Sometime today, Haynes "Tommy" Thompson will get on the horn from Montgomery, Ala., and call up the Falls Church home of Merle McDougald "Doug" Werner. Or maybe it will be the other way around.
That's how it's been on June 6 for most of the last 55 years when the two--one a retired businessman, the other a journalist--celebrate their anniversary.
" 'Happy D-day,' he'll say," Werner said. And then the two will reminisce over their time spent together on a day that has become one of the century's defining moments.
Werner, now 86, worked for United Press and was one of 20 reporters detailed to cover history's largest naval invasion. Thompson was his keeper--assigned by the U.S. Army as the newsman's official escort for the assault on the Normandy coast. Together the two men witnessed parts of a massive operation that involved 156,000 Allied troops, 1,200 fighting ships and 10,000 planes. An estimated 1,465 Americans were killed during the initial assault.
About four hours after the main attack wave, the two stepped off a landing craft into the hip-deep waters near Utah Beach, one of five beachheads seized by the Allies. They spent the rest of the day watching Army Air Forces sappers construct an airfield at double time.
Werner's two-page dispatch from that long day was written at dusk in spare, mostly unpunctuated journalese from a ditch below a hedgerow and sent the next day via Army courier. Of his first moments on the beach, he wrote: "we had left our ship they said it 'looks rough up ahead' but eye had expected that. . . ."
His Spartan style endures in his stalled memoirs ("I'll start them back up soon," he said), which include an account of coming under fire.
"The German shells came from a well-concealed position behind the beachhead. We always had advance warning because they whined like a hurt dog on their way over," he wrote.
Werner went back to Normandy for the 45th anniversary, accompanied by his buddy Thompson. They looked for the ditch where they had sought shelter but suspected it had been paved over with development.
Was it emotional, his time back at Utah Beach? "Yeah, a little," Werner said in an interview at his home, surrounded by the yellowing newspaper clippings that chronicle his professional life. After D-day, he was at the liberation of Paris, and later at the Nuremberg trials. He concluded his career working in far-flung posts for United Press and later the U.S. government. He retired in 1970 from the Voice of America.
His wife, Dorothy Werner, whom he met after the war, said that Werner's stoic, Nebraska-bred surface hides deeper emotions.
"When we went to see 'Saving Private Ryan,' he just kept saying, 'It's too loud, let's go, let's go.' And I kept saying, 'It's going to be over soon,' " she said. "He just didn't want to see it."
Werner was not on Omaha Beach, the bloodiest invasion point, portrayed in the Steven Spielberg movie. But in those early moments on the beach and in the days afterward, he saw and reported plenty of war's horrors.
"At one point, we counted the bodies of 15 dead Germans, four of them with their throats cut, and the body of one American paratrooper," he writes in his memoirs-in-progress.
D-day, Werner said, is an anniversary worth remembering--"one of the great battles in history," he calls it--and he worries that the nation will forget.
"It's just too important," he said. "It means something to me because I saw it as a spectator, and it's one of the high points in my life, as a matter of fact. . . . I think that people should look at it as a day of respect, just as they do Flag Day."
"But nobody knows what Flag Day is," Dorothy Werner said.
As long as Werner lives, there's no chance of forgetting. A few years back, his wife said, a thunderstorm approached just after he drifted to sleep.
"There was the rumbling of the thunder in the distance, and he turned over and said, 'I guess the Germans must be getting closer,' " she said.
CAPTION: Merle McDougald "Doug" Werner, of Falls Church, was one of 20 news correspondents who went ashore on D-day.