As we pause to remember D-Day, June 6, 1944 – a key turning point in World War II – and salute our region’s significant contributions to that historic moment, we are saddened that our connections to such events are fleeting.
Reporter Dave Sutor worked through local veterans agencies and clubs in a relentless effort to locate even one living local D-Day participant, with no success.
We did find a gentleman in Punxsutawney who was in Normandy and shared his memories for our Sunday report.
Walter “Wally” Hurd was 19 when – as a member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division – he parachuted into the small French town of Sainte-Mère-Église as part of the Allied offensive on what is now known as D-Day.
He is back in France this week along with other Normandy veterans to be honored for their service. Hurd, now 94, is receiving the French Legion of Honor, that country’s highest honor.
“I got sent there,” Hurd told Sutor in an interview at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2076 in Punxsutawney. “I was just trying to protect myself and my buddies, if I could. I was not thinking about being a hero or anything like that.”
The United States sent 73,000 troops to Normandy for an operation that began the liberation of Europe from Adolph Hitler and Germany’s Nazi regime.
Some of those U.S. D-Day soldiers died on those beaches in 1944. Of the ones who returned home, many have since passed on.
Among them are Cambria County Military Hall of Fame members Herman Teeter of Conemaugh, Alexander Barber of Johnstown and John Hoover of Cresson.
As Sutor shared, Teeter earned a Navy Cross for his efforts to save others whose landing craft struck a mine.
Hoover, a photographic reconnaissance pilot, and Barber, a battlefield medic, both earned the Distinguished Service Cross.
Our archives – news stories and obituaries – show that at least four more local men were involved in D-Day: Philip Berdine of Windber, Lloyd Mort of Somerset, William Maggs of Hooversville and John Clayton Mastovich of Franklin.
Harry Muncert, who grew up in Conemaugh, has appeared at many local World War II remembrance events. Now 94 and living in Westmont, Muncert was aboard a Navy vessel in the Caribbean in June 1944.
“We were disappointed that we weren’t a part of it,” said Muncert, who enlisted in 1943.
“That’s for sure. But we were glad the thing was starting the defeat of the Nazis, the Axis.
“We were hoping that things would go successfully. But, like I said, we were disappointed that we weren’t a part of it.”
Cambria-Somerset residents have has been part of nearly every significant military moment in the nation’s history, including those who participated in D-Day, Franklin’s Michael Strank at Iwo Jima, and many others across numerous conflicts and countless battles.
Ed Wojnarowski, a Veteran Community Initiatives board member, noted that Cambria County “has a history of having so many men and women who served in our armed forces.” He added: “This always has been – and I think will always be – a patriotic county.”
That’s true of the entire Laurel Highlands region.
But here and across the country, fewer World War II veterans remain with us to be honored and to share their stories.
We’re told only about 500,000 World War II vets are living, and perhaps a few thousand who participated in D-Day.
That means, as Tom Caulfield, director of Veteran Community Initiatives, observed in our story: “We have less and less time remaining to recognize our living World War II veterans. That should be an ongoing part of our fabric, our culture, lest we forget the sacrifices that were made by our World War II guys.”
We agree, and applaud the work of VCI, county veterans offices and other organizations that strive to make sure these heroes are not forgotten – including while they’re living.
We also salute area schools that maintain lessons on World War II – and all U.S. conflicts – as part of their history curricula. The younger generations must learn about and understand the dedication and sacrifice of our servicemen and -women through the years.
On this day we remember those who were there on D-Day.
Now and forever, we salute all who have served their country and the cause of freedom.