Soldiers, a movie and scrapbook memories

Published 6:00 am Friday, November 10, 2000

Editor’s Note: This column was first published in 1998. Wethought it was appropriate to reprint it today — the eve ofVeteran’s Day.

The newspaper clipping is faded and yellow and as fragile as thememories it holds.

I couldn’t find my copy, so my sister dug deep into a box ofkeepsakes to retrieve hers for me to use. It was the lead story inThe Winona Times the first week of June 1979. “Duck Hill menreminisce about D-Day” reads the headline on the feature articleabout the 35th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy.

The two soldiers are Melvin Harris Laster, who was my father,and John Max Leigh, who for years owned and operated the hardwarestore in Duck Hill.

As a corporal with the 458th Amphibious Division, Daddytransported 105 mm guns onto Omaha Beach, where the fiercestfighting took place. “Mr. Johnny” landed on Utah Beach on D-Dayplus three, or the fourth day. Both fought their last earthlybattles some years ago.

I am ashamed to admit this, but it has taken a movie to awakenmy interest in World War II and the part my father played init.

“Saving Private Ryan” is said to be to most realistic depictionof war ever. That may be true, but as gruesome and gut-wrenching asthe first 22 minutes of the movie are, it’s only a recreation –make believe. I can only imagine how horrifying it must have beenfor the soldiers, like my father, who took part in the real D-Dayassault.

Daddy and I never talked about his time in service. I supposethat war stories are not something daddies share with theirdaughters, but I don’t recall that I ever asked. Now I’m left toglean what little information I can from a scrapbook.

My sister and I couldn’t help but laugh when we read a directquote attributed to Daddy, who told the reporter he couldn’tremember much about the actual events of the D-Day invasion.

… “Men as scared as we were don’t remember too much. It wasterribly confusing during the fighting that day and the next fewdays.”…

Daddy was more the “damn confusing” than the “terriblyconfusing” type, and a little more of his true nature was shown inthe paragraph that followed.

…”Leaning forward and breaking into a grin, he chuckles andsays, ‘yep, I don’t remember much and we weren’t drinkingeither.'”…

Daddy was 21-years-old when he entered the service on Oct. 15,1942. He took training at Camp Lee, Va., and Fort Moultrie, S.C.,where he was joined by his bride of eight months, 19-year-oldFrances.

He was sent overseas in December of 1943, and in April 1, 1944,John Taylor Laster was born. My brother was 17-months-old beforeDaddy saw him for the first time. Two more sons and two daughterswould later complete the family.

The newspaper article continues …

…”But thinking back to his first day on the continent ofEurope, Laster again recalls the now far-removed horrors of thatbeach at that time.

‘I remember some boys wounded up on the cliffs begging for helpand we couldn’t get to them. There was a man who fell dead not farfrom where I was standing, and we knew there was a sniper somewherein one of the pillboxes above the beach. You just stayed in shockmost of the time, wondering if your time would be next.’

Both men say that if they could return to Europe today theywould rather see the Normandy beaches than any other spot on thecontinent.” …

How I wish you could go back there, Daddy, and how I wish Icould go with you and walk with you on Omaha Beach and listen toyour war stories.

How I wish I could tell you “I’m proud of you, Daddy, and theway you fought and the way you served your country.”

How I wish I could tell you, “thank you, Daddy, for all thesacrifices you made and all the anguish you must have endured.”

How I wish I could tell you, “Daddy, you’re my hero.”

But I can’t. I waited too late.

Some day I’ll go to France for you, Daddy. I’ll walk on thebeaches of Normandy in honor of you and Mr. Johnny Leigh and allthe soldiers who served there, in honor of all the soldiers whoshed their blood there, and in honor of all soldiers who lost theirlives there.

I promise.

Write to Nanette Laster at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven, Miss.39602, or send email to She’d love to hearfrom you.