75 years since world marked ‘longest day’

MORGANTOWN. W.Va. — As bullets snapped the air and worried soldiers darted their eyes this way and that, one sergeant sighed, shouldered his weapon and answered his own order.

Halfway across the world, on the home front, a young woman in a defense plant set her expression, and went back to her wrestling match with a rivet gun.

Another soldier tried not to look at the dead bodies bobbing in the surf as he fixed his bayonet for a grim, scary detail — remembering a milestone in the process.

Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Longest Day.

By now, the events of June 6, 1944, and immediately after have morphed from grainy newsreel footage, to Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, to a kind of sepia-toned tape loop of composite memory.

In the 21st century, that fading memory is made all the more poignant as more and more members of the Greatest Generation are dying every day of old age.

But the above memories of Harrison Summers, Helen Shope and Foster Feathers — all north-central West Virginia residents whose lives were forever informed by D-Day — remained as sharp and pronounced as the ambient drop of the needle on a Glenn Miller record in the PX jukebox.

All three have since passed on, and The Dominion Post is honoring their service with capsule accounts of their duties on D-Day and in World War II.

‘It was all kind of crazy’

Harrison Summers was away from the bloody tumult of the Normandy beaches, but it wasn’t any easier. The affable sergeant with the 101st Airborne had parachuted in to the French countryside as a second arm to the invasion.

He and others were pinned down by heavy fire when an officer ordered an attack on a row of French farmhouses serving as German artillery barracks.

A patrol of 15 was assembled, but the men didn’t know Summers and weren’t enthusiastic about following a stranger into battle.

So Summers went alone. For about five hours on that bullet-riddled day 75 years ago, he became a one-man army. Four of the enemy killed in one rush. Six more, in another.

According to the account by famed historian, Stephen Ambrose, Summers was perplexed as the soldiers he was supposed to be commanding hung back.

“They don’t seem to want to fight and I can’t make them. So I’ve got to finish it.”
A captain agreed to help, but in the literal second after he said it, he was shot dead by a German sniper.

Meanwhile, some 15 more German soldiers fell in another solo onslaught by Summers.

When it was done he was credited with single-handedly killing 31. He earned a battlefield commission to lieutenant and was recognized with a Distinguished Service Cross — but they lost the paperwork nominating him for a Medal of Honor.

In the Normandy countryside a soldier asked a visibly shaken Summers if he was OK.

“It was all kind of crazy,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll never do that again.”
Back home in Rivesville, Marion County, a lot of people didn’t know the coal miner had even worn the uniform for his country until his death in 1983. He was 65 and lost a battle with lung cancer. His gravestone makes no mention of his military service.

‘Oh, boy, those skyhooks’

D-Day was Helen Shope’s first day on the job at the Glen L. Martin factory in Baltimore.

The plant cranked out bombers and seaplanes, and Shope, who was 21 and fresh off the bus from Booth, Monongalia County, was a Rosie the Riveter.

Her first task? She was dispatched for an order of “skyhooks” — the Martin equivalent of a snipe hunt.

“Oh, boy, those skyhooks,” she said, chuckling. “They always sent the new girls looking for the skyhooks. That was your initiation. I said, ‘OK, you got me.’ ”

She was two weeks into the job when she got the best of the rivet gun. Before, it outmuscled her.

Shope deftly used her slim, diminutive frame to shimmy into the recesses of those planes for critical “blind” rivets — so named because she couldn’t actually see what she was doing.

“We were fighting the war, too,” the Morgantown woman said of her Rosie-tenure. “I guess I know what’s going in my obituary.”
She was right. She died three years ago at the age of 93 and her wartime service to her country received prominent attention in the funeral home write-up.

‘I’m no better than anyone else’

Foster Feathers gave an audible groan when the captain sounded the “Check your bayonets” order.

So did every other member of the 359th Engineers. The company was churning to Omaha Beach on June 8, 1944: D-Day, Plus Two.

“I didn’t want to hear that,” the Westover man said. “That meant the Germans had the beach booby-trapped.”

The company used its bayonets to look for mines. A metallic clink under a layer of sand meant you found your deadly treasure.

After the invasion came the infrastructure. The 359th built the roads, airstrips and bridges that followed, often doing their work with bullets snapping past their heads. That’s what getting shot at sounded like: A “snap” of air.

Technically, Feathers didn’t have to be there. He worked at the former DuPont chemical plant in Westover, which was integral to the war effort.

He was a good employee and his boss wanted to get him a deferment, but Feathers politely said no.

“I’m no better than anyone else,” was the reasoning of the soldier who was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.

Meanwhile, there were still bodies in the water and sands of Omaha Beach when he landed on June 8, 1944. He willed himself to not glance over as he set about his work. About midday, he remembered something.

“I realized it was my birthday. I hit 21 on Omaha Beach.”
Feathers was 93 when he died in 2016.

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