As we approach the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion on June 6, my thoughts turn to my late uncle, Harold Ickes.
He was my mother’s older brother, and also her best friend in their childhood. Their father (my grandfather) Henry died in 1931, one of the worst years of the Great Depression. My “Grammy” Isobel Ickes was left with no breadwinner and no income to raise her three children. Fortunately, she owned the house they lived in, and was a skilled gardener, so they grew up strong on her vegetable garden and chicken house in the middle of Milesburg, Pa.
Harold and Betty (my mother) would roam the neighborhood, hiking the nearby mountain, and making their own fun. She has said many times to me, “I was closer to my brother than with my school friends, and even than my sister Caroline.” Mom was a bit of a tomboy, and she held her own with Harold and his buddies.
When World War II broke out, Harold had become a handsome young man with a special gift for mechanical things.
He bought an old jalopy that he fixed up himself. Mom said that whenever there was the smallest squeak or rattle, he would take it apart, fix it, and make it purr like a kitten again.
Through my growing years, Mom would say to me, “Your Uncle Harold was in D-Day.” When asked for details, she only knew that he worked on “roads and bridges.”
I assumed (incorrectly, it turns out) that he was not in the initial assault of the beaches, but came ashore later in the day after Normandy was firmly in Allied hands.
Just a few years ago, Mom gave me a postcard that Harold had sent to her from Paris in November 1944. She received it as a young woman, before she married my dad, and had kept it through the years as a precious personal memento. On the envelope Harold had written his unit — 37th Combat Engineering Battalion, Company B.
My curiosity piqued, I immediately launched an online search, and what I discovered was awe-inspiring.
The 37th Battalion was grouped with other engineering units to form a special 5th Special Engineering Brigade for the purposes of the invasion.
On D-Day, the 37th came ashore at Omaha Beach at 07:30, when that desperate battle was still hanging in the balance. It was the most difficult of all the objectives.
Held down by fierce enemy fire by guns on the cliff above, the rising tide shortened the tenuous Allied hold on the land with every passing minute.
Reinforcements in the sea beyond were unable to land until the bottleneck was relieved.
It was up to the Corps of Engineers to dig an exit road, relieving the bottleneck. Company B, under the leadership of Lt. Charles Peckham, opened and held the breach of what was to become the E-1 Exit road off Omaha Beach.
Of all the units of the 5th Special Brigade, the 37th Battalion took the most casualties that day. It was a miracle Harold survived at all. He was just 24 years old.
Each member of the 37th Battalion received a Croix de Guerre with Palm from a grateful French nation for its heroism at Omaha Beach. Three members of the Battalion were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Lt Peckham received a Bronze Star for Valor.
After the war, Harold came home to Pennsylvania, married his sweetheart, and raised two beautiful daughters. I remember him as a man of action, confidence and good humor.
He continued developing his talent for building and machinery, single-handedly building a home for his family in Boalsburg, Pa. The house still stands today, as solid as when he pounded in the last nail in the 1960s.
When his marriage ended, he picked up the pieces and continued working successfully, always in a positive frame of mind. He was doing fine on his own, but it was welcome news to us when he married his second wife.
Harold died before his time of a sudden stroke in 1981. I sincerely regret that I never took the time to ask him about his war years, and especially Omaha Beach. Like so many other WWII veterans, Harold never spoke to us of his personal experiences during the war.
The whole world now knows what happened on June 6, 1944.
Omaha Beach especially has reached the status of legend — it represents the highest courage against the most unlikely odds, and is forever etched into the collective memory of mankind. I am proud to learn, even though the knowledge came late, that my uncle played an important role on that world-changing day.
In Loving Memory Harold Henry Ickes Jan. 20, 1920 – Sept. 27, 1981.
Romaine Brophy moved to Arizona in 1980. She works at Payson Regional Medical Center in the laboratory. her husband, Jim Brophy, is employed by the State of Arizona DES/DDD office. For more than 10 years, she has been involved in the Library Friends of Payson, writing a monthly newsletter. Just recently, she became interested in family genealogy, and has begun researching her Mom’s family name of Ickes, an old Pennsylvania Dutch family name.