My father and I by Robert J. Harding Jr.
July 31, 2012 New York City
My father’s death in Normandy August 6, 1944 changed my life forever and not a day passes that I do not think about him and his life and legacy. He went to war in November 1942. He did not have to go then. He was a patriot who volunteered and left his wife, then pregnant, myself and my sister at home on East 123rd Street in East Harlem, Manhattan, New York. I was four at the time, my sister was two. My mother was thirty years old and pregnant with my brother and my father was thirty one. She had to sign a release for him with the draft board.
The war enveloped our lives and ultimately swallowed him like many others in the carnage and changed everything. He came home three times after November 1942, once after basic training and just before going to Infantry OCS at Fort Benning. He came home after OCS graduation as an Infantry Lieutenant in the summer of 1943, and then for the last time in January of 1944 before he shipped out to England to join the 115th Infantry of the 29th Division in Cornwall preparing for the D-Day Invasion. Each visit was no longer than a few days and the last was just an overnight.
He landed on D-Day June 6th at 10:30 in the morning from LCI 554 on Omaha Beach with Headquarters Company as Communications Officer and then later on June 14th he went over to D Company to take over the machine-gun platoon. Fighting in the hedgerows was bloody and merciless and the foe was determined. He was with the 1st Battalion 115th Infantry spearhead into Saint-Lô. By then he was Executive officer of D Company and he had been awarded a bronze star for valor for his work as machine-gun platoon leader. Then on August 5th while in the attack on St. Martin de Tallevende near Vire he was hit by an artillery round and mortally wounded. He died the next day, August 6. He was thirty three; he left three children including one who never knew him.
Now late in my life I have come to speak with the soldier who was also hit by the same shell that killed my father. His name is Everett Rockwood from Walpole Mass. I also talk with and have met E.J. Hamill who was also with my father when he was mortally wounded. In 1988 I visited France to see Saint-Lô, Omaha Beach and also St. Martin de Tallevende. In 2000, I went over to Saint-Lô and installed, with the help of Jean Mignon, one of my sculptures as a memorial for my Father and his comrades at the Madeleine Memorial in Saint-Lô.
My father was born in Brooklyn on May 28th, 1911. His ancestors were Irish immigrants. He worked in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York before the war and was a young rising banker. I never really knew him but heard stories about him and had a few personal memories. I cannot describe his inner thoughts or motivations. I know that he loved his children and his wife and was a loyal American and an anti-fascist. I also knew that by all reports he was a good officer and he was good to his men. He was against tyranny and he was willing to sacrifice his life so that, he believed, his war would be the last and his sons would not have to go into the Army or war.
In the world as we know it since then, peace has not happened. I spent two years as a draftee private in the artillery over in Germany at the beginning of the sixties. I got out before they sent line units to Vietnam. Each day I see my father’s photo on my desk and I offer up a prayer for him and I also speak with him in my heart much as I did when I was a boy and I felt alone. His bravery in the face of daily horror has given me strength to face many things. He was not a man of war. He was a man who loved life. He did what he felt was his duty. Americans now and then and always ought to be grateful for the sacrifice that he and others gave in the name of the preservation of human dignity and freedom and spirituality. I love my father for who he was and who he is for me now as I am also a man of my own time with my family and my children. My father’s story is not about glory or armies or ideology or war making. It is about one human being and his son and family and about love that never dies and that in the end is the only real and lasting spiritual reality, God-given in each of our hearts.
Originally published in Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies.
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