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A Daughter Retraces Her Father’s D-Day Steps 60 Years Later on Omaha Beach

By – Donna Coulson

June 6, 2014, marked the 70th Anniversary of D-Day on Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. The Presidents of France, Germany and the USA were there.  While I didn’t join them, I did land on Fox Green on Omaha Beach on July 16, 2004, at the exact spot my father, Donald Ritchie Gurdison, did on June 6, 1944—60 years, one month and 10 days later. He was in the 5th Engineers Special Brigade, 186th Port Company from Ft. Meade, MD via Ft. Hamilton, Brooklyn, NY, Devon and Torquay, UK. He landed with the 5th Wave at 8:30 a.m. Thanks to an historian with the educational group, Normandy Allies (www.normandyallies.org), I found the 5th Engineers monument on the beach just outside the back gates of the American Cemetery. Dad had fought his way up the beach and he and several men from his unit leveled the steeple of Notre Dame church in Colleville-sur-Mer. That was to prevent the Nazis from having an elevated view of the beach.

Donna Coulson, Leland, NC, on Omaha Beach a short distance from her father’s landing point on D-Day 1944.

Donna Coulson, Leland, NC, on Omaha Beach a short distance from
her father’s landing point on D-Day 1944.

I returned with the Normandy Allies in 2007 and 2009.  The late Jean Claude Joussard of nearby Grand Campe took my husband Johnny and I to the Notre Dame church where I recognized the baptismal font, the confessional booth and the graves my Dad photographed in 1944. Jean Claude also drove us up the draw that the 5th Engineers trudged up on June 6, 1944. Then, in 2009, the Mayor of Colleville sur mer invited the Normandy Allies students, vets, adults and faculty to a reception—about 20 yards from the Notre Dame church.

I also went to Ghent, Belgium, in 2008 where my father was stationed on the waterfront from December 1944 to mid-1945. He had a citation from the Mayor of Ghent for his service. I bought a framed copy of that to present to the Mayor.  I was greeted by his Chief of Protocol, his Admin and a WWII veteran who guessed I might be related to Eugene Coulson, one of the liberators of Belgium.

There are now many books written by WWII veterans sharing their stories unleashed after the 50th Anniversary of D-Day.  These servicemen and women are in their early 90s now and have spoken to schools, colleges and assisted living facilities.  The atrocities of war with such bitter memories silenced many veterans who didn’t want to share these horrors of war.

As a member of the Executive Committee of the Center for World War II at Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, NJ, I emceed 6 WWII

PFC Donald Ritchie Gurdison, 1943 5th Engineers Special Brigade, 186th Port Co.

PFC Donald Ritchie Gurdison, 1943
5th Engineers Special Brigade, 186th Port Co.

commemorations.  I invited my Aunt Adelaide Mashmann from Islip Terrace, NY, an Army WAAC during WWII, to several. I am in awe of the stories our veterans share. I know about smuggling Jewish 7-year olds to save their lives in the Warsaw Ghetto. I heard an account of The Night of Glass—

Kristallnacht–November 9th when the Holocaust began and the stores of Jewish merchants were destroyed.

I researched and published stories of Women in the French Underground and know many died brutally by a firing squad at prison camps. They were spies, blowing up railroads or guiding British flyers through the woods on the “Comet Project,” or saving the art of Paris from ruin.

Through Normandy Allies, I met survivors of The Occupation – which is what the French call the 1938-1944 period before the D-Day landings. They were just children then and will never forget. I appreciate the sacrifices and the horrors soldiers saw. Now I know why my father hated beaches and never enjoyed our beach bungalow at the Jersey Shore.

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