WARNER ROBINS – The U.S. Army drafted him in September 1942, and he was sent to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, where they trained him to use skis.
He thought he was going to be sent to some distant snowy mountain, but that was not to be his fate.
Instead, Sgt. Henry Doar was among those charging the German gun emplacements at Omaha Beach, on the shores of Normandy, 60 years ago today.
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He led a 12-man squad, and their job was to reach a German machine gun post and put it out of commission.
They were part of a wave of such assault teams, whose job it was to secure the beach by rushing across those open sands, under heavy fire, to reach the enemy’s secure positions.
Doar remembers boats that didn’t make it: overturned, their men lost before they ever made it ashore.
He remembers landing on the beach, machine gun fire buzzing in the air around him.
He remembers his men crouching behind the scant cover provided by obstacles placed on the beach.
“My concern was to get my squad off the beach.”
“You can’t stay behind these emplacements forever!”
“I was hollering at ’em, ‘Get to the high ground!’”
They made it up, climbed over dead Americans, and overran the position, where there was tough fighting, hand to hand.
But they succeeded.
Of his 12-man squad, five survived the day.
Doar was not injured.
“I just was lucky,” he says, quietly.
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Memorial Day is around the corner when Henry Doar invites me to his home to talk about the war.
This time of year the memories are always stronger – more on his mind – though it’s a rare day he doesn’t think about the war.
He has been to many reunions.
At one, a few years ago, he ran across a man he’d not seen since the war.
The man, Bob Gray, rushed up and embraced him.
“I thought you were dead,” Gray told him.
Gray had lost sight of him on the beach and never came across him afterward.
Over 50 years.
They have kept in touch since.
Another man Doar has kept up with is John McCall.
When Doar’s legs were struck by shrapnel from an exploding mortar shell, it was McCall who was on the spot to put 13 bandages – each solider carried a few, treated with sulfur – on his wounds.
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Over the past few years, Doar has been pleased to see a greater interest in the stories of the second World War.
For so long, it seemed no one was really interested in telling them, he said.
On his coffee table are books about the war, and Doar is featured in some of them.
His favorite is “Keep up the Fire: History of the 9th Regiment in World War II” by Albaro L. Castillo, son of one of Doar’s 9th Regiment companions, Luis Castillo.
That book is autographed to Doar.
But the interest goes beyond books.
He and his wife, Rosalie, went to see “Saving Private Ryan” when the film came out a few years ago.
They got it right, Doar says of the film’s graphic opening.
And the theater was so quiet, they remember.
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Like so many others, his was a life interrupted by the war.
At the time he was drafted, Doar had been studying physical education at Clemson. After the war he resumed his studies, this time at the University of Georgia, where he obtained his degree.
He went on to teach 37 years in Tucker.
He taught seventh and fourth grades at different points in his career.
He liked the fourth grade best.
These days he still hears from some of his students, and he has fond memories of his years as a teacher. This was, after all, his life’s work, more so than a few years he spent as a soldier.
But those years are such a mark on the rest of his life.
He recalls other teachers’ dismay at organizing the children during recess.
Doar had a new approach. Falling back on his experience as a soldier, he called the students to attention with a bullhorn, told them to “form up” and “fall in.”
He split them into “squads” and appointed a few students as “sergeants.”
He then told the “sergeants” to get their “troops” ready for inspection.
“The kids loved it,” he said.
And Doar, of course, loved it as well.
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Although when he wasn’t teaching PE, his subjects were math and science, it was natural that Doar also taught a little history.
From him, the students picked up many of the little details and stories of lives that make up a war – more than the textbook details of who fought whom and where and when.
Doar’s unit was walking through rural France and came upon a dairy farm. The owners had fled the war zone, but a herd of neglected cattle remained.
Some had war wounds of their own – shrapnel scars from shells that had detonated nearby – and all were in need of some attention.
He remembers the udders on these cows were swollen because they had not been milked lately.
Doar remembers one soldier said, “I’m going to get me some milk.”
The man took off his helmet, removed the webbing and approached a cow. The creature was docile, and soon the soldier had a helmet brimming with milk.
The other cows, Doar says, began to line up at that point, all eager for the attention of milking.
Most of the men followed the first’s example, and the unit was soon enjoying the treat of fresh milk, drunk out of helmets on a recent battlefield.
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There are so many stories here – the snake in the foxhole, memories of men who didn’t make it, joys shared and sorrows remembered – but only so many can make it into this report.
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Then there’s the famous photograph of a unit of the 2nd Infantry Division walking up a hill on Omaha Beach, a long column of troops winding up from the shores.
In the foreground, the second soldier in the line is glancing up, toward the camera. His right boot is poised just about to land, and he looks as though his attention was caught just as the photograph was snapped.
That’s pretty much the way it happened, Doar remembers.
He had met the photographer earlier that day and remembers the man yelling, “Hey, sergeant!” as he walked up the hill.
Over the years, others have claimed to be the man in the photograph.
A look at a picture of Doar from the same era, coupled with the original picture and letter he received after the war, bolster his claim.
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The mother of one of his students, having seen the photograph with Doar in it, painted a replica. It is one of his prized possessions and hangs opposite his framed war medals and other memorabilia.
Interestingly, the painter was of German descent, and her father had fought in the war, too, Doar said.
But we all live on, he says.