Our Opinion: Universal soldiers in a defining invasion

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The D-Day invasion of the beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944 was truly an event that changed history. The successful assault on the heavily fortified beaches by Allied forces, immortalized in books and movies, set the stage for the slow march across Europe and the eventual end to the Nazi menace in Europe. Victory, given the ramifications of the spread of Nazism, was crucial, but it was by no means assured on the day the invasion of Normandy was launched.

More than 160,000 troops participated in the invasion, and the stories of two of them from Pittsfield have been recalled by The Eagle on the occasion of that historic day. In Wednesday's Eagle, Dick Lindsay wrote about a pilgrimage to Normandy by the family of patriarch Walt Kelly, who participated in the invasion. In today's Eagle, Larry Parnass chronicles the story of Francis Rocca, a paratrooper on that fateful day. "Ordinary" men called upon to do extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances, the two Pittsfield men had much different roles but their stories are remarkably similar. They are universal soldiers in a sense, as their stories surely mirrored those of many of the soldiers who fought at Normandy, in World War II, and in wars before and since that day 75 years ago today.

The 21-year-old Mr. Kelly drove a DUKW or "duck boat" delivering supplies from ship to shore as part of the Army's 349th Transportation Corps Amphibious Truck Brigade. Duck boats were at the front of the invasion, and drivers were at the front of the boats, a large majority of which were lost at sea or damaged on the beach during the course of the invasion. This last bit of information came from Jozef Priholda, tour guide for seven of Mr. Kelly's eight children (daughter Catherine died in 2006) as they visited landmarks of the invasion last May.

Mr. Rocca was said to be the second paratrooper to descend upon the Nazi-occupied beach under cover of night, but he later confided to his family that he was the first to jump but wanted that honor to go to the ranking officer, Capt. Frank Lillyman. The 29-year-old soldier, a member of the special Pathfinder Group with the 101st Airborne, joined the advance into Europe, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle of the war. He was shot in the chest and the shrapnel that lodged in his back would cause him pain for the rest of his life.

Upon returning home from the war, neither man made any claims to heroism. In fact, neither was eager to talk about the war and their part in it at all. Walt Kelly's son David told The Eagle that his father didn't want to recall the war because he had lost so many friends who fought in it. Mr. Rocca's daughter, Cheri, told The Eagle her father "didn't want to be glorified in any way." Mr. Rocca did reveal to his daughter that when his unit captured two Germans he made sure they were well-treated, which was not always the case for prisoners of either side. After the war, he remained in touch with the two Germans.

In their matter-of-fact attitude toward their contributions to this historic event, and their hatred of war and bloodshed, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Rocca not only have a shared perspective with one another but assuredly with the many thousands of men and women who have fought in wars. The politicians and desk-bound military brass who have not experienced battle may spoil for a fight but not those who have been in one. Mr. Rocca, the accomplished paratrooper, told his daughter Cheri that he accepted demotion from sergeant to private because "I'm not going to tell anybody else you've got to go out there."

D-Day was an invasion that had to take place to win a war that had to be won. Today, we celebrate those from Pittsfield and across this nation and other nations who won the battle and that war. We also remember those who died at Normandy — an estimated 4,400 Allied soldiers and between 4,000 and 9,000 Germans. Mr. Rocca and Mr. Kelly attested — largely through their silence — to the cruelty of war, a cruelty that is not lessened even when war is necessary.

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