Again, he can't be there for D-Day

June 05, 1994|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

Richard Stultz, among the millions of people watching telecasts of ceremonies commemorating D-Day, will be wishing once again that he were there on the beaches of Normandy, France.

His yearning is different from the youthful, but valiant, desire to aid the World War II effort he felt as a boy growing up in Carroll County.

It comes from a dream almost realized, from the dark blue shirt and matching baseball cap that bear the insignia of the Liberty Ship S.S. John W. Brown -- the uniform of a crew that never got to set sail.

"We had our uniforms and everything, we just . . ." Mr. Stultz, 65, paused briefly to steady his voice. "We were just so close. After five years of work and more than 200,000 man hours, it's devastating that you can't go."

It was difficult for Mr. Stultz, one of a several hundred volunteers who had worked to restore the 52-year-old John W. Brown, to keep the emotion from his voice Friday as he talked about the convoy of ships that will converge upon the shores of Normandy tomorrow.

Mr. Stultz said he had been ecstatic to become one of the 52 people chosen to make the four-month round trip to France -- 350 people wanted to go -- and he was anxious to man the ship's boiler room and help keep the vessel steaming along.

But the two-year effort to sail the John W. Brown to France for the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion ended in April when the Coast Guard required that several thousand deteriorated rivets in the ship's midsection be replaced.

The volunteers who had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the 441-foot liberty ship seaworthy could not afford to replace thousands of rivets that hold the hull plates together.

"I wanted to make this trip more than anything in my whole life," Mr. Stultz said. "From my point of view, this convoy is not merely a re-enactment, but a way to pay tribute to those who went ashore on that fateful day, and those who fell."

The John W. Brown was built at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Fairfield shipyard in 42 days and launched Sept. 7, 1942. It could carry 500 troops and 10,000 tons of cargo with a crew of 45 sailors and 41 Navy guards.

It is one of two World War II liberty ships that still exist. The other is the Jeremiah O'Brien of San Francisco.

To Mr. Stultz, the Brown represented his chance to show an admiration that he has felt throughout his life for World War II veterans.

"That fateful day" -- as Mr. Stultz refers to June 6, 1944, the day the Allied forces met the Nazis on their own turf -- occurred years after he had begun discussing the war in school and helping the soldiers by collecting rubber and metal for the military as a child living in the New Windsor and Union Bridge areas of Carroll County.

He also remembered the victory vegetable garden his family planted at their home on Benedum Street in Union Bridge, next door to where Mr. Stultz now lives.

His sister, Margaret Reese, still lives in the family home. Her husband, Walter, was a World War II veteran who died in 1976.

"It seems like our country was united at that time like nothing I've ever seen since," Mr. Stultz said. "Everyone in the country seemed to be behind the war effort.

Mr. Stultz was too young to enter the service during the war, but in 1948, he enlisted in the Navy and served in Europe, helping to rebuild the cities destroyed by the conflict.

But he was nonetheless tied to the war, like much of America, through what he saw, what he heard and, more important, who he knew.

"I had a cousin who went in on D-Day, but he never got to the shore," he said. The man's landing craft was destroyed by shell fire.

"I can look back and see the Gold Star mothers whose sons fought in World War II," Mr. Stultz continued. "Those ladies were my neighbors, and those sons never came back."

Mr. Stultz paid his respects through his strong commitment to the war effort and, later, his participation in Baltimore-based Project Liberty Ship, the organization that began restoring the John W. Brown as a floating museum five years back.

The organization started raising money for the D-Day trip two years ago.

When the Normandy trip was canceled, the John Brown's crew did not give up its original mission to restore the ship. Mr. Stultz said he would spend Saturday morning on the ship, making minor repairs and renovations, "just like any other workday."

But they were all disappointed, to say the least, Mr. Stultz said.

"We were within two weeks of departure when the word came down that we weren't going to make it," he said. "A few days later, it was official, and we had already begun provisioning the ship for a four-month voyage."

The John W. Brown's crew -- some of them from the Brown's original crew -- did make a short voyage in connection with D-Day when the ship sailed to New York for several days of commemoration activities in late April.

The crew received a hero's welcome, including a 21-gun salute from other sea vessels. Flags flew high on passing ships to welcome the liberty ship along the Hudson and Delaware rivers.

In Marcus Hook, Pa., although the ship's Atlantic crossing had been canceled, the Sun Oil Co., which owns Sunoco gas stations, still donated fuel as if the ship were part of the convoy.

Mr. Stultz said the fanfare and hearty tribute paid to the liberty ship were appreciated. But they fall short of the satisfaction of steaming acrossthe Atlantic to see the Normandy shores on the deck of an original World War II vessel.

"My thoughts will very much be with the convoy as they move through the English Channel and when they anchor off the coast of Omaha and Utah beaches," Mr. Stultz said Friday.

"I am so sad, so hurt, that I can't be there to say, 'Thank you, guys,' " Mr. Stultz said, rubbing his eyes behind his glasses. Finally, he took them off.

"They were my heroes. They were all our heroes."

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