Looking back: 61 years later, Pvt. Hatcher's last day
Private Kenneth Hatcher was killed in action in Normandy, France. He was one of 7,920 casualties of the 83rd infantry division during July of 1944. Private Hatcher was buried in Coleville Cemetery at Omaha Beach along with 10,000 of his brothers in arms.
That is all his six-month-old son, William, knew about his father until now, 61 years later.
I was Googling at work one Friday afternoon and noticed a link that contained my own father's name. So I opened it, a website for his division, the 83rd infantry.
I found myself mesmerized by the short personal paragraphs written by sons, daughters, uncles, cousins, brothers, and grandchildren seeking information about their loved ones, some gone 60 long years, others just recently deceased or now in failing health.
As I read, I felt a gathering lump in my throat. The longings, sadness, and flickering hopes of all these people seeking some shred of information were compelling. The more I read, the more the voices seemed childlike:
"Papa was killed in December..."
"Uncle Bill never came home, he was with the 330th..."
" My brother, Bob, was lost in August 1944, and does anybody remember...."
Who would think that cyberspace could become such a simple, yet eloquent, platform for the expression of love, hope, and remembrance?
I stopped reading at a message written by Bill Hatcher seeking information about his father, a member of Company A, 331st regiment. Private Hatcher had been killed in action on July 26, 1944. Company A was my father's company, and my dad had been seriously wounded on July 28. I knew there had to be a connection.
I am a fortunate son. My father survived the war and came home to sire me, and my five brothers and sisters. I grew up getting to do with him all the things a father and son should– baseball, hunting, and fishing, which meant we had a lot of time to talk. And talk we did.
But I am perhaps more blessed by having a mother who insisted that my father sit down years ago and write down his recollections. Dad can now no longer remember, but I have his words, and in that collection I found Private Kenneth Hatcher. There wasn't a lot, but it was about the last two days of his life. This is most of what I sent to Private Hatcher's son:
Private Kenneth Hatcher arrived at the front on July 24. He was a replacement, as most soldiers were by then. The company was located at a place called Village des Saints, a small hamlet, still there today. They were the front line. Troops of the German 6th parachute regiment were 200 yards to the front.
My dad was a 2nd lieutenant in Company A and had your father's name in his diary as coming up that night with one other man. He moved Private Hatcher to the 2nd platoon commanded by Lt. Shannon. On the night of July 25, operation Cobra commenced, which was to be the beginning of the breakthrough at St. Lo. Company A was one of the first units to attack on the morning of the 26th attempting to push the Germans across the Taute River to the St. Lo-Perrier highway.
My father gave the command to fix bayonets, an order that always haunted him, and Company A went over the top in a frontal assault not much different from a Civil War battle almost 100 years earlier. Except this foe had machine guns and mortars.
The Germans had reinforced their line overnight, and the 331st encountered at least 10 machine guns as they charged across the open field. The attack faltered with many casualties, and yet they were ordered to do it again. My father always became emotionally overwhelmed when he recounted this day because every man went forward, not once but twice, and most were killed or wounded. The company made it within 40 yards of the German line but was essentially destroyed.
That evening, the Germans counterattacked with tanks and infantry, cutting off Company A. American artillery was called into Company A's area to deny the enemy the ground, killing and wounding a number of men. Capt. Reiger was seriously wounded, as was Lt. Westfall, making my father acting company commander. That night the company had run low on ammunition and water, so my father took some of the surviving men, now about 30, to go out into no man's land to retrieve canteens and ammunition from the dead.
He specifically remembers lying, for part of the night, next to a soldier. Upon retrieving and drinking from the man's canteen he noticed a stenciled name, Private Kenneth Hatcher. Dad wrote that Private Hatcher looked to be sleeping and had a serene and peaceful expression on his face.
This is all I have. My father was wounded two days later by a land mine that killed his good friend Lt. Shannon. He was released from the hospital in 1946 almost two years after being hit.
Just know that Kenneth Hatcher was a hero who died in a frontal assault that few men ever experienced and survived. My father always remembered the men and cared for them greatly. He told me that he had said a prayer for your father every night since that day. I talked with him tonight, and even with Alzheimer's, when asked directly, he remembers the war and he remembered lying next to your father that night.
Memorial day will soon be upon us, and every year we take a brief moment to reflect on the sacrifices of our soldiers. The monuments will be wreathed and flags placed upon each veteran's grave. There will be speeches and editorials as there should be. I found a place where the memorial is organic, a place where remembrance is in the voices and hearts of children who have never forgotten.
After all this, it became apparent to me that I would not have had this opportunity to offer some insight into another person's life if my father hadn't written down his memoirs. So, on this Memorial Day, I ask all veterans, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Beirut, Panama, Grenada, Bosnia, Somalia, the Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan, to help us remember. It is one last duty that may, 50 years from now, allow another child to come to know his or her father, brother, uncle, aunt, or grandparent. That last duty– write it down.
PHOTO COURTESY HATCHER FAMILY