Seventy-five years after Allied infantry landed on the coast of Normandy to liberate Nazi-occupied France, most of the troops who first stormed those beaches have died. But those still alive, and their families, are preserving the stories of the veterans who fought — and the lasting traumas that fighting left them with.
“It’s extremely significant because we knew all about the enemy, what they were like and the terrible things they had done and were doing,” said retired Longview doctor Donald Fuesler, an army veteran who fought in the Normandy invasion during World War II. “And we knew they had to be defeated.”
Fuesler, now 95, arrived at the beaches of Normandy in September 1944, three months after the initial D-Day invasion. But even after the battlefront had moved on, the beaches still were littered with German mines.
Fuesler and about 40 other men were unloaded too early from their landing craft at Omaha Beach, plunging them into 12 to 15 feet of ice-cold water. Fuesler was then only 5-feet, 6-inches and 112 pounds. He and about half of the other men were skinny enough to free themselves from their heavy equipment and swim ashore.
His daughter Margretchen Fuesler, who also lives in Longview, said she’s bonded with her father over a shared interest in his experiences fighting in World War II. She wasn’t taught much about the war in school, she said, but she’s gotten the chance to travel to the places where her father fought. And she wants more people to be aware of the history of the war.
“My experience has been that there are a lot of people trying to keep it going forward,” Margretchen Fuesler said. “In Europe, they do something every year. ... It’s not in our backyard, (but) I think it’s important to keep it alive. There’s not too many of these people left.”
Fuesler returned to Normandy in 2014 for a ceremony and parade on the 70th anniversary of his successful landing on the beach in northern France.
He is one of two surviving members of his platoon. Fuesler and that other member, Vincent Demartino of New York, occasionally keep in touch, he said.
“I feel very fortunate that I had a father that talked about it,” Margretchen Fuesler said. “They either talk about it or they don’t. ... I know a lot more than I ever would have.”
Her father agreed, and said those conversations have been a source of relief for himself. Fuesler has dedicated much of his life to recording and sharing his experiences in war and has written an autobiography.
“It was very important for me ... to let other people know what was done at that time,” he said.
And those conversations have led to relationships the Fueslers couldn’t have predicted. During the war, Donald Fuesler’s troop liberated a man from a Nazi holding camp who was scheduled to be sent the next day to the Auschwitz concentration camp. That man’s granddaughter would go on to meet Margretchen Fuesler, and the two women have become good friends who travel together.
The Allied invasion “was worthwhile and an important event to the world that we have now, which would have been much different had we not invaded and defeated the Nazis,” the retired doctor said.
Almost nothing has been off limits in the father-daughter conversations, aside from a story about one of his friends in the foxholes. It’s an unpleasant story that Margretchen Fuesler said would be too painful to share, and one that her father waited to tell her until that friend died years after the war.
Her father still has nightmares, she said, a legacy of the trauma and misery inflicted by war. And he comes from a generation that generally avoided talking about depression or mental illness in favor of stoicism, she said. Years ago, she received a package from her aunt containing all of the letters her dad wrote while he was overseas.
“And everything was swell,” she said. “He was always having a great time, and everything was swell. So they had no idea what he was really going through.”
Ultimately, it was better to withhold the truth from those letters, Fuesler said.
“In this day and age, they do something about it,” Fuesler said. “But back then, they (didn’t). ... They went over there, they did their job, they came home, it was done. That’s how they word it.”