Take a hero out to lunch

Cal East earned a bronze star for bravery for his Navy service in World War II.

Cal East remembers every detail.

As a young lieutenant in the Navy, he'd just maneuvered his landing craft onto Omaha Beach, delivering 200 soldiers to the battle and was trying to evacuate 18 men who'd been seriously wounded during the first wave of the invasion of Normandy.

While this occurred almost seven decades in the past, East recalls the chaos of war, the haze of smoke on the beaches and the cries of the wounded.

"They put a wounded man on my bunk as we were trying to get out of there," East said. "Both his hands had been blown off. He asked me for a cigarette."

East, just 21 at the time, lit up a Lucky and held it to the man's lips as he inhaled what might have been his last smoke.

"I remember thinking I should be scared, that any moment I could be next," he said. "But in moments of such magnitude, instinct and training take over."

Monkeys and music

A native of Indiana, East was fresh out of college and went directly into service and the raging realities of World War II.

Over lunch recently, I talked to the 87-year-old about his experiences. Suddenly, it was 1944.

Despite damage to his own craft, East off-loaded wounded to a hospital ship in a pitching sea and went back for more. He remembers seeing another transport ship blown completely out of the water by a German mine, killing all aboard.

He remembers transporting Nazi prisoners who were sullen and serious, and Italians who were happy to be out of the battle and brought along monkeys and played music en route to the rear.

For his efforts he earned a Bronze Star for bravery, came home to marry Joyce, went to work for the National Cash Register Co. and raised a family in St. Louis.

What we miss

When he retired to the Lowcountry, East became just another member of that Greatest Generation we celebrate whenever Memorial Day rolls around.

What we know is they won a war of staggering scope. But what we miss, unless we take the time to talk to them, are the details.

What was it like aboard the ship just before the invasion? Did they know what lay ahead? Did they pray? Were they scared? How did they handle the horror? Did they feel lucky to survive?

All too often we hear that vets don't talk about war. That one, or the ones since. Truth is, they will, if you just take the time to ask, and are willing to listen.

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598, kburger@postandcourier.com or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Ken_Burger.