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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: French say 'merci beaucoup' to a Henniker WWII veteran

Donald McCloskey, 88, of Henniker, stands with his daughter, Vicki McCloskey, of Henniker, and Fabien Fieschi, the Consulate General of France in Boston, as they look through old photographs from World War II. McCloskey was 19 years-old and in the Navy when he landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. During D-Day in Normandy, France his job was to bring soldiers to shore and help the wounded soldiers. On Thursday afternoon, October 17, 2013, he was awarded French Legion of Honor in a ceremony in the State House Executive Council Chambers.

(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Donald McCloskey, 88, of Henniker, stands with his daughter, Vicki McCloskey, of Henniker, and Fabien Fieschi, the Consulate General of France in Boston, as they look through old photographs from World War II. McCloskey was 19 years-old and in the Navy when he landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. During D-Day in Normandy, France his job was to bring soldiers to shore and help the wounded soldiers. On Thursday afternoon, October 17, 2013, he was awarded French Legion of Honor in a ceremony in the State House Executive Council Chambers. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Donald McCloskey saw history, up close and personal.

Europe, freed from Nazi occupation? Yep, he was there for the start of that.

Japan, when the once-proud empire called it quits, ending the war to end all wars? Oh, he was perhaps 500 yards away from that episode.

In on the ground floor of the nuclear age, with all its horror and destruction and ramifications for the world today? Our boy was there for that one, too.

Good luck prying information from McCloskey, an 88-year-old World War II Navy veteran, but, thanks to his daughter, Vicki McCloskey of Henniker, the French recognized him this week with their Legion of Honor award.

He was thanked for his role on D-Day in Normandy on June 6, 1944, when the Allies opened the Western Front against Germany.

Vicki contacted the French Embassy, which sent a representative here, to the State House Executive Council Chambers, to present Donald with a medal from a grateful nation.

How big was this award to this family? Big enough for Karl Artz and his wife, Donald’s niece, to drive from Ohio, 600 miles, to attend Thursday’s ceremony.

“We found out about this months ago,” Artz said. “We just knew the date and already said we would be here, and we would not miss it for anything.”

McCloskey piloted a little Higgins boat, transferring troops to Omaha Beach and bringing casualties back to the much larger Landing Ship, Tank (LST) offshore.

He saw death and dying, and only recently began talking about.

Vicki said it has something to do with mortality. “He had never talked about it until the last five years or so,” said Vicki, a child psychologist. “This was a significant thing in his life.”

Said Donald: “I don’t know why I started. I don’t talk about the worst that I saw.”

History, though, says he saw the worst the war had to offer, before even graduating from high school.

It’s crazy to think that just a short time prior to landing in France for D-Day, Donald was a kid running around the tiny borough of Cherry Tree, Pa., with his seven brothers.

They sleighed through downtown snow, shot out a store window with a BB gun, lit the coal furnace at church on Sunday mornings and sold potatoes door to door.

Donald roomed at home with his oldest brother, James, who was killed when his plane was shot down over Yugoslavia during World War II.

Donald got lucky, if you can call it that. “I was in the eighth wave (of landing craft), carting the wounded back,” he said. “The ship was turned into a hospital. We helped the soldiers and the prisoners. We brought them back to England.”

Asked how far his little boat came to the shore, where machine gun fire sprayed the beach, Donald said, “Far enough away to not get shot.”

And asked if he was scared, Donald said, “We just had to put up with it. My emotions, I was too young to think about any of that stuff.”

Later, after the Germans surrendered, Donald was moved to the Pacific Theater, where, from his small boat, he watched Gen. Douglas MacArthur accept Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri, ending World War II.

“Didn’t need binoculars,” Donald said.

Before it ended, before he could return to the States and marry, before his wife gave birth to Vicki, before he began designing special tools to build airplane engines, Donald and his fellow sailors went to Nagasaki, shortly after an atomic bomb destroyed it.

And, like with other events in his life, he saw something none of us (hopefully) ever will.

A city no more.

“There wasn’t anything there,” Donald said. “Just a big nothing. Maybe one little stone building was standing there.”

He’s since settled in Henniker, where he lives in an apartment attached to Vicki’s home. He spends winters in Florida.

“A hard-working person,” Vicki said. “Mowing and fixing things. He’s not able to do it so much anymore, but you can’t stop him from trying. He likes to solve problems and figure things out.”

Last November, Vicki took her father back to Normandy, his first visit since that awful time in that tiny boat nearly 70 years ago.

They saw the rows and rows of snow-white crosses in the nearby cemetery, the pillboxes where German machine gun fire originated, and the tall cliffs that gave the Germans an advantage that, at the time, seemed impossible to overcome.

There, they met a French woman, who called out to father and daughter as they left a museum honoring those who died on D-Day.

“She told us her grandparents walked the beach, but with the German occupation, they were forbidden,” Vicki said. “After the liberation, their idea of freedom was to walk that beach again.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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