On July 31, two days before he died, World War II veteran and D-Day survivor Russell LeeRoy Pickett gathered his family at his bedside. One by one, he asked them if they were strong in their Christian faith.
When he got a "yes" from everyone, he beamed, "God is good, isn't he?"
Family members say Pickett's religious faith sprung in part from being spared from death when he was a teenage soldier in World War II.
Pickett died on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 2, at his home in Soddy-Daisy from complications due to heart disease. The former television repair store operator was 95 years old. By all accounts, he led a quiet life until last summer when he briefly gained international media attention.
Pickett was said to be the last surviving member of his company in the U.S. Army's famed 29th Infantry Division, which stormed the beaches in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
In June 2019, at a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial marking the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion, President Donald Trump singled out Pickett for his valor — he was injured three times in battle — and even interrupted a scripted speech to walk over and give the Hamilton County man a hug. Meanwhile, France's President Emmanuel Macron helped Pickett to his feet to receive Trump's embrace.
"He [Pickett] said [afterward] he was very surprised," said Pickett's granddaughter Sherry Price, a Chattanooga graphic designer. "But he said many times, 'I don't deserve any more recognition than anyone else."'
All this attention — including the president of the United States calling him a "tough guy" — prompted Pickett to later tease his wife, Marilyn: "Things are going to be different when I get home."
Pickett embraced his religious beliefs after the war and didn't talk much about his wartime experience until his middle-age years, members of his family said.
"I was married [and had] both of my children before I knew any of the [war] story," said Janet Spence, Pickett's daughter, who noted that he opened up about his combat experiences in the 1980s while receiving counseling for post traumatic stress disorder traced to his wartime experiences.
On D-Day, the then-19-year-old Pickett was huddled in the back of an assault boat waiting to land on Normandy beach. He was armed with a flame-thrower, and his job was to take out a German pillbox, a fortified gun-house overlooking the beach.
Before he could disembark, the boat was hit by an explosion. Pickett's back was injured in the blast and he couldn't walk, but he watched the fighting unfold.
"I would see too much," he said in an interview decades later. "Way too much."
He was later evacuated to a hospital in England but returned to the fighting a week later and fought to liberate the city of Saint-Lo, where he was injured by shrapnel from a grenade. Later, at the French port of Brest, a foxhole collapsed on top of him. He nearly died of his accumulated injuries and was eventually sent home to the United States.
A memorial service a few days after his death at the East Daisy Church of God included a live video stream that was watched by people across the United States and in several other countries.
As the number of D-Day survivors quickly dwindles, the few remaining have received almost reverential treatment. Pickett's last trip to Normandy was his third. He was among scores of D-Day fighters there last year assembled by the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on helping veterans.
He almost didn't go, due to his failing health, but reconsidered at the last minute.
"Dad made up his own mind," said Spence. "He said, 'I'm going.'"
Family members say though many have recognized his wartime contribution, they will remember Pickett more for his virtues as a devout Christian and family man.
"He was a soft-spoken but wise man," said Price.
"He loved his children and he had a great sense of humor," said Spence.
With family members surrounding him in the days before his death, he announced, "I believe I am ready to go."
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.