Volunteering Some History: Fridays With A Kansas City D-Day Veteran

Thomas kept insisting I was talking to the wrong person.  My first few days volunteering at Children’s Mercy Hospital, I figured the guy who’d given me the tour and who knew so much about the building had something of a leadership position.  When I’d ask what to do, however, he kept pointing at Clarence.

“That’s the man in charge,” Thomas said.

Clarence Regas has big glasses and a full head of white hair.  His voice sounds exactly like the character Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption, strength and wisdom in old age.  Clarence smiles a lot, especially at the young women who stop by the Children’s Mercy information desk to see him.

Clarence Regas at the D-Day memorial in Normandy. The man who took the picture wrote it was his favorite of the day because "all you want to know about combat in WWII is etched on his face."

Clarence is a veteran of the United States Army.  He served in the 60th Combat Engineers Battalion during World War II.

Clarence landed on Omaha Beach 67 years ago today to take France back from the Nazis.

THE BACKGROUND

Clarence was born in July of 1923, the son of General Douglas MacArthur’s personal chef.

His intelligence allowed him to skip two grades and graduate from high school at the age of 16 in May of 1940.  In June of 1940, he tried to enlist.  Clarence still laughs when he tells the story that basically amounts to trial and error.

Clarence walked down to the Army’s Kansas City recruitment office off Pershing Road near Union Station.  The master sergeant looked at Clarence and said, “What do you want, boy?”

He answered that he wanted to enlist, to which the master sergeant asked, “How old are you?”

Clarence gave an honest answer.  The master sergeant laughed and said, “Come back when you grow up.”

Less than two months later, Clarence (now 17) returned to the same recruitment office and found a different master sergeant.  This time, Clarence didn’t give an honest answer.

THE SERVICE

Clarence immediately received the rank of private first class because he’d done a few years of Junior ROTC in high school

In July of 1941, the Army learned Clarence had lied about his age.  Keep in mind that Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened yet.  The United States wasn’t fighting a war, and the days of a wink and a pat on the back to any 17-year-old trying to join the armed forces hadn’t yet materialized.  The Army threatened to dishonorably discharge Clarence and force him to reimburse all pay he’d received over the last year.

The night he found out, Clarence called his parents back in Kansas City long distance and explained he was over-nighting some paperwork to them.  They needed to fill it out and sign saying they approved of his service in the Army.

The Army’s threat ended up being an empty one, but Clarence says those few days waiting to find out if he’d get to serve the country he loved were awful.

By D-Day, Clarence was a staff sergeant.

THE INVASION:  JUNE 6, 1944

Clarence doesn’t talk much about D-Day itself.  His battalion landed on Omaha Beach, the spot many historians agree hosted the fiercest fighting.  It’s the beach featured in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.

A landing craft full of soldiers heads for Normandy's coast. (Picture from Corbis/The Mariner's Museum)

I tried to convince Clarence to do an interview for KMBC today to mark the D-Day anniversary, but he declined.  Sometimes, someone tells me no, but I can see they just need some convincing to go on camera.  Other times, you know the second the word leaves their mouth this interview won’t happen.  Clarence gave the latter.

He explained he’d get far too emotional on camera, but there was something else.  Around 2,000 men died on Omaha Beach, a number that’s likely to increase as historians continue to delve into the chaos of this day.  Clarence obviously wasn’t one of them.

On Friday, Clarence told me a lot of men were still carrying around D-Day shrapnel in their aging bodies.  He’s not.

American soldiers leaving the ramp of a coast guard landing boat during the invasion of Normandy. (Photo by Robert F. Sergeant. National Archives and Records Administration)

I think Clarence declined my interview out of respect for the men who came out of that sand far worse than he did (or who didn’t come out at all).

THE STORIES

There are so many amazing stories Clarence has told me about his service in Europe.  I hope I’ve remembered them all.

The Farmer

A few days after the D-Day invasion, Clarence’s battalion was farther inland from the beaches of Normandy.

During the war, Clarence says the currency that carried the most value among soldiers were cigarettes, candy, and eggs.  Eggs were at the top of the list.

With that in mind, Clarence decided to walk to a farmer’s land on the outskirts of the town where he was stationed.  He had a pack of cigarettes and a Hershey’s chocolate bar with him.  He explained to the farmer he wanted to exchange his bounty for eggs.

While talking to the French farmer, the man asked Clarence, “How do you spell your last name?”  Clarence answered.

“And where are you from?” said the farmer.  Clarence said, “Kansas City.”

“Do you know Michael Regas?” the farmer finally asked.

In stunned amazement (and quite a bit of confusion), Clarence said, “Michael Regas is my father.”

The farmer explained that during World War I, Clarence’s father had helped the farmer’s family (I don’t know the specifics of what help he provided).  The farmer and Michael Regas became quick friends before Regas’ unit had to move on to the next town a few days later.

Somehow, Clarence had stumbled onto the same exact farm almost 30 years after his father.

The farmer told Clarence to give him the soldier’s helmet Clarence was carrying, and he left.  A few minutes later, the farmer returned with a helmet full of eggs.

The farmer wouldn’t take the cigarettes or chocolate bar.

The Baby

Last year, Clarence returned to Normandy with his family.  Because he was the first American D-Day veteran to visit the memorial in 2010, the French people laid out the red carpet for the Regas family.

A D-Day historian has posted several Facebook pictures of the event here, which he says anyone can access even without being a member.

During a ceremony at the memorial in Normandy, a Frenchman walked up to Clarence and asked if he really was a member of the Army 60th Combat Engineers.  In fact, Clarence’s company lost its lieutenant only five days after D-Day, so Clarence was this unit’s leader at the age of 20.

The man explained a member of Clarence’s battalion had met his family during the war, and they’d begged him for help.  An infant was near death, and they needed the Americans to help.  The soldier who first talked to the family had some medical training but nothing that would save the child, so he promised help and returned to the battalion.

One soldier in the battalion was a pediatrician from Cleveland, who immediately returned to the panicked family.  Clarence didn’t know what the child was suffering from, but I get the impression he had some sort of deficiency and was simply failing to thrive.   The pediatrician was able to provide some basic medications and explain to the family how to keep the child healthy.

The man talking to Clarence explained that struggling infant was his brother.  The boy eventually grew to be a man standing more than six feet tall.  This man wanted to thank Clarence for saving his brother’s life.

Clarence and the pediatrician became lifelong friends after their service.  Clarence told me he died in 2005.

“I hate that I never got to tell him that story,” says Clarence.

The Castle

I really wish I’d remembered to ask Clarence the name of this castle.

His battalion spent time living in a castle in Germany before moving farther into Nazi territory.

Clarence later found out his ancestors built this very castle centuries earlier.

THE UPSHOT

I say that I volunteer on Fridays.  What I really do is help parents find their way around the hospital in between listening to Clarence’s stories.

He likes to watch the news, which means he wants me to tell stories about being a reporter.  He’s a D-Day veteran, so I want him to tell war stories.

Clarence is still very sharp at the age of 87, and it’s not hard to see why he’s considered the man in charge at the information desk.

Not only that, he still exhibits the orneriness that got him into the Army at 17.  He regularly asks if I’ve had any dates recently with a nice girl, and about a month ago, he told his own date story.  I showed up for my shift to find Clarence with a black eye.  In reality, a can of tomatoes fell from a very high shelf at the grocery store and caught him just below the right eye.  However, he told anyone who would listen his girlfriend’s husband had finally had enough.

Clarence is also stubborn in his own way.  We both got to the hospital cafeteria at the same time one day.  He realized he’d forgotten the meal ticket Children’s Mercy gives its volunteers, so I tried to hand him mine and make the long walk back to the volunteer’s office.  Clarence refused, began walking away from the cafeteria, and smiled when he said, “I’m old, Cliff.  I’m not feeble.”

Clarence once called me a good man.  Ridiculous.  Here’s a man who led an Army company in a foreign country fighting Hitler’s regime before he could even legally take a swig of liquid courage.

How do you thank a man like that who gives you that kind of compliment?

You tell his story, I guess.

Advertisements

One Response to “Volunteering Some History: Fridays With A Kansas City D-Day Veteran”

  1. Courtney Courter Says:

    Absolutely wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: