SOUTHBURY, Conn. — For decades after he fought the Germans in France during World War II — and very nearly lost his life doing it — David T. Daniel preferred to keep his experience of war to himself.
He declined to join a war veterans’ organization after he was discharged from the Army in 1945, instead focusing on a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry and, later, in real estate.
“I remember as a kid he didn’t want to talk about the war,” said his son, Ken.
Daniel, 89, who grew up on a farm in rural South Carolina and now lives at Pomperaug Woods in Southbury, calls his service an “obligation” that he fulfilled and didn’t dwell on.
“I was with people I wouldn’t normally be with, so I just did it and forgot about it,” he said.
Simply forgetting was impossible for a man with a memory so keen he can tick off the names of his grade school teachers without pause.
Driven by an urge to keep his mind sharp, Daniel recently sat down at a computer to write his memoirs.
He was able to recall with absolute precision many of the details of his service, but there remains a two-month period in late 1944 and early 1945 when he remembers nothing.
Suffering from cerebral spinal meningitis and recovering from severe injuries from a mortar attack on Dec. 15, 1944, Daniel was taken to a field hospital and left in the care of doctors and nurses who miraculously restored him to health and got him back to the front lines in Europe before the war ended.
His story begins in South Carolina, in a small town called Landrum, near the border of North Carolina on the west side of the state near Spartanburg.
The youngest of eight children, he was plowing fields with a mule when he was 10, and prized the one pair of shoes he owned.
“We had food. That’s the main thing. There was no money,” he said. “I didn’t know we were poor.”
He entered Wofford College in Spartanburg in 1941, and was called from ROTC to active duty a year later.
After 17 weeks of basic training, he eventually join the 95th Infantry Division.
The division was sent to battle in Europe in July 1944. Daniel landed in Normandy approximately one month after D-Day, and was promoted to staff sergeant with 16 men under his command. The men saw heavy combat and endured many casualties, Daniel said.
In December 1944, Daniel was critically injured when a mortar shell blast hurled him into a wall, injuring his neck and right shoulder.
He developed a fever and terrible headache that night and lapsed into a coma.
Daniel was moved between field hospitals, and was told he had cerebro spinal meningitis. Despite being very sick, he was put on a train and carried across the French countryside to Paris, where he took a shower for the first time in six months.
The next morning — the day after Christmas in 1944 — he was loaded onto an English hospital ship, where he was met by “pretty nurses.”
“Those pretty nurses must have done something to me because my memory completely disappeared,” he wrote.
Two months went by. When he woke up, he was in an Army hospital in Axminster, England.
Back in South Carolina, his parents received a War Department telegram that he was “missing in action.” Then came word that he was seriously ill, and not expected to live.
“My sister said my mother was not hurt but angry, and threw the two wires into the fire,” Daniel wrote.
Within two weeks, however, a letter from Daniel — whose memory had since returned — arrived. In it he described being at a hospital in England.
“(My mother) said I was all ‘chippy’ talking about these beautiful English nurses,” Daniel wrote. “They all knew with this letter that I was not at the point of death. I do not remember writing this letter.”
Daniel was sent back to France in March 1945 to reunite with his division in the Ruhr Valley. The men encountered small pockets of resistance, but nothing like the combat they saw a year earlier.
The war in Europe ended in May, and Daniel’s division was sent stateside. After a 30-day leave at home, he reported to Camp Shelby in Mississippi to prepare for eventual combat in the Pacific.
At that point, however, plans were being made to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
“Unfortunately for the Japanese civilians, (President Harry S.) Truman made the decision and the war ended,” Daniel wrote. “Afterward there was a complete account of the proposed invasion. My division was to spearhead the invasion of the largest island. Oh, thank you Harry, I made it.”
Daniel was 21, and ready to be discharged in Mississippi.
“I thought about my grandfather at age 13 being discharged in Mississippi 80 years ago from the Confederate army,” he wrote. “He walked all the way home to South Carolina. During these 80 years there was an industrial revolution, so I was able to get a bus home.”
Daniel went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Richmond in 1947 and a master’s degree in business administration from Ohio State University in 1949.
For 13 years, he was a manager for McKesson and Robbins, then the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, then was president from 1963 to 1974 of Ketchum, the nation’s second largest drug wholesaler.
When he turned 50 he retired from corporate life and went into real estate. He built five small office buildings and approximately 60 homes before developing housing for the elderly on the Connecticut coast. At one time he owned 550 condominiums and 120 apartments.
He and his first wife raised two children and have four grandchildren. His second wife, Elmira, lives at River Glen in Southbury, and suffers from dementia.
Daniel hasn’t kept anything tangible from his service, but he does cherish the French Legion of Honor medal he was given in 2009 at a ceremony in New York.
Napoleon created the Legion of Honor in 1802 to honor those who assisted the French.
“It’s the highest military honor in France,” said Daniel, who wondered why he was among the 2,000 or so American to receive the award.
The man with the keen mind found his answer.
“I learned with amazement that this Paris Commission had complete histories of all battles with most of the information coming from war correspondents and historians,” he wrote. “The commission obviously studied the major victories and the units involved and in so doing pared down the total to a small unit such as a platoon. In this way, individuals could be identified.”