I have lived through 64 D-Days, but not until recently have come to really appreciate its significance. My father served in the Navy during World War II, and yet I could not tell you a thing about what he did and how he felt. He chose never to talk to me about it, and I never bothered even to ask him. It was not until four years after his death, that I began to regret deeply not having that conversation.
That was in 2015 when I sat down for three hours to talk to somebody else who had fought in that war, Alfonso Trujillo. He was 92 years old at the time. Sprite and splendid. I caught up with him in Helper, Utah, some 60 years since he first started teaching chemistry at Carbon College, today Utah State University Eastern. He went on to earn a master’s degree from USU in 1971 and a PhD from the University of Utah.
He was among the throng of D-Day paratroopers floating like giant schools of medusa towards a battle that ultimately killed or wounded some 425,000 allied and German troops.
He talked to me about how unspeakably terrifying it was to jump from a plane into the darkness above the shores of Normandy, France, in the midst of mortar shells. He was among the throng of D-Day paratroopers floating like giant schools of medusa towards a battle that ultimately killed or wounded some 425,000 allied and German troops.
His 82nd Airborne Division went on to fight at Normandy for another 30 days, before suffering a 40 percent casualty rate. He told me about a conversation he had with an atheist friend following Normandy. “When we got back to London to regroup, I saw him and I said, ‘did you pray? And he said ‘of course I didn’t;’ ‘to hell you didn’t!’” Trujillo told him, laughing as he recalled the moment.
He went on to fight in the Holland invasion that saw 35,000 allied paratroopers dropping from the sky into German-occupied Holland, 60 miles behind enemy lines, the subject of the 1977 movie, “A Bridge Too Far.” Following that, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. As he told me these stories, the battles weaved together as if a compilation of trailers from all the great World War II films. I realized how these epic struggles, which eventually combined to turn the tide against Hitler, were horrors he experienced without the luxury of historical perspective and hindsight. It is one thing to see the movie or read about it already knowing the outcome, but quite another to be there as it unfolds.
Trujillo allowed me into the frightening memories that he had kept mostly silent throughout his long and productive life. What I thought I knew and understood about that war never became quite so personal to me until then.
Trujillo allowed me into the frightening memories that he had kept mostly silent throughout his long and productive life. What I thought I knew and understood about that war never became quite so personal to me until then. And while I instantly regretted not having a similar conversation with my own father, Trujillo helped me to understand perhaps why. As a young teacher at Carbon College, he said he remembered feeling anxious, irritable and easily angered. “After the war, I got to where I hated people, I really did,” he said. In time that faded, along with the fitful nights of sleep haunted by dreams of German soldiers coming back to hunt him down.
“I tried not to think about it,” he told me. “I tell you, I prayed that I could forget it and I have pretty much forgot. But in those days, they didn’t recognize this, I guess, like they do now.” By “this” he meant post-traumatic stress syndrome. The war was still raging in his mind. No surprise then, after talking to some of his earlier students, that none of them even knew of his war and D-Day exploits.
I was saddened to learn that Trujillo died two years ago, but counted myself even more fortunate to have been able to talk to him and thank him for his service—and really mean it. It makes me miss my father even more and wish that I could have thanked him in the same way. Who knows what doors that may have opened?