“As time proceeds, memories diminish, and the significance ebbs into oblivion. Occasional bursts of remembrance may capture a moment in time and permits some symbolic gesture of recognition for an event that occurred 70 years ago: the Normandy invasion.”
“Presidents, prime ministers, and royalty will assemble on the week of June 6, 2014, to commemorate that profoundly historic event . . . . Elected and appointed leaders of nations will make speeches, recounting the events. Then, as quickly as they assembled, the crowds will disappear and the events they came to commemorate will drift with the tide.”
That’s from the June 2014 edition of American Legion Magazine. But local resident and retired teacher Cathy Canaday will never forget Bert Dawson, her father, and the role he played in the Normandy invasion.
“Our parents’ generation did not talk about the war, so most of the information here was gleaned from a biography written by my daughter, Patricia, for an eighth-grade book contest,” Canaday wrote in an email. Her book, “My Hero,” took first place at a Solano County Reading Contest. Then in 2004, when her daughter was in college, the Canadays traveled to the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and plan to attend the 70th anniversary next month.
World War II started when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. By 1940, Germany had invaded Austria, part of Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France. Later that year, Germany began an air attack against Britain to prepare for an invasion.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, her father Bert Dawson joined the Army Air Corps. There was a great need for pilots because this was an aerial war fought against Hitler and the Germans. Pilot training was offered first to college graduates and then later to those who could pass a rigorous I.Q. test. Her father passed the test and went to Biggs Field, Texas for training.
Being a typical 19-year-old, Dawson buzzed a farmer riding a tractor during his solo flight and was immediately busted from staff sergeant to private first class. When asked what else he could do, his reply – “I can shoot” – immediately sent him to gunnery school, where he qualified as expert and regained his staff sergeant rank.
Assigned to the 8th Air Force, 453rd Bomb Group, he shipped to Norwich, England, to participate in the European Theater of Operations. After completing aerial gunnery school, Dawson became a gunner on a B-24 Liberator. His plane was aptly named “The Round Trip” and carried its crew through 33 combat missions.
One of their greatest missions included the first daylight raid on Berlin. The group targeted the diesel engines plant, believed to be manufacturing the engines for flying bombs. The 34 planes that attacked the plant carried 71 tons of bombs.
On June 5, 1944, all soldiers were told to stand by, no phone calls, and to report for briefing. Doors locked and roll taken; the secret briefing began with a wire from Gen. Jimmy Doolittle. The operations officer, Lt. Col. Jimmy Stewart (the actor), told the group that the enemy defenses must be destroyed. “The success of all men of all nations participating will be profoundly affected by our efforts,” he said.
Dawson’s 453rd would bomb the beaches for the D-Day invasion. Much to their disappointment, the overcast skies made it impossible to see very much below. On the way back from bombing St. Laurent, her father looked down and compared the landing “to an invasion of ants.”
While the fighting went on in Italy, U.S. and British bombers ceaselessly pounded German cities and military bases from the air. These attacks gave the Allies control of the skies over Western Europe. After a few weeks of heavy fighting and a buildup of troops, supplies and ships, the Allies broke through the German defenses.
D-Day arrived June 6, 1944.
Canaday proudly remembers her father’s awards, which included the Air Medal with three oak clusters, the European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with four bronze stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Good Conduct Medal.
I wish the family a safe journey to Normandy next month to commemorate her father’s heroic deeds on behalf of our country.
Mayrene Bates is a trustee on the Solano County Board of Education. Reach her by email at [email protected]