally published in: The Republican, Springfield, MA