DUBUQUE, Iowa – American flags lined the pristine houses along Matthew John Drive.
The Stars and Stripes were all uniform height on their slender metal poles, and the street curved gently to end at the drive to a retirement home complex.
It was a humid-but-sunny Memorial Day, and a small group of residents were gathered outside the home entrance to visit. They were most likely unaware that in one of the home’s apartments, a World War II veteran was dying.
John Theobald’s hospice nurse had just finished explaining to family members that the 95-year-old was in his final days when I arrived for a scheduled interview.
Just a few months earlier, John and Irene Theobald had sat down with me to reminisce and share the story of their 70 years of marriage.
On Memorial Day, Irene and her oldest son, Rich, kindly let me stop in and shared some of John’s stories from World War II, despite the sadness hovering in the quiet apartment.
Earlier in the week, John Theobald had been feeling better. He was presented with a quilt through the Quilt of Valor Foundation – a national program honoring veterans for their service – in a small ceremony at the retirement home. The blue-and-white quilt bore colored stars on the front and was backed by material scripted with many American words, slogans, and phrases:
To honor, defend, protect.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The words were in tribute to John, who was among the American soldiers who landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-Day. He went on to fight in many battles throughout France, serving as a tank commander in a reconnaissance unit as Allied troops pushed toward Berlin.
Leading up to D-Day, John spent several days on the English Channel as General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the other leaders waited for the weather to clear for the attack. Finally, there was a small break in the weather and Eisenhower said he couldn’t keep the men waiting any longer.
“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months,” said Eisenhower, in his message to the troops just ahead of the invasion.
“The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.”
June 6, 1944.
The first waves of men to land were with the infantry.
It is hard to fully comprehend the terror many of them must have felt as the boats opened and the beaches and cliffs came into view, said my father-in-law, Cedar Falls (Iowa) High School history teacher Bob Schmidt.
Quite a few of the men facing this sight were very young, some just 18, and perhaps away from home for the first time.
John was in his early 20s and newly married. The previous December he had secured a brief leave from his post in Fort Hood, Texas, in order to return home to Iowa for his wedding.
A few short months later, John was half a world away on a landing ship tank, (LST). He was among the 150,000-some Allied troops about to be hurled into what Schmidt said was the largest amphibious land invasion in American – and possibly world – history.
The LSTs holding men like John allowed for the transport of tanks and armored vehicles; a larger-scale version of those used for infantry. But John told his son that at Omaha Beach the tanks couldn’t be brought all the way up to land due to shallow water, so they were dropped off in deeper waters.
“They took the tanks and sealed them to try to make them water-tight and then they would get in as far as they could to drop the front down,” said Rich, recalling the earlier conversation with his father about D-Day.
Snorkle-like devices were attached to allow the exhaust to get out as the tanks drove into the water, although not all of them made it to dry land.
John, who was in 125th Calvary Reconnaissance Group (Mechanized), was in the 11th wave landing at what turned out to be the bloodiest of the invasion sites that day. The Omaha Beach casualties were so heavy the Allies almost considered giving it up, and word spread among some of the men on the beach that a retreat was imminent.
“There was still a lot of chaos” when he landed, John told his son.
When he arrived, John said the beach was under heavy gunfire as the soldiers fought their way up and over the cliffs.
Those in the tanks like John were hardly any safer. As the tanks were pummeled by heavy mortar fire, the Americans realized that the Nazis had mapped out the entire area and therefore knew exactly where the tanks were traveling.
Moving off the roads and into the French fields to avoid the attack, they encountered large, hundred-year-old vines and hedge rows that obstructed their passing. The men quickly retrofitted their tanks, welding fork-like devices onto the front so they could rip away the vines. The maneuver caught the Germans by surprise.
“One thing Americans are good at is improvising,” Rich said.
Thousands of men died on Omaha Beach that day, although the exact number remains unknown. The D-Day Museum and Overlord Embroidery of the United Kingdom reports that new research shows previous estimates of 2,000 Allied casualties at Omaha Beach and about 10,000 casualties throughout all of the D-Day landing sites are likely too low. The museum site noted that casualties on D-Day were preceded by around 12,000 deaths among the Allied air forces leading up to the attack.
As a D-Day survivor, John Theobald soldiered on. He soon was part of Operation Cobra, which was launched in mid-July of 1944 to help the Allies break out of the narrow area where they were entrenched following D-Day, according to the United States Army website.
John had an especially dangerous job as part of a reconnaissance unit. It required heading out in a small force ahead of the main army to survey the landscape, probe for enemy forces, and report back to headquarters the size and strength of any enemy forces encountered.
John was in the initial group to travel through the quiet town of Saint-Lô, only to return later and find the city flattened into rubble. The Nazis had recognized the unit as reconnaissance, let them pass, and then attacked when the main army came through.
At the so-called Falaise pocket, John was among those asked to push German forces into the gap between two mountains so the surrounding American artillery could bomb them.
“What do we do when we push the Germans down in there?” John asked his commander.
“You’ll just have to find your way out,” the commander replied.
Find their way out they did, but John told Rich that the carnage was horrendous. After that, John went on to be among those who liberated Paris.
But as the march continued, John found himself overcome with a sense of dread and forebodding. He was tracing almost the exact same route as his uncle, Matt Theobald, who was a veteran of World War I. Matt Theobald had been killed in Château-Thierry, and the town was now fast approaching on John’s map.
John’s premonition proved valid, although not entirely correct.
“That’s where his tank got hit, right in that area,” Rich said. “Next thing he knew, he woke up in the hospital.”
John suffered a concussion and was moved off the battlefield. He was eventually transferred to a hospital back in the U.S. and was later reunited with his wife. They settled in Dubuque, Iowa, and went on to have six children.
Like many veterans of the era, John was not necessarily quick to talk about his war stories. But over the years, he shared bits and pieces with his children, eventually including some of the more terrifying experiences.
“He talked about a situation where there was a sniper shooting American soldiers in an apple orchard,” Rich said. “They needed to figure out how to stop this. They got everybody out and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to line you up along this orchard and we’re going to march our way through here until we find this blankety-blank.’
“He said that was one of the most unnerving things he ever had to do in the war. You knew the sniper was going to shoot somebody and you just felt for sure it was you,” Rich said.
When the Nazi sniper was exposed and fell halfway out of a tree, still attached to a rope, the Americans saw he was a boy. It was a point in the war when Hitler was growing desperate after losses on the Russian front and was moving older men and young boys onto the battlefield.
The war was looking especially brutal to men like John, and events like this went against his nature. But this was still war.
“They just walked off and let him hang there,” Rich said.
Such scenes haunted John, including another where a horribly wounded Nazi ran toward his tank screaming for help. The man died before he reached them.
“He had nightmares about that for a long time,” Rich said.
But not all of the war memories were full of brutality.
John was an avid writer who wrote home to his wife and mother every day, numbering his letters so if they were delivered out of sequence they could still be read in the correct order. After a time, he realized some of the soldiers in his unit were not getting letters because they had trouble reading or writing.
“So Dad would help them write letters home to their mothers, wives and girlfriends,” Rich said. “When they would say, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ Dad would reply, ‘Do you love her?’
“When they said ‘yes,’ he’d reply, ‘Then that’s what we will tell her.’
John Theobald passed away on May 29.
“We will miss him immensely,” Rich wrote to me that day.
It was one week and a day before the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
But perhaps John wouldn’t have been concerned about missing this particular milestone. Once he returned home, John liked to focus on his life in Iowa rather than the war he had fought in.
John was known to talk happily about his family, his former coworkers from the area power company where he spent his career, and his love of motorcycles. He helped found the Dubuque Hawkeye Motorcycle Club.
When it came to sharing more details of the war, he told his son, “I really have forgotten about it.”
“That’s probably a really good thing,” Rich added.
John was buried in Dubuque’s Mount Calvary Cemetery, where his grandparents had once been site caretakers and the family had lived.
He had traveled halfway around the world as an American soldier, survived Omaha Beach and the fight through France, and escaped a fateful explosion near the site where his veteran uncle was killed.
Seven decades later, John died peacefully at home with his family nearby. He was laid to rest far from the French soil he fought on and within 100 yards of where he was born.
A final victory for one American hero, a D-Day veteran.