Margaret McNamara Returns to Normandy
Staunton student helps elderly widow cope after losing husband to battle at Normandy
By Cindy Corell/staff
Watching the surf of the English Channel below, Margaret McNamara’s questions nagged at her. Like the constant push and pull of the sea, answers long had tugged within her, but she couldn’t put them into spoken words.
She’d been here before. She’d stood before her husband’s grave, wept and prayed.
She’d kissed him goodbye in 1943, but it was 57 years later that she’d paid respects at his grave in this beautiful row of white crosses in Normandy.
In July, she stood there again, still feeling a knot of grief and anger that wouldn’t be released until she told the story.
This time it wasn’t the sea that coaxed the answers.
It was 17-year-old Logan Combee.
“He was there when you least expected,” she said. “He would just appear out of the blue.”
Margaret Fitzgerald grew up in New York City, the only girl in a family of three. In 1939, what would be the second world war raged in Europe. Margaret was graduating high school. She planned to go to nursing school.
One June morning, she woke to learn that her mother had suddenly died in the night. In September, her father died as well.
Her older brother’s National Guard unit was activated when war was declared. In 1942, he was killed in action.
She was a young nursing student, struggling to make ends meet and raising her youngest brother, 6-year-old Johnny.
John O’Neil was a close friend. Two years older, he was a quiet young man given to prayer and baseball.
“He had red hair and brown eyes, and he wanted peace more than anything,” Margaret said. “He was a boy who loved his parents. He loved to sing. He was full of life.”
John sang “I’ll Get By,” to Margaret, and he played second base when neighborhood teams split up to play stickball.
He knew he could make Margaret’s life better. They married and together they set out to raise Johnny. Then the draft orders came. By 1943, he was headed overseas, deployed with the 116th Infantry Regiment based in Staunton, Va. The only thing he had in common with the soldiers from Virginia was the way they trained.
And the way they died.
First ashore on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, the soldiers of Co. A met a grueling defense of the German stronghold. Their comrades who came behind would defeat the enemy forces, but most of the boys of Co. A were killed.
John J. O’Neil was among them. When she heard the news, Margaret O’Neil made the best of it.
“It was that generation of women. They just picked up and moved on,” her daughter, Colleen Green, said.
When she received another marriage proposal, she accepted. She and her second husband, William McNamara, moved west to California, then on to Montana where they raised five children.
When asked, John O’Neil’s father asked that he be buried in France.
Green is Margaret’s middle child. She helped Margaret out when her father became ill, and one evening after watching a documentary about the film “Saving Private Ryan,” her mother revealed a fact from her past.
“She asked me if I thought the movie was realistic,” Green said. “I said I didn’t know, but that was what they’d said.
“Then she said, just matter-of-factly, ‘you know, my first husband died on D-Day.'”
The memories had been put away, but bit by bit they reappeared. “She’d closed the door on all of that, but not the window,” Green said of her mother.
A year after her second husband died in 1999, she went with Green to Europe. They visited Normandy on their own and Margaret went to John’s grave.
“She turned to me and said, ‘Thank you. I’ve waited 56 years to say goodbye,'” Green recalled.
But it wasn’t over. In 2004, they went to the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day, but lost in the crowds of those gathered, Margaret still didn’t find the peace she’d sought.
In 2005, they made plans to to go to France with Normandy Allies, an organization that plans an annual trip to the beaches and battlefields of Normandy and the cemeteries there. History students and veterans usually make up the groups the organization serves.
Pete Combee is a historian who leads the tours. He knows the countryside and enough French to get by.
And he knows how to tell the story of what happened in Normandy so high school students can put it in perspective and so veterans recognize the place they dashed through so many years before.
The Normans greet Allied veterans with enthusiastic and emotional gratitude. Their peaceful region was held hostage by the German army that occupied it. Had it not been for the bravery and sacrifice of American and British troops, the stronghold would not have been defeated.
Year after year, Combee has witnessed the embrace the veterans receive in Normandy, but this year it was different.
Margaret was no veteran — she represented the millions of wives and mothers and children whose lives were turned upside down when their soldiers died on foreign ground.
But what Margaret sought wasn’t a connection she would recognize, but rather a bond that was cut short too quickly.
And the one who would help her tie together the story of her brief first marriage together was the unlikeliest relationship of all — a teenage boy from Virginia.
Logan Combee was 17. He’s Pete’s youngest son. A senior at Grace Christian High School, he was making his second trip to Normandy with his dad. But this time he was full-fledged student of history and an astute judge of character.
In the woman he calls Mrs. McNamara, he saw the veiled loss. He is accustomed to speaking with veterans. He knows their stories, and he understands their place in history.
“What made this trip different was having Mrs. McNamara along,” Logan said. “I’d never really thought about the changes back home, the effect of it all. For people who sent their loved ones away, and they didn’t come back.”
As the two-week journey went on, Logan stayed close to Margaret. She didn’t talk much about John O’Neil, at least at first.
“I kind of used the different places we’d been to. The beach where he died,” he said. “She didn’t break down, but you could tell it was unsettling, not knowing every detail.”
It was the ripples of history that Logan wanted to know. D-Day was the longest day to many who were there, but the survivors went on. Many of them have come back to tell their stories. They write history books, and their words are collected in documentaries.
But the survivors of the fallen carry on as well — and they carry questions and some survivors’ guilt of their own.
“By the end of the trip, she seemed more at ease at him being there,” Logan said. “I guess going back there helped her remember who he was.”
To Logan, Margaret shared her questions and some of their own answers.
“Some things I shared with Logan, some of those things, you don’t always share those thoughts,” Margaret said. “It goes even deeper than that. I think it’s faith-based.”
“One of the things she told me was that in his letters, most of his letters, he oftentimes would say, ‘no matter what happens, it is God’s will. It has a purpose, no matter what she thinks,'” Logan said.
“I had planned to go to Normandy two years ago, but this was supposed to be the year,” Margaret said. “And Logan? I didn’t think I would have someone to visit with in the quiet moments. We talked about him, about his interests, his Baroque music, his family, his faith.
“Was he a messenger?” she asked.
In a lifetime, Margaret met two young men who loved music and spoke of their deep faith in God.
One she lost on the beaches of Normandy.
The other one, she met there.
While they stood at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mur, Logan wondered about the straight, even lines of white crosses. He asked his father what was the rhyme of reason for the order. Not far away, Margaret, too, listened to the answer.
“He said they were designed with all the names facing the U.S., the crosses sloping toward the sea,” Logan said.
“She didn’t say anything, but I could tell in some kind of way that made her feel better about it, that they were facing the United States and with their crosses sloping down to the sea that brought them there.”
Reprinted with permission from The Staunton News Leader, Staunton VA.