Story last updated at 2:11 p.m. Thursday, May 30, 2002

D-Day veteran honored
by R.J. Kelly
Managing Editor

photo: news
  Photo by R. J. Kelly, Homer News
Seated in his Homer living room, Lenard Reel recalls te D-Day invasion on the coast of France on June 6, 1944.  
Lenard Reel doesn't like to think much about that horrific day 58 years ago when he plunged into the D-Day surf off Normandy and into the lead rain of Nazi bullets.

Unlike hundreds of his fellow infantrymen in that first wave of the June 6, 1944, invasion, the Homer resident made it to shore alive and began battling his way inland through hedgerow fields and German machine gunners.

"After all these years you'd think it would all fade away in your mind, but it don't," the former Army sergeant with the 146th Combat Engineers recalled last week. "You can see your friends killed right in front of you."

They were soldiers like his squad's medic, who jumped from the landing barge into the chest-high water with his first-aid gear and "lost half his head" from shrapnel.

A grateful France remembers too.

Reel was among seven Alaskans honored in Anchorage Memorial Day ceremonies Monday when Sen. Ted Stevens presented them with the Normandy Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty. On the same day, President Bush was walking through the nearly 10,000 white crosses marking American graves in Normandy after memorial ceremonies there.

Over the past several years, the government of France and the governor of Normandy have been seeking out the dwindling number of American survivors of the Normandy battles to thank them for their efforts in liberating France from the German occupation.

Similar ceremonies to bestow the specially minted medal and certificate have been held in several states, but this is believed to be the first time in Alaska, according to Stevens' spokesman Wayne Maloney.

At 79 and in ill health, Reel said he was initially relunctant to travel to Anchorage for the ceremonies, but agreed at the urging of Jim Dress, commander of Anchor Point Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10221.

"The VFW thought it would be pretty nice and they wanted to apply for it," Reel said. At first, "I didn't really want to. It's political and I don't have no love for politics." Nevertheless, Maloney said Stevens' staff helped arrange paid transportation but "at no federal expense" to fly Reel and his wife, Shirley, to the Anchorage ceremonies.

Like many combat veterans, the visions of D-Day must sometimes be drawn out, but often-disturbing memories emerge clearly from the fog of war.

Despite the deadly German fire from the bluffs between Omaha and Utah beaches, the memory Reel said still troubles him the most came a few miles inland. He said he was forced to shoot a French farm woman he said was a threat to other troops. His squad believed she tried to poison them in apparent retribution for the damage the invasion's bombardment caused area homes.

"That was the worst thing," he said.

In the irony of war, he also recalls the wild gratitude of Parisians when he later marched into the capital with liberating Allied forces.

Wounded slightly in the knee by shrapnel a few days after D-Day, Reel said he spent about two weeks recovering in England before being sent back to the front for the remainder of the war -- a time he said included service in the historic Battle of the Bulge.

There are funny memories too.

Reel's eyes twinkled as he told how his buddies Jim Wolf and Howard Taft split up to nervously check the interior of a house for booby traps.

"I was working on a door when a cuckoo clock above the fireplace behind me cuckooed," he said. Armed with a high-volumn Browning automatic rifle, Reel said he whirled around and "filled it full of lead" with the BAR before he realized what was happening.

Wolf "was my closest friend in the service," Reel said, "but you didn't develop too many friends 'cause as soon as you did, they'd get killed."

In a twist of fate, Reel said he and Wolf made it through the war relatively unscathed, but Wolf was killed in a car crash a few months after he got out of the Army in 1945.

In the years since, Idaho-born Reel bounced around the Northwest for awhile as a mechanic and welder before settling in Homer in 1987.

A veteran of six previous marriages, as well as war, Reel married Shirley last July Fourth aboard a boat in Tutka Bay. As she worked on her computer in the background, the former Sacramento resident said they met online while doing geneology research.

Eventually, they met in California and she came back with him to Homer.

Also among those honored during Stevens' ceremony was Kenai Peninsula residents Clayton Helgeson, 78, of Soldotna, who was was a technician 4th grade in the Army's 736th Tank Battalion, and Daniel Furlong, 79, of Kenai, a sergeant with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Both are members of the VFW in Kenai.