That day on the beach at Normandy ...
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 10, 2006 1:45 PM
Jim Marcum has carried an aging military identification in his back pocket for more than 60 years.
The laminated card -- issued Feb. 7, 1944 -- is kept hidden from view, much like the painful memories he collected on the beaches of Normandy during World War II.
He has never really talked about his experiences as a medic caring for members of the Allied forces who fell on the front lines.
In fact, until a few years ago, nobody -- including his wife, June, and son, Jimi -- had heard his war tales.
"I've just always been a quiet person," Jim said. "I just didn't talk about it."
As the son of a West Virginia coal miner, he had never entertained joining the armed forces. A more simple life suited him, he said.
But like many others, at 24, he was drafted after fighters from Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
"I remember that line that they had in the county seat where the draft board was," the 88-year-old said. "It was OK -- just a bunch of boys together. We did what we had to do. You got acquainted as you went."
The friendships he made there helped him survive boot camp in Mississippi, and at the end of basic training, he was assigned to be a medic.
And to this day, he said, he still doesn't know why.
"That was their choice," Jim said. "I don't know how they arrived at that decision to do it."
But it was done. He traveled from the United States to England for medical training before boarding a boat bound for Normandy.
"We got on that boat in England there and crossed the channel," Jim said. "We came up on a storm and got blown down the beach. That's why we weren't there on D-Day. We were two days late because of that storm."
He and his comrades in the 609th Medical Company had missed the early action on Omaha Beach. But as they neared the shores, they could see the carnage the invasion had left behind.
"We had to go over the side of the ship onto smaller boats -- landing boats," Jim said. "We waded part of the way out ... They had moved ahead just a little bit by the time we got in. We came across a little town just inside (France), St. Lo. It was just destroyed completely. They had to bulldoze a road through it, it was torn up so. But on we went from there."
They marched onward, toward the action, "wherever we were needed the most," he added.
"We were on the move, we governed our own selves," Jim said, adding his company was charged with pulling wounded Allied soldiers away from enemy fire.
"You took care of them," he said. "You were assigned to them. And we were assigned to wherever they needed us the worst."
Along the way, terrible images filled his mind -- ones he looked away from and tucked in his back pocket again and again.
"There were different things that I saw that you wouldn't feel very good about," Jim said. "Like seeing a plane going down, one of ours, the guy hanging out by his foot. You knew there was no chance for him."
To his surprise, the sights didn't bother him until years later. His Army training had turned him cold.
"When they get you through your training, you don't care much for anything," Jim said. "All through it, nothing bothered me until I got home. You just automatically did what you had to do."
But when the war ended and he returned to his small hometown in West Virginia, he couldn't shake the things he had seen.
"It was just a hard thing for me to get myself out of that condition," Jim said. "You don't get to think about anybody but yourself and that was the rough part of it. You see a person, and it didn't matter if they got shot. You paid no attention. It didn't bother you. The only thing that bothered me was that man in the plane hanging there -- couldn't do anything. He couldn't get back up."
He locked those images away for close to 60 years, his wife explained. He told his family he was in the service, but never mentioned his tour in Normandy until a few years ago, during a meeting with family friend David Howell at a Goldsboro hot-dog stand.
"David asked me if he could come out and talk to Jim," June said. "I told him, 'You could, but good luck. He's just not going to talk about those things much.' But he's come out of his shell a little bit."
To her surprise -- and to their son Jimi's -- he shared some of his stories that day.
"He started asking Dad some questions and then David was talking to me and told me, 'Wow, it was neat talking to your dad about going into Normandy,'" Jimi said. "I didn't know. I was shocked."
Shocked that he had never heard the stories, but not hurt or angry, he added.
"I knew how Dad was, I knew he was quiet, so I never got into any of that with him," Jimi said. "I figured if he wanted to talk about it, he would. It didn't bother me ... We're tempered much the same way ... When I found all those things out, it certainly made things more understandable. I understood him."
Jim said he never felt like he was hiding part of the family's history, rather, covering up those days in Normandy until someone asked.
"I would've told (Jimi), but some things you can talk about and some things you can't," he said. "But I thought about it quite a bit. You know, within myself."
And while hearing about his father's place in World War II history was unexpected, Jimi said he still sees his dad as the same man he was before his stories came out.
"I was around my parents all the time, whether it was at home, work or church and they were never any different," he said. "They were always the same. Their testimony was consistent across the board ... So I knew he couldn't have been any different back then."
Jim isn't so sure. Fighting for freedom in Europe had changed him, he said. He can feel it every time he looks at the American flag.
"When you're involved, in your own way, you appreciate (the flag) a little more than someone who hasn't been in any conflicts," he said. "Now, I know our people love their flag like I do. But over time, I learned that it's not about that flag -- it's about what it stands for. And I sure do appreciate what it means."
For the Marcum family, this Veterans Day weekend will play out much the same as others have this year. Jim doesn't need a particular day to remember.
"It comes up in your mind every once in a while," he said. "Especially when things get a little hotter over there in Iraq. You think about those things that happened and those boys fighting now. You remember."
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