Do you know Joseph Haymoff?11/19/2014
The curious, who were mostly French on this early November day, carefully made their way down through the hedges and brambles and thorny bushes of the steep embankment until the spiky plants opened onto the sand. Everyone stopped to look over the vast beach at low tide. A glorious sight. The sun sparkled white off the cliffs to the south. Billowy clouds floated placidly over the water to the west. And the beach ran miles to the north until it finally turned back into the sea. Dark mussels left by the retreating tide were strewn underfoot along with a mix of whitewashed shells and the pearl glimmer of palm-sized clams. Everyone slowly drifted off in ones and twos. And all that was left was the empty beach, the scattered shells and a lone sea gull. Omaha Beach in early morning.
Do you know Joseph Haymoff? Middle initial “M.” I can’t seem to find much of anything about him. He lived and he died. That I know. I can tell you this — he’s not buried in America. Thousands of miles from home is his resting spot. However, he was from Polk County, Iowa. That’s all I can find. And he’s buried under a white marble Star of David. 82nd Airborne. Purple Heart. Plot D, row 15, grave 11. Died June 6, 1944.
The Normandy beaches were divided into five sections for the invasion by the Allies: Omaha, Juno, Sword, Utah and Gold. At least 10,000 men died on these beaches. And that doesn’t even count the German dead. Gun shot, shrapnel from bombs, drowning in water, blunt force from air crashes and all the sicknesses that followed — that pretty much sums up the manner of death. But confusion still reigns as to who died when and where and by whom. But die they did.
Perhaps you know Ben Winks? Middle initial “W.” He was a glider pilot. Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Forces, 82nd Squadron, 436th Troop Carrier Group. Came from Sumner, Iowa, in Bremer County. Died June 6, 1944. Purple Heart. Air Medal. He is buried under the white marble cross just directly behind Joseph Haymoff. Plot D, row 14, grave 11. Does that trigger a memory?
Rain lightly fell as we climbed the slippery path up the cliff. No curious visitors today. Too wet. Low tide again as we looked out on another beach. Remnants of a makeshift harbor, engineered by the British for D-Day, were visible throughout the water and sand. The tide pools were long and shallow, filled with a sea suddenly stilled. We climbed off the path and across the broad-bladed switch grass to stand on the concrete roof of a structure no bigger than a single-car garage. Two openings were in the wall below us looking out onto the beach. One for the machine gun. One for a much larger gun. A perfect view overlooking Juno Beach.
Over there is Victor Kakac Jr. Middle initial “O.” Died Aug. 1, 1944. Family home in Missouri Valley, Iowa. Blanche was his mom. Maybe you knew her. He’s buried just up a ways from Ben Winks. Plot H, row 15, grave 8. Does his name ring a bell?
People walked their dogs on the water’s edge. One woman braved the chill and was swimming out in the surf. Children built sandcastles. Two kites drifted lazily past. Lovers walked slowly ahead — bumping together as one, then back apart, then together. The portion of Omaha Beach at St. Laurent-sur-Mer beckoned us all. Just up the way sat the sculpture by Anilore Banon — “Les Braves.” Swords or wings? Your call.
And there’s George Petersen. Middle initial “J.” Private in the 30th Infantry Division. Died on July 30, 1944. Hometown listed as “Iowa.” Killed in action. Buried not too far from Victor Kakac. Plot H, row 15, grave 5. Perhaps you know him?
And look, over there’s Kenneth Paulsen. Middle initial “F.” Died July 28, 1944. Came from Iowa. Buried not far from George Petersen. Plot H, row 13, grave 28.
What are the stories of these Iowa boys? What were their lives? Who were their loves? What were their fears? I certainly don’t know them. I can’t even find them. I’ve looked. Was the maelstrom that was D-Day just an eraser of all these boys? Have these young men turned into numbers only? And what about the British boys, and the Canadian boys, and the Russian boys, and, yes, even the German boys? Do you know their stories?
And Arnold Rahe. Middle initial “A.” Killed on July 24, 1944. An Iowa boy buried just over a bit from Kenneth Paulsen. Plot H, row 20, grave 15.
At the top of the cliff overlooking Juno Beach, the rain starts falling again. Anyone left outside has headed for cover long ago. The German bunker remains out of view. The beach with all of its war debris is hidden below us. Dark clouds mass, and the hard rain falls. But off in the distance, out over the sea, appears a rainbow — the sign God said he would use to remember his covenant with Noah not to destroy mankind.
What is our reminder?
Plot D, row 15, grave 11. Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France. An Iowa boy. Joseph Haymoff. Do you know him? CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com. Joe can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.