A lifetime since D-Day: Veteran, 101, reflects on Normandy landings

Flint Mccolgan
Boston Herald

BOSTON — The 11 months Cornelius Francis “Fran” Healy spent in active duty “between D-Day and V-Day” in World War II is something the 101-year-old couldn’t talk about until he was 80 years old.

“I got a ride back to North Cambridge and walked down Massachusetts Avenue to my house. Walked in, there was no one there. It was the middle of the day. Felt very strange,” Healy told the Herald recently from his apartment at a senior living community.

It was August 1945 following the end of the war when he and fellow American GIs got onto a boat near Antwerp, Belgium, to return to U.S. soil. He landed first in Fort Dix, New Jersey, before shuttling up to Fort Devens, where he stayed for a week before discharge.

“It was very difficult. At the end of the war. I- I had trouble, a lot of trouble. My family didn’t understand me. I didn’t understand them. I was a different person completely,” he said.

Both the violence and the camaraderie of the war are still fresh in Healy’s mind more than 77 years since the fighting in Europe stopped on V-Day, May 8, 1945 — a whole lifetime in which Healy went on to marry Margaret “Peggy” Cummings on Patriot’s Day 1949, have a career in the state engineering department and raise three sons.

“He’s down there singing. So, he’s definitely ready for you,” said Kat McCluer, an activities assistant, as she led a reporter to Healy’s apartment. He was singing, “I’ll be Seeing You,” which charted in 1944 in renditions by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.

Telling his story: Healy doesn’t suppress memories of war anymore. His Bronze Star is in a case on a small table near the entry to his apartment, as are his six service medals and a small glass rectangle depicting the Normandy beaches on the French coast — lined with sand from the sprawling expanse that he and his allied brothers stormed on the 6th of June, 1944.

Healy wants first to tell the story of Exercise Tiger, a training operation on the other side of the English Channel in South Devon, England, that he feels too many have either forgotten or have never heard of.

“They picked out a beach called Slapton Sands, which was supposed to be similar to the beach that we were going to land on, on D-Day,” he said, adding that an earlier practice landing in March was “just a walk-through, but this one in April was very realistic.”

“As we were going into shore, they were firing rockets right over your head. And I kept saying, I hope they stop before we hit the shore,” he said. “And they did in our area, which was perfect. But down the line a little bit, they didn’t, and they killed 200 soldiers, the rockets.”

Many histories state 700 men died that day, including an official U.S. Navy account, which factors both the friendly fire and German torpedo attacks by the Nazis who had learned of the exercise.

“D-Day, troops were going in and it was kind of a disaster because the Germans had two big bunkers set up, looking down on the landing area,” Healy said. “I don’t know how they were not knocked out, but (they) … kept our troops pinned down.”

He remembered that a U.S. sergeant with a machine gun unit “charged up and knocked out one of the concrete bunkers, which freed up the men to get up off the shore to get inland,” earning a Distinguished Service Cross.

That took them to a sea of hedgerows, those thick piles built up on the edge of farmer property, which gave soldiers some protection from the Germans, but the enemy was digging in on the other side. Healy, as a corporal, led a squad inland. The “whole 20 miles to Saint-Lo was hedgerows. It was very slow going,” he said.

Saint-Lo was “flattened by the time we got there” from nightly German bombings, he said.

Brushes with death: Healy keeps a small notepad next to the couch in his apartment with a list of the “five or six times” he could have died. He shared some, like dragging a heavily bleeding soldier to medics across a field, or the time a German fighter strafed a road and Healy hit the gravel hard, breaking his skin.

He once hid in a deep foxhole under German shelling and lost his rosary. He keeps a new rosary, silver and black, in his right pocket today and prays on it most days, because he feels “like the Blessed Mother listens to me and protects me.”

He saw his first dogfight in the war featuring a plane that “doesn’t have any propellers on it”: a German Messerschmitt Me 262, an early jet.

He also served in the Battle of the Bulge, where “the weather was terrible, was overcast with low-hanging clouds. No planes in the sky,” which was perfect for the German troops on the ground. The battle ended with heavy casualties on both sides.

Taking up space alongside his war mementos are things that put a smile on his face, like the photo of him as a 22-year-old soldier alongside a recent photo of him framed with the signatures of all of the other residents of the Gables, which was presented to him for his 100th birthday on Feb. 20, 2021.

Books on politics and history line his shelves, and he recalls a close friendship with former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Healy uses a walker but is diligent about exercising regularly.

This man who saw so much that he couldn’t talk about it for nearly 60 years is easy to laugh and find common ground in conversation but sees a negative trend that doesn’t appreciate what life now has to offer, especially in politics.

“Terrible today. Terrible. I don’t understand the hatred and the viciousness,” he said. “Why are people so angry? I think it’s the best country in the world and they’re abusing it.”