Melissa Crawford’s grandfather kept World War II in a trunk in the basement of his Rhode Island home. All of Robert M. Walling Jr.’s memorabilia was there: the worn yearbook from his time training at Camp Rucker in Alabama, pictures of his fellow soldiers, letters to and from his mother, the miniature Bible he carried when he landed in Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944 . . .
“Pa,” as Walling’s grandchildren called him, kept his memories as sealed as that footlocker. He never talked about the war. But four years ago, when Melissa turned 30, she asked for a special birthday gift: Tell me about the trunk, Pa.
Melissa lives in Arlington and is a copyright specialist at the Library of Congress. She didn’t know much about World War II, but every couple of months for a year she went to Rhode Island to sit with her maternal grandfather as he pulled items from the trunk. Each piece of paper and scrap of fabric was a time machine transporting him back to the war.
Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of France. “They knew some guys in the boat couldn’t swim,” Melissa said of the men in the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion, Company D. “Their major fear wasn’t getting hurt ashore, but it was actually swimming out of the boat to get to the shore.”
Nauseated from the swell and the anticipation, men were throwing up everywhere in the landing craft. “The stench of the boat stayed on their clothes, the reeking smell staying with them on the shore,” said Melissa. “He said, ‘I never have forgotten that.’ ”
And then Corp. Walling was on the beach.
“He was in the first wave,” Melissa said. “They were supposed to land closer to Omaha Beach, but because of the currents, they landed on Utah. He said it probably saved their lives.”
Even so, casualties mounted. Their leader, Capt. Henry Williams, was killed by a German bomb.
“He’d trained them all and was like a father to them,” Melissa said.
Walling and the others were ordered to leave the body behind and move forward. It was a mantra repeated endlessly over the coming months: You can’t turn back. You can’t turn back. You have to keep moving forward.
On D-Day, Walling focused on a landmark he’d seen from the landing craft: the red roof of a house in the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. It was a fixed point in the deadly chaos around him.
Walling survived D Day — and the Battle of the Bulge — and was on leave back in Rhode Island when he learned the war in Europe was over.
“He was in the Irish American club in Newport,” Melissa said. “There was cheering and drinking. He just got up and walked back home. He didn’t feel like celebrating.”
And he didn’t feel much like talking about his experiences, something not uncommon among members of the Greatest Generation. “I think what had happened with him was he moved back and just wanted to move on with life,” Melissa said.
He went to Brown University on the GI Bill, got married, settled down, moved to Middletown, R.I., worked as an engineer, had kids, retired. Then his granddaughter asked him to tell her about the trunk in the basement. They decided they would write a book together about the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion. They visited a military museum in Massachusetts, where he showed her how a mortar worked.
They planned to go to Normandy together but never did. Pa had a stroke and died in December 2010. He was 85. The last item that Melissa pulled from the trunk was a piece of green parachute fabric her grandfather had picked up in Europe.
“It was really sad,” she said of coming to the end without her Pa. But how much sadder it would have been had they never talked about the trunk.
Two years ago, Melissa went to Normandy, where the French still cherish the GIs. She walked to the beach, turned away from the water and saw the house with the red roof. She visited the graves of members of the 87th who never returned.
Melissa has finished the book. On Friday, she’ll go to the National World War II Memorial in Washington. She’ll remember her grandfather and all the other young soldiers who waded ashore in France 70 years ago.
“I always would say: ‘Pa, you were part of D-Day. That’s amazing,’ ” Melissa said. “He said the way he thought about it, every day in the war is important, not just the day when you’re landing. Every day you’re lucky to be alive. Every day you’re one more day closer to home.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.