Back in July 1998 I went to see the new Tom Hanks’ film “Saving Private Ryan” with a group of Cecil County (Maryland) veterans who had been at D-Day. The idea was to get a reaction to the film from guys who had been there. For me, the story became one of my most memorable newspaper assignments because it was such a moving and humbling experience.
A lot of the guys—mostly in their 70s—hadn’t been to a movie theater in years. I remember that a couple members in the group walked out and left during the opening scene, which is very graphic.
After the movie, we all went and got coffee to talk about the movie compared to their own D-Day experiences.
“It was quite a job,” said Donnie Preston of North East. “We lost a lot of men.”
According to the local WWII vets, there were 37 men from Cecil County who served at D-Day. Many were in the same unit, which is something that doesn’t happen today.
Most of Cecil County’s men who hit the beach about 7:30 a.m. June 6 were members of the 115th Regiment, which was part of the 2nd Battalion of the 29th Division. Five county men lost their lives in the next few days. Many of the others were wounded, including Preston, who spent two years in hospitals after being hit by machine gun fire.
On the beach that day along with Preston were Otis Ferguson of North East and Lawrence Whitlock of Red Point. Edgar Startt of North East and Church Wehrle of Elkton were there, too.
Those on the beaches weren’t the only area men who were part of D-Day. Some, like Joe Lofthouse of Elkton and Ralph Kelly of Aberdeen, dropped behind German lines with the 101st Airborne. Ralph McCool was an Army Air Corps navigator who helped bomb German positions. James L. Lockhart of North East hit the beach with the 115th Infantry, 1st Battalion. Jack Deibert of Colora came ashore on “D plus 10” with 50 clerks under him to oversee personnel records.
When we left the theater, we discovered that someone had left a note under the windshield wiper of a veteran’s car—the anonymous person had likely noticed the 29th Division license plate.
“I went and saw Pvt. Ryan also,” the note said. “It was a great show. In case you haven’t heard it lately I would like to tell you and your friends—Thank you.”
What I remember most from that experience was that these were great guys. Sadly, many of them have now passed away in the intervening years, but I am thinking of them today 70 years after D-Day.