The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke held a ceremony on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, honoring four veterans living at the facility who survived the largest seaborne assault in the history of the world.
More than 200 people attended the ceremony, which remembered the sacrifices of all World War II veterans and specifically highlighted the contributions of four D-Day veterans: Normand Drapeau, Joe Lenarcen, Francis Schoenrock and Harry Lonczak.
Drapeau, who was born in Holyoke, joined the Navy when he was 17. Just one year after enlisting, he was piloting a Landing Craft Mechanized boat during the invasion, transporting soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division to Omaha Beach. The ceremony was an emotional event for him, remembering where he was 70 years ago.
The carnage on Omaha Beach was horrific with more than 2,000 American casualties that day. The scene was terrible, the dead covered the beach and the ocean ran red with blood, said Drapeau, who was shielded by a camera attached to the LCM from machine gun fire during the approach to the beach.
“The sight was unbelievable that day,” he said. “Unbelievable. Every kind of wound or injury you could think of, we saw. We took a lot of casualties that day.”
He was wounded twice during the D-Day landings and received two Purple Hearts.
Joe Lenarcen of South Hadley landed on Omaha Beach at age 18. He was a signal man on a Navy LST, and it was his first mission. Only half of his unit survived. Lenarcen and his wife, Mary, returned to Normandy 30 years later.
Francis Schoenrock of Westfield was an Army soldier who provided gasoline for the tanks led by General George S. Patton, and he also drove paratroopers on D-Day. He chooses to remember those that didn’t return home.
“There are just a lot of guys that you’ll never see again you know – they’re gone,” said Schoenrock. “They’re now up on that hill (the Normandy American Military Cemetery and Memorial in France). They were just young kids; they never had a chance to live, just out of high school, you know. I think about them every day.”
Harry Lonczak of Chicopee received a Purple Heart. He is only one of six sailors remaining from his unit today.
The three Navy veterans were given official U.S. Navy hats with World War II service pin and a U.S. Navy service pin with their name and D-Day veteran inscribed.
Schoenrock, who served in the Army, received a new World War II Veteran hat after the ceremony with his unit’s famous “Red Ball Express” name inscribed. The Red Ball Express was the truck convoy system that resupplied Army combat units.
A toast with French champagne was made to the veterans to honor their difficult days, and the French Heritage Center in Chicopee was honored for its special contributions in keeping the memory of D-Day alive. The ceremony included a display from the center of photographs and historical information documenting D-Day.
The veterans listened in silence, many with their heads bowed, to a recording of President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous national prayer, read night before the invasion.
Bagpipe and drums performed by two Army veterans to honor the memory of all service members who died in the invasion was followed by a prayer by Brother Frank Grimaldi, the Home’s chaplain. The ceremony ended with a bottle of French champagne uncorked to toast the four Normandy veterans and thank them for their service to the country.
The ceremony was a day to remember the sacrifices made on the beaches of France and to thank the veterans at the Soldiers’ Home.
“They know that their sacrifice has meaning and the freedoms we hold dear in our nation are because of what they fought for on this day,” said John Paradis, the communications director at the Soldiers’ Home.
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