Archive for the ‘Feature’ Category

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

June 6, 2011

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.

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I’m Back…And The Best Work Voicemail Ever

August 15, 2010

I’d first like to thank Cox Communications for a very interesting two months.  My cable provider allowed me to wake up every morning not quite knowing what to expect…internet or no internet?

Since I’m not quite sold on writing personal blog posts at work, the intermittent service was a very frustrating obstacle to posting something new on my blog…something I promised myself wouldn’t happen.

That said, I got a little lazy, too.  Moving on…

THE BEST WORK VOICEMAIL EVER

Not another restaurant.  The last thing Wichita needs is another restaurant.

In Wichita, the number of restaurants is a joke…literally, something people joke about.  It’s amazing the grocery stores have been able to survive amidst what must be a population that sustains itself on eating out.

However, I listened to a voicemail left on my work line early last week and had to replay it to make sure I’d heard right.  The woman’s voice said a local non-profit dedicated to helping former gang members rehabilitate themselves into the community was opening a restaurant…the employees of which would be the gang members.

Sometimes, the news gods smile down.

Welcome. You just helped turn a kid with either no future or a harmful future into one with simply...a future.

City Life Cafe is run by Youth For Christ, a local organization that’s held a work program for former gang members in Wichita for several years.  It’s modeled after Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles whose motto is “Nothing Stops A Bullet Like A Job.”  Mentors work with boys in the juvenile justice system who’re on probation.

After a few phone calls and learning more about the restaurant, I walked into the remodeled building at 2111 E. Central for opening day.

Roosevelt “Buck” DeShazer, Sr., manages the restaurant.  The Wichita pastor grew up in Mississippi dealing drugs as early as 11 years old.  Buck tried to kill his stepfather.  Buck’s stepfather tried to kill him.  He was involved in shootouts and openly admits he could have died a few times over by now.  However, he found faith and began to realize there must have been a reason he survived.

Buck also knows once the juveniles he mentors get out of the justice system, there’s not much waiting for them except the gangs.  No one wants to hire them.  Old friends were part of what got them in trouble in the first place.  Family members often want nothing to do with them.  With nowhere to turn but the gang, telling a vulnerable young man, “Be good,” doesn’t go very far, does it?

“The reason why they’re in a gang is that sense of belonging,” says DeShazer.  “They get that sense of family, and so what we’re trying to do is let them know there is another life.  There is another way.  There is another family.”

Today, he mentors young men like Markeece Anderson.  The 18-year-old is serving time for robberies he committed for the gang he was a part of, and he had a very telling way of describing what Youth For Christ has done for him.

“(This is) taking time away from my hands to mess up or just think about doing something that’s going to get me in trouble,” Anderson told me.

The young men at City Life Cafe are nowhere near the gang member stereotype.  They’re courteous, work hard, and have already recognized the difference in an honest dollar and easy money.

Anderson will be released from the juvenile justice system this week.  His time with Youth For Christ’s work program (which includes yard work, light construction, etc.) has helped him pay back court fines and restitution.  He hopes to go to college soon and try to open his own barbershop someday.  Until now, he always assumed he’d sell drugs for the gang until he got older.

When he got older?  The imagination of the future goes blank there.  He didn’t know.  Like most gang members, he seems to understand he envisioned going forward business-as-usual…but already knew that wasn’t realistic.  It means (like many of those who’d already written him off as a statistic) he’d resigned himself to a destination of either prison or hell.

That’s a hell of a thing for a handful of mentors to turn around.  Right now, Buck and fellow mentor Dale McMullen can only handle nine young men at a time.

City Life Cafe is open Tuesday through Saturday serving breakfast and lunch.  Tuesday through Friday hours are 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.  On Saturday, it’s 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  Buck likes everyone to know his southern fried catfish is the best in Wichita.

He and his boys have a lot of competition for the average Wichitan’s restaurant dollar.