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Published: Wednesday, June 05, 2019 @ 5:20 PM
— There were many heroes on June 6, 1944, as Allied military forces bombarded the coast of northern France and stormed ashore in hopes of turning back the tide of Hitler's Germany. One of them was my mother's uncle, Floyd Workman, serving in the 101st Airborne Division, who parachuted into Normandy hours before the land invasion began.
Workman and his fellow paratroopers landed among the hedgerows of Normandy about six miles inland from Utah Beach, on the western flank of the invasion, near the key town of Sainte-Mère-Église.
The Americans came under immediate fire, as they tried to link up with their fellow paratroopers in the darkness. Hours later, they would take key cross roads, and soon join with forces of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division.
"I suppose you are wondering why I haven't written," Workman wrote in a June 14, 1944 letter to my grandparents. "I can't tell you much but I am in France."
“I have been very lucky so far and I can thank God for that,” he added.
Workman gave no hints about his dangerous past week.
"I am a little tired and weary but am very thankful I am alive," he wrote. "I think the situation is pretty well in hand now so I don't think there is anything for anyone to worry about."
As Allied forces spread out in France, and drove back Hitler's armies, the war wasn't over for Workman and the 101st Airborne by any means.
After D-Day, Workman was part of a major offensive in 1944 known as Operation Market Garden in Holland, and later was part of the American forces cut off in Bastogne during the historic Battle of the Bulge.
The 101st finished the war by making it to Berchtesgarden - Hitler's infamous vacation retreat - as Workman found himself in some of the most high profile engagements in Europe.
If you do some simple internet searches about the 101st Airborne Division, one of the first pictures you might see shows a group of American soldiers holding a Nazi flag.
My great Uncle Floyd is on the right side of that photo, holding a machete.
After the war, Workman returned home to his relatives in Wyoming, ultimately working for many years on a large cattle ranch that straddled the Wyoming-Montana border, north of Sheridan, Wyoming.
He got married in 1947. He worked hard. He raised a family. He lived a normal life.
And like many of his generation, my mother's uncle didn't say much about what he had gone through in World War II.
Those veterans came back to the U.S., and went on with their lives, knowing so many of their friends had died, buried in beautiful resting places like the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach, in northern France.
While the cemetery is breathtaking - when you go down to Omaha Beach, and look high up on the bluff where the cemetery is now - you instinctively shudder at the thought of what American, British, and Canadian forces went through, as they stormed ashore.
After graduating from college in 1985, I went out to Wyoming and Montana to visit my relatives, just a few weeks before taking off for a trip to Europe.
I made sure to stop by to visit Floyd and wife, because I wanted to see if I could unlock some of those old stories about the war.
At his home not far from the site of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, I laid out a map of Western Europe on the table, and started telling Floyd where I planned to go - making clear that I would trace his own military trek in 1944 and 1945, from Normandy, to Holland, and on to Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.
He seemed surprised that he was a focus of my trip, as we talked about some of the places that he had been during the war.
My cub reporter skills had taught me one way to get more out of an interview subject - and that was to say very little, in hopes that person would talk.
And he did.
After about five minutes, Floyd suddenly stopped in mid sentence. He looked up at me - as if he realized that he was breaking his silence about the war - and without saying anything, got up from the table, and walked outside.
I turned to his wife, Carrie, who seemed a bit shocked by what she had just heard.
"That's the closest he's come to talking about it in years," she said.
During my time in Europe, I sent Floyd postcards from some of the sites where he had been during the war, as I used trains, buses, bicycles, and even hitch hiked my way through France, Belgium and the Netherlands to get to where he had been.
The day after I got back to the States, the phone rang.
It was my great Uncle Floyd.
He had been worried about me, he said. And he was glad that I was back, safe and sound.
You could tell that the memories of the war were with him.
In 1993, I was sitting with Floyd in his living room in Wyoming, talking about the upcoming 50th anniversary of D-Day.
He had already received invitations to go to various ceremonies, and I told him that I was more than ready to take him back to France.
He thanked me, but made clear he didn't want to go.
On June 3, 1994, a reporter for the Sheridan Press newspaper in Sheridan, Wyoming, interviewed Floyd for a story about the upcoming 50th anniversary of D-Day.
"I was scared to death, Workman said, recounting his first hours on the ground, after parachuting into France. "I think I was just about as scared as anybody,"
Ironically, that interview held some of his final words.
Under the headline of "D-Day remembered," the Sheridan Press started with this:
"EDITOR'S NOTE - D-Day veteran Floyd Workman died Friday, several hours after being interviewed by the Press. His death came three days short of the 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe, which changed the tide of World War II," the paper wrote.
Floyd Workman lived for almost fifty years after D-Day, fifty extra years that many soldiers did not get.
He was a true hero who didn't see himself that way. He was part of the 'Greatest Generation.'
And he helped insure that much of Europe stayed free for the past 75 years.