“In all of the far-flung operations of our Armed Forces, the toughest job has been performed by the average, easy-going, hard-fighting young American who carries the weight of battle on his own young shoulders. It is to him that we and all future generations must pay grateful tribute.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt
June was Dad’s month. If James Lepine were still alive this month, we would be celebrating his 95th birthday. He was 25 years old in June of 1944 when he boarded the transport for the Normandy invasion. And it was in June of 1988, just a few weeks before what would have been his 69th birthday, that a different battle ended his life–a battle with malignant melanoma. Three days after he died—just 14 hours following his memorial service—we welcomed our first son into our family. We named him Jimmy.
I am reminded of my father daily. A picture of him hangs on the wall in my office, and underneath it are these dates: June 16, 1941-January 25, 1946. Just to the right are various medals and ribbons, including a Purple Heart for his war injuries. I wish I knew more about the stories behind the awards. But when my father died 26 years ago this month, most of the stories died with him.
Dad arrived at Normandy roughly 24 hours after the battle had been engaged. Did he wade onto a blood-soaked beach, populated by the freshly dead bodies of his fellow soldiers, the way it appears in Saving Private Ryan? I’ve asked my mom, and she says Dad didn’t talk much about the battlefield. He was fighting to protect his country, and even after the war was finished, he may have continued to protect his wife by not telling her all that he had seen.
So, I’ve had to learn about Dad’s service in World War II from what Mom remembers, from the collection of letters he sent home to his parents which have been passed down to me, and from what history records about F Company of the 359th Regiment, 90th Division. Here’s what I know:
Second Lieutenant James R. Lepine received his commission and his orders in June 1941, the same day he graduated from what was then Michigan State College. He completed his basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, and was sent across the country to Camp Roberts, California, for an additional 17 weeks of infantry training.
Driving to town on a sunny California Sunday afternoon, he would always remember approaching the roadblock where he was told to turn around and report back to camp immediately. It was December 7, 1941—the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was a soldier whose nation had just gone to war.
He had just become First Lieutenant Lepine. His next duty station was Camp Barkeley in Abilene, Texas, where he joined the “Tough ‘Ombres,” the men of the 90th Infantry Division. He continued his correspondence with his college sweetheart, Eileen Cross from Flint, Michigan, and in September, she rode the train from Michigan to Texas to become Eileen Lepine … in Abilene.
Dad stayed in the States for training until early 1944, when it became clear that the men of the 359th Infantry were going to be sent overseas. At Fort Dix, New Jersey, they received their final physical checkups, new clothing and supplies, and waited for deployment. And on March 22, they headed across the Atlantic for Operation Overlord–the code name for the Normandy invasion.
My father was a faithful letter writer, and my grandmother kept a scrapbook of her son’s letters from Europe, along with the “V-mail”–the microfilmed version of full-sized letters that the government created in an effort to speed the delivery time and allow for more room in overseas shipping.
The scrapbook is my link to the events my father lived through 60 years ago. The first letter is dated March 20, 1944—a couple days before he shipped out. “I’m so tired I can hardly stay awake,” he wrote. “That, coupled with the fact that there isn’t much that we’re allowed to say will make this a short letter… This may be the last chance I’ll have to write for a while, but don’t worry.”
It was almost three weeks later before the next letter from “Somewhere in England” which was as specific as he was allowed to be:
I’m fine and while I can’t tell you much, I can say that I think I will like England on the whole and that the food is good so far. If you think that you are suffering from rationing I can tell you that you can’t imagine what rationing is until you’ve seen British rationing restrictions. The civilian population really realizes what it means to be at war.
Dad’s next letter was sent by V-Mail: “I have just finished writing Criss [my mom’s nickname] and can’t find anything that they’ll allow us to tell you people. She’ll be disappointed and I know you are too. But the shroud of military secrecy overhangs everything.”
His letters throughout the spring of 1944 talked mostly about food and weather, along with regular assurances that he was fine. There wasn’t much he could say about the ongoing training to prepare for D-Day. There were occasional insights into army life before the invasion:
Cigarettes are plentiful but Cokes could be sold for about $5 apiece. There’ll always be two classes: the “haves” and the “have nots.” I’m just in the wrong class (April 15).
Just a time tonight to let you know I am well and safe. We’re all getting pretty accustomed now to British scenery, British ways, and British money. You have no conception of the old-fashioned facilities that the British are in possession of. Plumbing and electricity and all are about 20 years behind our standards (April 25).
Don’t worry about my birthday because there isn’t anything I need or can carry with me. I changed the war bond allotment from a $25 bond a month to a $100 bond a month and they will be sent to Criss. As long as she’s at home she may as well keep them… I feel fine and the food is still good. Have a ¼ inch haircut that I know you’d get a big laugh out of. But it’s very practical (May 30).
Dad’s last letter home before the invasion was sent May 31. My family heard nothing for more than three weeks—only the news reports back in the States about the allied invasion. They could only hope and pray that if in fact he had been part of the attack on Normandy, he had survived.
The 90th Division arrived on the beaches of Normandy in waves, beginning on the morning of June 6 and continuing for three days. In any conversation I ever had with my dad about D-Day, he would sum up the events of the day this way: “The ship I was on hit a mine as we landed. I made it ashore, passed out, and when I woke up, I was in a hospital bed back in England.”
The army sent the news of Dad’s injury in a telegram to my grandparents on June 21, 1944:
Regret to inform you Capt. James R. Lepine was on 7 June slightly injured in action in the European area. You will be advised as reports of condition are received.
There’s no way of knowing whether that telegram arrived before or after the letter my dad wrote home five days after being injured:
In case the war dept. should send you or Criss some alarming telegram, I’m writing to let you know I’m OK. I’m back in England after a short tour of the coast of France. We went in early in the invasion. Our ship hit a mine and promptly sunk, leaving us to hitch hike the rest of the way. After riding in a couple of destroyers and landing craft we managed to land. My knee and back got kinda strained when the mine hit and I guess I must have passed out after walking 4 or 5 miles. I was probably a little punchy too. Next thing I can remember I was on a ship headed back here. Hope to get out and play war again if they’ll let me. My knee is still a little weak but I think it’ll be OK. Lot of people shooting guns over there and someone’s bound to get hurt… Hope you’re all fine. Will write again (June 12).
It was almost two weeks before Dad wrote home again. From his hospital bed in England, he reported he was being reassigned. In another, he wrote, “I feel good and, as all soldiers do, I’m living for the day when the Statue of Liberty again comes into view and we can start life over.”
He sensed victory in Europe was at hand. “I hope you aren’t becoming too optimistic about this war at home because I’m afraid everyone else is. Germany is whipped, I’m convinced, but intends to continue fighting a while longer. Sure will be glad when Hitler says quit, as will everyone else.”
In mid-August, the 90th Division fought the battle of Falaise Gap, where they destroyed the German 7th Army. By the time the smoke had cleared, more than 10,000 German soldiers had surrendered and been taken prisoner. Three days after the battle was over, Dad wrote home, saying, “If a man stays alive and in one piece for a couple of more months he should be able to make it ok.”
Dad was able to stay alive and in one piece, although a few weeks later he made a return trip to an Army hospital, this time with a concussion and with hearing loss in his left ear as a result of a nearby artillery blast. He wrote to tell his parents not to worry, but in a subsequent letter that he sent to his father at his office, Dad cracked the door open just a bit on the realities of war. “You have no conception of what hell the boys on the front lines go through,” he wrote. “I don’t think any of us will want to talk much about it afterwards, but rather will want to forget. There were some good days, but they didn’t make up for the bad ones.” On another occasion, he wrote, “The war for the most part is pretty awful and when these boys finally get back home they’re due every consideration that can be given them.”
From September 1944 until March 1945, Dad remained in England. And then the letters in the scrapbook come to an end. I have no idea how much longer Dad was overseas, or when he arrived back in the States. I do have the papers processing the end of his time in active duty, dated January 26, 1946–almost nine months after Hitler had committed suicide and Germany surrendered.
The sacrifices of our fathers
Dad never initiated much conversation about the war, and I didn’t know enough to ask or care until he was gone. I grew up knowing that my Dad had been at Normandy, but without knowing much about the significance of that battle.
He died before Saving Private Ryan, before Band of Brothers, before Tom Brokaw proclaimed his The Greatest Generation, before we stopped as a nation and thought about the sacrifices of our fathers and honored them for their service. I’m sure if Dad were alive today, I would have lots of questions for him about the landing at Utah Beach, his injuries, whether he was scared, whether he ever had to watch a friend and fellow soldier die, or whether he ever watched an enemy soldier die from a wound he had inflicted. And I’m sure he would have done what many of his fellow soldiers have done–shrugged his shoulders and said, “We just did what we were supposed to do. It was just something we did.” Simple as that.
Thanks, Dad. I don’t know that I ever said it while you were alive, but I should have. Thanks to you and to all who stormed Omaha and Utah beaches 60 years ago. Thanks to those who fought the Battle of the Bulge. To those who waded ashore at Iwo Jima. To the prisoners of war who died in the Bataan Death March. To the men on board the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. To our fathers and grandfathers.
Many of us realize now that we should have expressed our gratitude years ago. We didn’t know. We didn’t understand. I’m not sure we do now, but maybe we’re beginning to, and we’re grateful.