‘Check your bayonets’: Remembering D-Day, and the hours after

“I’m no better than anyone else.”

That statement, in effect, was what put Foster Feathers in that landing craft, in the chop of Omaha Beach, on June 8, 1944: D-Day, Plus Two.

Feathers was an affable kid who could have gotten out of World War II — had he wanted to get out of World War II.

Before he opened that envelope containing his greetings from Uncle Sam, he had been working at the DuPont chemical plant in Westover, which is now gone.

Feathers had just gotten the job at the plant that was integral to the home-front war effort.

He quickly emerged as a good employee and his boss pushed for a military deferment, to which Foster politely declined.

“No, sir, I’m no better than anybody else,” he said.

June 6 marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the controlled, chaotic operation that started the unraveling of Hitler’s Third Reich.

By now, the events of June 6, 1944, have gone from grainy newsreel footage to Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, all the while arranging and rearranging themselves into a kind of sepia-toned collage composite memory.

In the 21st century those now-gossamer images are all the more poignant, being well past twilight, as they are.

The generation that fought that war is now all but gone.

“Check your bayonets,” the sergeant said.

“I didn’t want to hear that,” Fosters said.

Not just war stories

“You know,” 26-year-old Andrew Stover said, “I can’t imagine what those young guys went through.”

But maybe he can.

Stover still wears the uniform of the U.S. Air Force. He was 18 when he enlisted in the same branch of service he watched his dad turned into a career.

He did a couple of combat deployments himself as a soldier in the War on Terror, which is still simmering in many spots on the globe.

“Well, yeah,” Stover said of his experience, “but I don’t think it compares to what that generation did.”

In 2015, he began volunteering with the Veterans History Project, an effort by the Library of Congress to gather the stories of the men and women who served.

Stover started out with a keen interest in World War II and getting its surviving veterans to tell their stories.

“That’s been a challenge with the passage of time,” he said. “And there were some of them who just didn’t want to talk.”

These days, the airman is a one-man army of sorts.

He founded the West Virginia Veterans History Project last year, and is now in the process of gathering stories, which will be recorded — he has microphones and video equipment — and sent off to the Library of Congress.

Email him at [email protected] for more information.

Stover knows that there aren’t many left to the tell those WWII stories.

“I think there are only a handful of veterans left in this area,” he said. “And they’re in their 90s now.”

Feathers, for example, was 93 when he died in 2016, back in Westover.

But there are plenty of others in the Mountain State who served and are still with us, and those are the ones he’d love to talk to for the project.

“When I have talked to older vets a lot of them want to downplay what they did,” Stover said.

“They might say, ‘Oh, I just drove a truck,’ or ‘I was just a cook,’ but that’s not what this is about.”

Maybe you were drafted. Maybe you joined up for adventure, or money for school. Maybe you were, and are, just plain patriotic.

“You wore the uniform,” Stover said, “and that’s good enough. You served.”

Omaha milestone

Which brings it back around to today’s remembrance of D-Day, the Longest Day, now 80 years gone.

Feathers, whose mechanical aptitude at DuPont made his bosses want to keep him at home, was a member of the U.S. Army’s 359th Engineers, a crack unit that built the roads, bridges and airstrips that paved the way for the Allies.

More often than not, they did that work with bullets snapping past their heads.

Feathers, in fact, would be wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.

As he lay bleeding on the battlefield, his brother, Victor, lay dying on the same one.

“I found out later we were only 35 miles apart,” Feathers would remember, “but there was no way I could have gotten to him.”

On D-Day, Plus Two, there was the surf of Omaha Beach and the relative quiet.

There were bodies of soldiers in the chop and still others being trundled into makeshift graves.

Soldiers for whom there would be no happy homecomings.

Only a Gold Star in a window.

The kid from Westover willed himself not to look — but he did, anyway.

That sergeant didn’t yell the order. He just said it.

“Okay, people. Check your bayonets. You know what we’re gonna have to do.”

Feathers gave an audible groan when he heard that. So did everyone else.

“That meant the Germans had the beach booby-trapped.”

You deployed your bayonet to look for mines. A metallic clink under a layer of sand meant you found your deadly treasure.

Around midday, Feathers remembered something. Huh, he said, shaking his head. Whaddya know?

“I realized it was my birthday. I hit 21 on Omaha Beach.”

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