When he was 12 years old, Rick Lester stopped at a drugstore with his father. They were on their way to a Boy Scout meeting in east Marietta. It was 1960, the year before the family moved to Warner Robins.
A man was coming out on crutches. He had one leg. Stanley Lester stopped to study his face.
The man turned. “Lester?”
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The two men embraced. Sixteen years of sand had sifted through life’s hourglass since they were on the beach at Normandy, France.
“Has your dad ever told you what he did on D-Day?” the man asked Rick.
Rick shrugged. He knew his father had been part of the largest seaborne invasion in military history. D-Day had been a pivotal victory for the Allies in World War II.
But his father -- whose Army buddies called him “Pee Wee” -- had never shared those stories from June 6, 1944.
“Your dad was a slightly built, unassuming country boy from Winterville (Georgia), but somebody flipped the switch that morning,” the man said. “I can’t explain what we saw that day. It was horrible. But the next thing I knew, your dad was running and telling us what to do. He was telling us to get off the beach. If we wanted to live, we had to get to higher ground.”
Omaha Beach was heavily defended by the Germans. The bluffs, cliffs and draws made it more difficult to advance than the other assault beaches during the invasion.
Hundreds of soldiers were gunned down in the water almost as soon as they left the large landing craft. On the beach, Lester yelled for his comrades to step on the bodies, not over them, so they would know where the land mines were. He was covered in so much blood from those he tried to help, medics thought he had been wounded.
“The next thing I know, we were on higher ground,” the man said. “I owe my life to your dad. We always said the last place you wanted to be that day was the point of Stanley Lester’s bayonet.”
Two weeks after the invasion, Stanley was awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest military honor for valor.
Rick later asked his father what the man had said about being a hero.
“We all had to do what we had to do,” Lester said.
And that’s all he would say.
‘Don’t know how I made it’
Rick graduated from Warner Robins High School in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War. When he went into the Army, his father gave him some advice.
“Son, you are going to see things in war that you are going to have a difficult time understanding and explaining,” he said. “You will have two choices. You can let them hang over you like a dark cloud or they can temper you like steel. I bonded with those guys. They were like brothers because they were willing to give their lives for me. I wish I could get in touch with some of the ones who made it, but I didn’t write anything down. Please promise me you will keep a journal. One day it will mean something to you.”
Rick followed his father’s advice. He spent 26 years in the military. He had two tours of Vietnam and was stationed in Korea and Germany as an Army aviator. He wrote down names. He logged places and experiences.
He will never forget his journal entry of June 6, 1975. He and his wife went to Colleville-sur-Mer for the 31st anniversary of D-Day. There, at the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, were white crosses marking the graves of 9,386 American soldiers who died at Normandy and a memorial to the 1,557 whose bodies were never found.
Rick arrived at 5:45 a.m. He wanted to be there at the exact time his dad had hit the beach at 6:20 a.m. People from the village were wiping the walls of the cemetery. A radical group known as the “Red Brigade” had desecrated the walls with paint.
“We started helping them clean it up, but when they realized we were Americans, they were embarrassed,” Rick said. “I told them I was honored to do it because my dad had come ashore 31 years ago that day. Then, they wouldn’t let us do anything. They treated us like royalty. They told me my father had helped liberate their country, and they would never be able to pay us back. I told them my dad had always said we wouldn’t be a country if it hadn’t been for France supporting us during the American Revolution. He believed we owed that to them, and that’s the way he felt going ashore that day.”
Rick brought back some sand from the beach. It is now part of an exhibit at the Atlanta History Museum.
In 2011, Rick’s son, Jonathan, a pilot with the Air Force Reserve, was selected to coordinate the annual D-Day event in Normandy with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Jonathan took with him a copy of his grandfather’s orders and a photograph of him receiving the Silver Star. He showed them to the curator at the museum. The next day, a restored World War II jeep picked him up and took him to meet the mayor of a nearby village, where three men were receiving the French Legion of Honor.
Jonathan was asked to stand in for his grandfather and receive it, too. But he told them he couldn’t do that. Last year, arrangements were made for Stanley to receive it during a ceremony in Atlanta. He also received a Bronze Star he was awarded, but had never gotten.
At Normandy, Jonathan reached for his cellphone and called his grandfather from the beach. From 4,300 miles across the ocean in Warner Robins, Stanley could describe what his grandson was seeing.
“I don’t know how you made it, Poppy” Jonathan said.
“I don’t know how I made it either,” Stanley said.
‘Get off the beach’
Rick once found his father’s canteen while going through some things in a barn the family owned near Athens. The canteen had been shot off his hip during D-Day. Stanley later told the story about how it was filled with sand. A bullet had gone through the top and blown out the bottom.
He sent it home with handwritten note that read, “Ha! To (sic) Close!” and wrote that he would explain later.
In recent years, Stanley faced his own invasion. Cancer marched across his body. In the end, he battled bacterial meningitis. He was in and out of hospitals and rehab centers in Macon, Warner Robins and Perry.
Rick got him a hat that read: “Silver Star. Omaha Beach. June 6, 1944.”
“He didn’t want to wear it,” Rick said. “When he did, he said people didn’t treat him like an old man. They would look at the hat and thank him for his service. He had never had anybody do that before.”
A nurse told Rick she and her husband had seen “Saving Private Ryan.” She asked Rick if his father knew Private Ryan.
“No, he didn’t,” he said. Then he laughed. “He didn’t know Tom Hanks, either.”
A doctor asked the family if Stanley had a bad experience in Florida. From his hospital bed, he was telling everyone to “get off the beach.”
“He’s not talking about Daytona,” Rick said.
On May 10, three weeks before his 90th birthday and 27 days before the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Stanley began drawing his final breaths under hospice care. Betty, his wife of 67 years, kept vigil.
Rick reached to hold his father’s hand for the last time.
“I’ve never felt like this,” Stanley said. “I don’t think I’m going to make it across this beach.”
“You’re going to make it,” his son said. “I’ll see you on higher ground.”
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