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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

After years of silence, a veteran remembers D-Day

--- Veteran honored during D-Day ceremony in Lake Geneva

Kayla Bunge/The Janesville Gazette

Kenneth "Whitey" Weiss firmly saluted the American flag, bright sun illuminating its colors whipped by the wind.

Terry Mayer/The Week
Weiss looks over a display of his medals
Sunglasses hid tears welling in his eyes, and the shadow cast by the brim of his black World War II veteran hat muted his smile.

Until recently, Weiss didn't talk much about June 6, 1944, when he and thousands of other troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, in the invasion that signaled the beginning of the end of World War II.

"All these years, I kept this all in," he said. "I couldn't talk about the war."

Weiss, 82, was honored a week ago Friday, the 64th anniversary of D-Day, by residents of Geneva Crossings senior living community, where he lives. Members of the American Legion raised a flag in his honor.

Weiss admits that he's emotional--prone to "breaking down"--but he doesn't let the tears or his mild Parkinson's disease meddle with his memories.

The son of working class parents in Milwaukee, Weiss enlisted in the Navy in May 1943 to help support the family. He had just turned 17.

"At that time, there were many people on the county (welfare rolls)," he said.

Weiss boarded LST-47, one of more than 1,000 landing ship tanks designed for amphibious operations, such as the invasion of Normandy. The hulking, flat-bottomed ships carried cargo and troops directly onto the shore.

"We would go in as far as the tide would take the ship," Weiss said. "Then the doors would open and we would drop the guys in the water and they'd go onto the beach."

But Weiss, who served as a cook aboard the vessel, wasn't allowed off the boat. He had to stay back and help with loading and unloading.

"They only gave us so much time while the tide was in," he said.

When the Germans attacked, Weiss abandoned his apron and manned a 20mm anti-aircraft gun. He positioned the weapon before another crew member fired.

LST-47 made 10 trips between the ports of southern England and the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion, and as Allied forces advanced, the ship hauled away captured German prisoners of war.

After a brief return to the United States, LST-47 was transferred to the Pacific theater of the war for the assault on Okinawa, Japan, from June 26-30, 1945.

Weiss still served as a cook on the boat, where troops ate from a menu created by the chief petty officer.

"Baked beans every Saturday was a must," Weiss said with a chuckle. "Really, we had good meals aboard ship."

Weiss was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1946, but he was called back into service at the start of the Korean War in 1950. This time, he was on dry land at the Naval base in San Diego.

"I was cooking for all the recruits," he said.

Weiss, a petty officer second class, was in charge of the recruits who were on rotating duty as mess cooks.

Weiss again was honorably discharged in 1952.

For decades, he held inside the horrors he witnessed as comrades were shot on the beaches of France and later buried.

Weiss said he was "one of the lucky ones" who returned home after the war.

He doesn't boast about his experience; instead he wears a modest hat that identifies him as a World War II veteran.

"I wear the cap all the time," he said. "I wear it because I'm proud. There were a lot of them that didn't make it back."

As fellow veterans saluted him and friends hugged him Friday, tears rolled down Weiss' cheeks. He said he didn't deserve the special recognition.

"I did what I had to do," he said. "You get called into service ... you do what you're told to do, and you do the best you can.

"That's what I did."

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