Kennedy: D-Day veterans find kinship after 74 years

Kennedy: D-Day veterans find kinship after 74 years

November 15th, 2018 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns

Russell Pickett, left, and James R. Yarbrough were in the same unit in the 29th Infantry Division of the United States Army.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Russell Pickett, left, and James R. Yarbrough, both age 93, meet for the first time after serving on D-Day, at Omaha Beach during World War II.

Russell Pickett, left, and James R. Yarbrough, both...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

James "Richard" Yarbrough, a 93-year-old retired salesman, was reading his Sunday newspaper earlier this week in Chickamauga, Georgia, when he was struck by a Page 1 photograph.

It was a portrait of World War II veteran Russell Pickett, a veteran of the Allied D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. In the photo, Pickett was holding some of his framed medals and war memorabilia, including an arm patch from the U.S. Army's 29th Infantry Division.

The patch is a distinctive mingling of blue and gray fabric that has origins in the Civil War. Soldiers who have worn it never forget.

Yarbrough, who is also an Omaha Beach survivor, knew instantly that he was looking at a comrade in arms — one of the dwindling number of survivors of one of World War II's most famous, and horrific, battles.

Estimates are that there are at most a few thousand D-Day survivors still living in the United States. More broadly, only about half a million of the 16 million Americans who served in the war are still alive. The youngest are in their early to mid-90s.

Amazingly, the two nonagenarians were born in the same year (1925), were both in the same unit (the Army's 29th Infantry Division, 116th Regiment, 1st Battalion), took basic training together, crossed the Atlantic on the same ship and stormed the beach on the same day.

Yet, they had never met.

But that changed Wednesday.

After seeing the article about Pickett in the Sunday Times Free Press, Yarbrough reached out to the newspaper to contact him.

Unlike Pickett, who has attended numerous D-Day survivor reunions and even traveled back to Normandy twice, Yarbrough said he had never, until Wednesday, spoken with another D-Day survivor after the war.

Wednesday morning, the two arranged to meet at Pickett's cottage-style house in Soddy-Daisy to remember what it was like to be teenagers in one of the most important military engagements of the 20th century.

Both were injured several times in the fighting in France, only to convalesce in England and be sent back to the front lines.

"I'm glad you are here," Yarbrough said, reaching over to clasp his right hand over Pickett's wrist.

"Yes, we can talk to one another and know what we are talking about," Pickett said.

"Amen," Yarbrough agreed.

Both veterans revealed that it took them decades to be able to talk about their war experiences. Pickett says he was in his 60s before he began to open up. For Yarbrough, the transformation was even more recent.

Their wounds were both mental and physical.

Pickett, who carried a flamethrower, injured his back during the Omaha Beach invasion and later had an arm lacerated by shrapnel. He nearly died after an earthen wall fell on top of him.

When he returned from the war, Pickett said, he spent years teetering on the edge of rage.

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

"You could snap your fingers and it would set me off," he said.

Yarbrough, who was a scout in his unit, was hit by shrapnel almost immediately after leaving an assault boat. His best friend, a fellow scout from Memphis, was killed by the same round. The shrapnel tore through Yarbrough's face and broke his nose. Later, he was injured in a shelling that gave him a concussion and did lasting damage to his memory, he said.

After the war he became a successful salesman, first selling Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs in Chattanooga and later taking to the road to sell stock and bonds across a seven-state region.

Both men say they were offered promotions during the war but turned them down because they knew it would mean deciding which men got the most deadly duties.

At the end of an hour Wednesday, the men parted with handshakes and promised to stay in touch.

"That meant a lot to me," Yarbrough said later about the meeting. " ... That was the most outstanding part of my life."

As the years go by, the so-called Greatest Generation is shrinking in size but still increasing in stature.

We will all be diminished when they are no longer among us.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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