Saturday, June 6, 2009

Local D-Day veteran receives Legion of Honor medal

Decades passed before Houston’s Clyde Combs told his children he was part of the massive D-Day invasion when Allied troops fought past Nazi mines and machine guns to storm France’s beaches and march on to liberate Europe.

Neither did he mention he was aboard a superfast attack craft on June 6, 1944, and helped protect the west flank of invading forces as they established a beachhead, fished dead sailors out of the sea, and hunted for German soldiers fleeing in the darkness.

The 84-year-old former Navy PT boat crewman didn’t tell, he said, because he didn’t think anyone cared.

“It wasn’t considered a big deal,” said Combs, who still has a full head of hair and is probably lean enough to climb into his Cracker Jack uniform. “You were in the war, and you made it back and whatever,” he said. “No, I didn’t discuss it.”

On Friday, Combs was inducted into France’s prestigious Legion of Honor to commemorate the battle’s 65th anniversary today.

With the passing of time, as the offensive was pushed into history books, public interest grew in events surrounding the D-Day invasion. A massive fighting force, including more than 150,000 personnel, 5,000 ships and 11,000 planes, pushed across the English Channel and roared ashore along the Normandy region’s coastline.

“The invading armada was one of the largest armadas in the world’s history,” Combs said. “And to have been a small, tiny part of it in any way is such a privilege.”

Just the thought of being recognized as a veteran and induced into the legion, which was created by Bonaparte, makes Combs throat tight.

“I … am so humbled,” he said haltingly as he looked away and choked up.

Combs, who moved to Houston in 1949 and retired from the engineering and construction business, has come to see preserving D-Day’s place in history as a central purpose in his life.

He has kept a friendship up over the years with a villager who was a 15-year-old boy when PT 515 tied up at a small, isolated port. Combs said he phoned him last week to see if they could get together, since it could be for the last time.

Though aging World War II veterans are dying, Combs said he has never spent a day in a hospital. The former barbershop quartet singer can still tap out his name in Morse code.

He can also rapidly recite 30 digits of pi, which most people learn in high school as simply 3.14.

Combs speaks to students, veterans and their children to ensure people don’t forget June 6, 1944.

“We remember the Alamo, we remember Pearl Harbor, and we need to remember D-Day,” he said. “So many young people have forgotten what happened that they couldn’t tell you want Normandy was.”

But Combs will stand on the edge of Omaha Beach today. And he will know.

Washington correspondent Stewart M. Powell contributed to this report.


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