A Dream, or a Nightmare


It is no coincidence that Memorial Day, Flag Day and Independence Day fall in close proximity in the spring and early summer, the time when all things are bursting with life. It is the time of regeneration of the soil and appropriately of the soul, a proper time to honor those who sacrificed, in the name of freedom.

The 2nd “Indian Head” Infantry Division trained for three months in Cardiff, Wales. Rod Hart, “Roddy” to his friends, was a 2nd Lieutenant with that Division, one of 30,000 men destined to become part of history.

On February 9, 1942, Rod Hart stood for a photograph along with 35 other men, in front of the Columbia County Courthouse; Army inductees, bags packed, departing to serve their country. For the next year Rod bounced from one camp to another from basic training to AIT to Officers Training School. Stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, Rod had a buddy, Bob Waterfield. One night Bob’s wife, movie star Jane Russell, came to camp. Rod got to dance with her. On leave, October 3, 1942, Rod married Norma, now his bride of 60 years at St. Mary’s Church. In March of 1943, he shipped out of Boston.

Strains of Glenn Miller’s, In The Mood or A String of Pearls reminded the boys of home. The music eased a modicum of tension that ran all too high for the soldiers assembled in Cardiff, waiting. There were false starts and delays. Then the day arrived. Orders came down; the mission, codenamed operation Overlord, was a go. With a .45 automatic, an M1 rifle and his gear Rod boarded the first ship out. “Everybody was ready, not sure what we faced.”

“Quiet?”

“Oh, yes." Rod shakes his head, a slight smile tugs at his face, "I figured landing on a beach would be nice.”

The shadowy gray sky was foreboding, stormy. The sea was rough with 6-foot waves. Within sight of land, on the morning of June 6, 1944, Platoon leader Rod Hart and his 30 men slipped over the side of the ship, down rope ladders into the small landing craft. It was a jarring 30-minute ride to the beach, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. The cold spray of water over the sides of the landing craft was constant. There was very little talk. The high-pitched drone of the motor strained against the waves. Occasionally the hull would scrape against the crossed German steel I-beam girders submerged into the sand beneath them. The 16-inch Navy guns fired over their heads pounding the enemy entrenched on the cliffs overlooking the beach. The Germans pounded back with artillery, mortar and constant machinegun fire from the lofty pillbox bunker. The steady thud and ring of bullets hitting the landing craft was deafening. A nearby landing craft attempted to discharge its cargo, a tank, but it wasn’t in close enough and the tank and its crew were at once consumed by the channel.

When the forward door on his landing craft opened, Rod found himself submerged chest deep in frigid channel water. Bodies and pieces of humanity floated everywhere. The water was red. Rod Hart’s first day in combat was one of gargantuan horror. "Confusion was what it was, it’s difficult to remember anything except survival. I never saw anything like it in my life.”

“Did it compare to Saving Pvt. Ryan?”

“No comparison,” his voice was flat, matter of fact. “ It was worse. It took us a couple hours to get off the beach.”

“Must have been the longest two hours of your life.”

“Oh, gosh,” Rod softly blurts out, averting his eyes, he looks at the floor, his hands folded in front of him.

The D-Day Invasion was the single largest invasion in history; 155,000 American troops, 12,000 Aircraft, 4,000 landing craft, 1,200 ships, 950 tanks, 10,300 casualties. For those who survived it truly was, “The Longest Day.”

Artists at Division Headquarters sketched and issued daily battle plans to company commanders. Within a few days of the invasion, Rod’s company commander became a casualty and Rod assumed command. Rod’s Battle Plan book is pictured here,“You had to keep in constant contact with the enemy, so you knew where they were.”

The 2nd Division is credited with 337 days of continuous combat, from Normandy across northern France to Belgium, the Arden, Siegfried Line, Bastogne, the Battle of the Bulge, the Rumagan Bridge, Czechoslovakia. Rod earned 2 Purple Hearts, Bronze Star with Cluster, European Theatre Ribbon with 5 Battle Stars, Presidential Unit Citation, French Foraguerre, and the Combat Infantry Badge. “We had a job to do, it had to be done,” he states simply. “Thinking back on it, it seems like a dream, or a nightmare.”

Once Marlene Dietrich came to entertain the troops. She joined the boys at chow, sitting next to Rod. “She was a real chow hound,” Rod chuckles. “Boy, could she eat.”

By Christmas 1944 the 2nd Division was on the front lines in Germany. They made up Christmas cards for the boys to send home. Seen here is the cover and inside of the card Rod send Norma. In case you can’t quite read it, the quote on the cover says, “No foreign soldier will ever set foot on German soil.” ~ Adolph Hitler 1939.

Back home in the summer of ‘44, Norma was riding the train to work. Flipping through a copy of Look Magazine, one photograph grabbed her. “That’s my husband,” she announced to the woman seated next to her. The photograph was of some G.I.’s bathing outdoors, their backsides to the camera. She called Look Magazine. They couldn’t give out the names, but sent her a copy of the picture.

“Patton took over command of the Division about three weeks after D-Day. We hadn’t bathed or shaved since the invasion and Patton was furious, ordered everyone to do so immediately. That was the first water we came to,” Rod explains.

Norma leans close, “You know how I knew it was Roddy?”

“How?”

She points at the photograph, “You see the way these trousers are laid out here beside the boot?”

“Yes.”

“That’s how I could tell it was Roddy.”

Returning from the war, Rod worked for a time with the family business, Hart Express. Then he went over to Gifford-Wood where he stayed for 24 years. He performed his civic duty serving on numerous boards and organizations, was a Commissioner of Cemeteries and helped compile the History of Columbia County in WWII. He also became Hudson’s first Housing Director.

On September 2, 1982 a young man walked into his Directors Office at the end of the day, pulled a gun and announced a stickup. Rod handed him the petty cash. He threw it back at Rod. The stick up man knew it was rent day and there should be a lot more money there. He was also foolish enough to attempt to hold up a man who survived D-Day. He ordered Rod into the back room, “I knew if I went into the back room I was dead, so I tackled him.” In the struggle that ensued Rod was shot, the bullet missing his spine by less than the thickness of a nickel, but he survived and foiled the robbery attempt.

That period of time, the war years, was recorded in images of black and white. Black and white photographs have a way of leading us to believe the events captured in the photograph were not quite real, yet that time, 60 years ago, was far more real than most of us can today imagine.

Colonel Gerard F. Hart, USAR Retired is quite a man, gentle, soft-spoken, a kind face but it is the deep conviction living in his eyes that surprises you, catches you off guard. He is a man, confident, at ease with himself, after all he has nothing to prove, he did that long ago. He represents a generation of Americans who possessed courage and character sufficient to selflessly stand up for what is right and just in this world, not unlike the men who dared sign that declaration 227 years ago. They deserve our highest respect and honor. We are a better place because of men like Rod Hart.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

Note: Retired Lt. Col. Gerald F. “Rod” Hart, 91, died Tuesday, March 21, 2006, at his home in Hudson, NY. Our sympathies to Norma and family. We are all better for having known you Rod.

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