A Witness to the Start of D-Day

The Neyland home, a bright white house with a long narrow front porch, sits back from the street and is surrounded by the last of spring’s pink and lavender blooms. It’s a quiet street, two blocks off a thoroughfare in Marietta, Georgia, and four thousand miles from where James once stood guard and witnessed the start of the invasion of Normandy on a night in June 1944. That night would prove far from quiet.

A native of Gloster, Mississippi, James has called Atlanta home for thirty years. He’s a southerner through and through and has that unmistakable hint of sweet-iced tea on a veranda to his voice, a voice that sparkles with joy when he thinks of the many good things that have happened in his life. This year, James had an unexpected chance to smile. He received a card thanking him for his service to his country. But it was more than a card. It was a four-foot-long, accordion-like banner that carried the images of 76 people—one for every year since D-Day. And in each person’s hands in the photograph was a cover of the book on which a photograph of a then nineteen-year-old James appears. 

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The book, The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines, by Rona Simmons, another long-time Atlanta area resident and author, tells James’s story and those of eighteen other WWII veterans. But, like James, the veterans portrayed were not on the front lines. They served quietly, out of the spotlight, sometimes far from the heat of battle. Regardless, they all have remarkable stories to tell and all look back on their service as proudly as any man or woman wherever and however they served. 

In the 1930s, when he was a young boy, James watched a biplane circle and then land on a field in Gloster. Wanting to see the plane up close and perhaps fly, he asked his father for a few dollars to pay for a ride. Five dollars in the middle of the Great Depression, however, was a small fortune and could feed the family for a week. His father shook his head. The idea of flying, soaring over the countryside at cloud level and looking down at the earth never left James. So, in 1941, when the United States joined the war, James rushed to his local recruiting office to enlist, intending to become a pilot. Unfortunately, flying did not agree with James who found his body could not adapt to the sudden pressure changes that combat flying demanded, leaving him with debilitating headaches each time he flew. 

Crestfallen, but determined to serve, James found himself in the Army Air Forces as a welder for P-38 fighter aircraft, leveraging a skill he had learned before the war. He deployed to an airfield in England and later transferred to the European continent. But in the wee hours of that June morning in 1944, James was flying, if not in fact, in spirit. He recalls hearing a drone overhead and looking up to see a sky filled with bombers, fighters, tow planes, and gliders. So many planes, he said, “they blocked out the stars.” The invasion everyone expected had begun. 

James was one of sixteen million people who served during the war at the front lines and behind. All are worthy of our respect and honor. And, to James at 97, being “a cover boy,” as he refers to himself, is just one more feather in his cap.

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