My D-Day mission, which started last April in Normandy, France, ended last week in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
It was brought to a close over lunch at the Kutztown Tavern with Camille De Marco, the niece of a hero buried in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach. I had adopted him during a bucket list visit.
The back story: As an amateur military historian, I have studied key battles in World War II and was in awe of the invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe, from the countless intricacies of the planning, to the enormity of supplying food, arms and gasoline, to the unimaginable courage of the troops.
Hitler had years to fortify the coast, to embed obstacles, to build defenses, to plant heavy weapons. He knew the inevitably of an Allied attack, though he did not know where or when. Both sides knew if the Allies could successfully land their armies, it would lead to Hitler’s defeat.
You know how the story ended. We won, but it was never a sure thing.
You also may know the Allies — principally the U.S., the U.K., and Canada — landed on June 6, 1944, on five beaches along the Normandy coast, code named Utah, Omaha, Sword, Gold and Juno. The Americans were assigned Utah and Omaha, which was the bloodiest of the five.
In the blackness of the night before, thousands of soldiers landed in France in gliders, or under the canopies of their parachutes, to disrupt German communications and supply.
There were many casualties during the air assault, even more during the sea assault; and the American cemetery is the final resting place of 9,380 service members. I had a life-long desire to visit the cemetery to thank the men who lost their lives on the shores of France so I could live in American freedom. I visited the cemetery in April and said thank you in a column that appeared in The Inquirer a few days before the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
In that column, I mentioned Pfc. Eake De Marco, who was from Pennsylvania. In addition to his name and home state, his tombstone contained only his military unit, rank and date of death.
De Marco, who earned two bronze stars and a Purple Heart, died on D-Day before he could get ashore, according to a letter from his commanding officer, I learned later. For me, De Marco became the symbol of the other 9,379 Americans buried there.
Two weeks after my column ran, I received an unexpected, and amazing gift: a handsome display case containing De Marco’s bronze star and Purple Heart ribbons, his campaign ribbons, a First Infantry Division uniform patch, a presidential unit citation, a combat infantry badge, plus the picture of his headstone I had taken. In addition, Ed Mikus, a retired postal employee who lives in the Northeast, created a 70-page booklet stuffed with military and personal information about De Marco.
I was stunned and asked Mikus if he would accept an assignment to see if he could locate any of De Marco’s relatives. He knew De Marco was raised in Reading by an aunt and uncle.
Next thing I knew I was on the phone with a niece of the private, Camile De Marco, 60, of Sinking Spring, Pa. Her father, James, was Eake’s brother, and served in the Navy. Another uncle, Michael, served in the Coast Guard. A patriotic family.
While I was pleased to have the display case Mikus created, I felt it belonged to the family, and Camille is the family historian. I told her I would drive upstate with Mikus to meet her and to transfer the display case.
That’s what we did last Friday.
Camille told me her family had not forgotten her Uncle Eake, and his grave has been visited and decorated many times over the years.
I thanked her family for their service, and for allowing me to take her uncle into my family and my heart.
My D-Day mission was complete.