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Chasing demons: 75 years on, D-Day haunts, drives its vets

OMAHA BEACH, France

They are back, some for the first time since war stole their innocence 75 years ago on Normandy’s D-Day beaches.

They are back on battlefields where the World War II veterans saw friends killed, took lives themselves, were scarred physically and mentally and helped change the course of history.

Given the painful memories, given their unfamiliarity with the country they liberated, given the difficulty of traveling abroad, why are Americans and veterans from other Allied nations in their 90s coming back for this week’s anniversary of the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy?

For many, returning is a duty, a way to honor fallen comrades and fulfill promises they made as young men never to forget each other. Some buried their memories for decades but feel a compulsion to face their demons before going to their graves. Many fear the world is forgetting and want young people to hear their stories one last time.

The inevitability of all veterans of the 1939-45 war being gone soon is acting as a clarion call. From across the globe, people are converging on Normandy to follow in the footsteps of—perhaps even rub shoulders with—the remaining men and women who made a military success of D-Day.

Here, in their own words, veterans explain why they’re back for this week’s anniversary.

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Jerry Deitch thinks he’ll be able to keep his nerves in check but isn’t sure. The survivor of Utah Beach, one of the five D-Day beaches, had always refused to go back to Normandy.

“I said, ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can handle it. I’ll get too emotional,’” he says.

Now 93 years old, Deitch decided he must see where good friends died and revisit the spot by a seawall where he was hit by a piece of shrapnel that left a fist-sized dent in his helmet.

Deitch, who is from Nevada, was 18 years old when he landed and said “after the first day I felt like I was 30. I went in a little boy and came out a man. You grow up fast.”

Serving in a U.S. combat demolition unit, his job was to clear obstacles and blow up strong points that could slow the Allied advance inland. The shrapnel that dented Deitch’s helmet gave him a concussion; he was evacuated back to England.

“I know exactly where I was when I was hit. Exactly the spot. I see it in my mind all the time,” he said.

Long unable to speak to his family about his experiences, he recently started writing down his recollections so they’ll know what he went through when he’s gone.

“I did a few chapters just before I came here,” Deitch says.

“It changed my life, yeah,” he said of D-Day. “It taught me to be very tolerant. God gives us free will; you’ve got to use it.”

Having long kept his war to himself, Deitch thanks people for listening to his recollections now.

“I feel better when I speak about it,” he said. “If you have demons, face them.”

His wife, Selma, felt the trip would be too arduous and stayed home. They have been married 71 years.

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Russell Pickett, 94, has made several return visits to Normandy. He says coming back helps him cope with the horrors he has lived with since he was a 19-year-old in the first wave of American troops aiming for Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the D-Day landing zones.

The former private in the 29th Infantry Division was immediately injured and he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“For a long time, I really didn’t want to come back, and I kind of dreaded it,” he said. “I can’t say that I really enjoy the whole thing, you know? When I head back on the beach and all that kind of stuff, sometimes it does things to you. But like this, you can see kind of what we was fighting for and, you know, that makes a little difference.”

With a flamethrower strapped to his back, Pickett was wounded when an explosion tore at the landing craft transporting him onto a beach which was sprayed by German machine-gun and artillery fire.

He blacked out and woke up on the water’s edge, next to a dead body and unable to move his legs. Plucked out of the water by another landing craft, he was hospitalized in England and then returned to Normandy, where he fought in the dense hedgerows that slowed the Allied advance and was injured again.

Pickett says he long tried to deal alone with his trauma before finally seeking medical help.

“I’ve got it now where I can handle it pretty well because you live the war almost every night, you see? And you don’t get rid of it, no matter what you do,” he says. “I would love to forget it, totally forget it, but no way, especially when you go through a battle like D-Day.”

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The last time Leila Morrison saw Omaha Beach was when she landed on it in 1944, three months after D-Day, when she came to nurse soldiers injured in combat.

“I felt as though when I stepped on that sand I was stepping on sacred grounds because so many people had given their all for it. It was just plain sand,” she recalls.

At the end of the war, she nursed survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

“I want to tell the French and the whole world how great it is that we do have our freedom, and we have so many privileges in America that other places don’t have,” Morrison says.

“Every day is a memorial day for me. I see those young fellas that didn’t make it, so many of them, and I am thankful over and over again.”

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Helen Patton, a granddaughter of famed American tank commander Gen. George S. Patton Jr., is back in Normandy for the 75th anniversary with a message that younger generations should enjoy the liberties so many soldiers fought and died for.

Presiding Monday at a game of American football played close to the landing beaches, she quoted from a poem written by her grandfather during World War I to convey the idea that part of honoring those sacrifices is relishing life:

“When I sit in my tank and wait for the hour for the great barrage to come down, I wish to god there was one more day for raising hell in town.”


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Local apartment manager adds 96 units to its Janesville portfolio

JANESVILLE

A local apartment management company that last year took over the former Cotton Mills apartments in downtown Janesville announced it has bought a 96-unit apartment complex on the east side.

The Spaulding Group announced this week it purchased the Park View Apartments at 1601 Randall Ave. that for a decade has been market-rate but historically served a senior citizen tenant base.

Justin Spaulding, president of Spaulding Group and Spaulding Equity, a private investment sister company, said he plans to rename the apartments “96 East” and pump about $50,000 into initial improvements, starting with a parking lot replacement.

Spaulding said the acquisition will broaden his company’s local holdings of market-rate apartments and offer prospective tenants slightly lower rates with different perks than he offers at the former Cotton Mills.

Spaulding said the move comes as his rebranding and renovation at the former Cotton Mills, 222 N. Franklin St., which Spaulding renamed Signature 23, has had “much faster and better success” than initially expected.

And the purchase comes as the city’s stock of market-rate rental properties remains the slimmest in years—to the point city government has been entertaining tax incentives to spur new construction of both affordable and market-rate apartments.

Spaulding plans to dress up a few common areas in the apartments to make more inviting space for tenants to meet or socialize. He said he is structuring the apartments’ $720- to $780-per-month rent to include water, sewer, electric, heat, parking and trash. That’s in addition to a cable and internet service package he said the apartments will offer at about half the going market rate.

Park View Apartments had been owned by Glen Ellyn, Illinois-based Golden Acres. The Spaulding Group reports in just a few weeks it raised investments of $1.5 million needed to buy the apartments. Spaulding said he had spill-over interest by investors. He plans soon to acquire a few hundred more apartment units in Madison and the suburban Milwaukee area.

The apartment group over the last 18 months and under the steam of local, regional and national investment, has amassed about $30 million in properties throughout southern Wisconsin, most of them apartments, Spaulding said.

Spaulding believes he has found another market sweet spot at the Park View in Janesville. He said as market forces have brought about nascent plans by other developers to develop and build new apartments, the existing complex located off Milton Avenue near shopping and dining will compete well.

He believes developers who built new apartment complexes in Janesville likely wouldn’t be able to compete on rents. He said he believes the expense of new construction likely would force market-rate apartment developers, even ones with projects subsidized by the city or state, to charge rents of $1,000 or more a month.

Spaulding expects initially six or seven tenants will move out from 96 East, but those were previously scheduled. He said otherwise, the Park View Apartments are “pretty much fully occupied.”

“It (96 East) is occupied. It’s a lot different beast. We’re going to remain competitive when people start to build (new apartments). The investors will get what they want out of it,” Spaulding said. “It (96 East) won’t be as new, but to have an option that’s $200 less, it’s a pretty safe investment option,” Spaulding said.

When Spaulding bought the former Cotton Mills he echoed similar sentiments on prices, although his company was factoring in at least $300,000 in renovations at those apartments. And, he said at the time, about a dozen of the Cotton Mills’ 47 units were vacant.

Spaulding said rents at Signature 23, now average about $840 a month without utilities included. That’s a notch higher than the $600- to $800-per-month Spaulding estimated he might charge when he took over the Cotton Mills last year.

He said new tenants tend to be professional-class workers— some who work in town and some who commute to Beloit or Rockford, Illinois.

Each set of apartments he owns—about 400 units—serves a demographic that varies based on location.

“Each property is a different beast, each location,” Spaulding said. “We put different prices out there and test it.”

Spaulding said all but about 15 tenants who lived at the Cotton Mills when he bought the apartments have moved out, but the vacancy rate there is down to 5%.

“For open apartments, we’ve been doing two, maybe three showings, and they get leased,” Spaulding said.


Obituaries and death notices for June 6, 2019

Dr. Scott N. Beatse, MD

James “Chief” Hart

Verlyn J. Molle

Nancy J. Olson

Harry R. Satness

Wallace James Schultz

Betty L. Whitney


'Always been my hero'

CLINTON

Ken Byerley could hardly quell his excitement the day his oldest brother, Robert, skimmed a B-24 over the roof of his school.

Children heard the loud rumble of the four-engine heavy bomber and crowded at windows to peer out.

“That’s my brother!” Ken shouted with so much pride.

At 17, Robert was training in the Army Air Force to be a B-24 pilot and steered over the family farm in Illinois, where he dropped a note to his family.

In those World War II days before Robert shipped off to England, Ken already knew his big brother was a hero, even before he flew all those secret and dangerous missions.

“He’s always been my hero,” Ken of Clinton said, “ever since he went in the service.”

Ceremonies today will honor the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which has been called the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.

But months before the epic invasion along the heavily fortified coast of Normandy, Robert volunteered to join the 801st Bombardment Group, known as the Carpetbaggers.

The 8th Air Force activated the special operations group for clandestine activities against the Nazis deep in the heart of occupied Europe.

“Because it was a top-secret mission, they wouldn’t tell them what it was,” Ken said. “They only told them that a lot wouldn’t come back.”

Ken explained that his brother flew at night from a secret base near Harrington, England, in modified B-24 bombers equipped with special radio and navigation equipment and all the armor-plating removed.

Prior to D-Day, the Carpetbaggers carried supplies to French partisan groups north of the Loire River to support the upcoming invasion.

“The French underground had an organization against the Nazis,” Ken explained. “Robert often flew in at treetop level. The French underground launched flares or built fires where they wanted the pilots to drop the supplies.”

The B-24 Liberators were painted glossy black, the best color for evading searchlights and German anti-aircraft artillery.

In addition, the ball turret was removed from the bellies of the planes to make room to carry supplies and parachutists, known as “Joes,” to help the French organize.

Robert was never told the names of the people he carried in case the plane was shot down, and he was captured.

Most of the missions operated in weather considered too dangerous for flying.

In addition to facing German fighters and flak, pilots ran the risk of crashing into hillsides when they made low-level parachute deliveries.

Their busiest month was July 1944.

During one mission, the Americans in France began shooting at Robert because he had been instructed not to identify himself when contacted by radio. Fortunately, he made it back to England.

Robert flew one mission to rescue an American aircrew, which had been shot down and recovered by the French underground.

As Allied forces broke out of Normandy beachheads and advanced across France, the number of missions slowed in France.

In all, Ken said his brother flew 35 missions and then volunteered to train new pilots.

Robert, who earned the rank of colonel, died in 2005.

Once, his son asked him if he was afraid during the missions.

“... He told me his biggest fear was that his crew would find out he was the youngest member,” Brook Byerley said in his father’s eulogy. “He was only 19 and was already an aircraft commander.”

Ken, who was eight years younger than Robert, moved with his family to rural Clinton in 1945.

He did not learn about his brother’s jaw-dropping missions until a decade after the war.

“We knew he was in England,” Ken said. “We were all concerned about what he was doing. We figured he was a bomber. They were losing a lot of airplanes and a lot of people.”

The family prayed for Robert’s safety.

“It was wonderful that he did all this, and God kept him safe,” Ken said.

Later, Robert served in both Korea and Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force after serving 33 years. Five years and eight months were in active combat zones.

When Operation Desert Storm started, Robert complained to his son: “They had a war, and they didn’t invite me.”

Over the years, Ken told his children about their uncle.

“Dad always made us think Uncle Bob was a super hero,” said Peggy Buckler, Ken’s daughter. “All of dad’s family had a life of service. Uncle Bob lived and could have died for our freedom.”

Ken, too, was in the military. He was an airplane mechanic and a crew chief who served in Japan for three years during the Korean War.

For 20 years, Ken worked as a welder. He and his first wife, Florence, had eight children. Florence died in 1987. Later, Ken married Ruth Paynter, who brought six children to the marriage. She died in 2011.

Ken became a clown after retiring and regularly visited patients in the hospital.

Today, Ken is chaplain of VFW Post 10430 and retired chaplain of the American Legion Post 440, both of Clinton.

Many years later, Ken’s feelings about his big brother remain true and steadfast.

“He is my hero,” Ken said. “He will always be my hero.”