'It's a miracle'
On June 6, 1944, Frank Hernandez stepped off a landing ship into knee-deep water on the Normandy coast of France as part of the D-Day invasion.
Hundreds of allied planes from England flew overhead to bomb German targets, while the enemy pounded the beach with artillery, killing thousands of soldiers.
“Some of the bombs would lift me up into the air,” remembered the 93-year-old Medford resident.
The Army infantry scout was no sooner on the beach as part of the first wave of the invasion when a bullet tore through his leg.
“I was picked up by medics, but they had to drop me down because of enemy fire,” Hernandez said.
Eventually he was taken to a more secure spot, and a military plane landed on the beach and airlifted Hernandez and another vet back to England.
“When I first went to Normandy, I didn’t get any farther than the beach,” he said.
On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Hernandez is one of a dwindling number of veterans still alive to tell their stories of the moment when the Allies gained the upper hand during World War II.
More than 160,000 troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast, facing an onslaught from German guns.
Hernandez wasn’t supposed to be on the beach that day, because he was too young for combat.
At the hospital, he remembers his conversation with a nurse vividly.
“One thing I’ll never forget was the nurse said, ‘How lucky you are to get wounded now.’”
She said a new medication, penicillin, would set him all right. Hernandez still winces more at the memory of the shot in his backside than the wound to his leg. He still carries a bit of shrapnel in his calf as a reminder of his wound — along with his Purple Heart.
After his recovery, and after he celebrated his 19th birthday, Hernandez once again was sent back to France to help push deeper into enemy territory.
Hernandez’s job was to scout out enemy positions and alert the soldiers behind him with a signal, essentially raising his gun above his head.
One time the enemy advanced toward him as he hunkered down on the ground, and the Germans passed him by — Hernandez said it’s probably because of his small size.
His commanders often told Hernandez and the other soldiers that if they were captured, they would likely be shot.
Eventually, he got to test that warning.
While on a scouting expedition, the Germans captured him, and one of the soldiers was ordered to shoot Hernandez.
Quick to learn languages, Hernandez cried out in German, “Don’t shoot me.”
His wife, Carmen, said, “Frank got down on his knees and said the Our Father in Spanish.”
The Germans, mystified, thought he wasn’t American, and the commander yelled out, “Stalag,” or prison, and Frank was marched for days to a prison camp by a soldier.
Frank recalls, “I had a gun in my back pocket, a German luger that I’d picked up, but I didn’t kill him.”
Finally, he told the soldier he had to go to the bathroom and got rid of the luger.
“I don’t feel like I killed anybody in the war,” he said.
His wife said, “Frank has a big heart.”
Because he was captured by the Germans, the military informed his parents in San Diego that he had died, and a San Diego newspaper reported that he had died in action.
“His poor mother must have been devastated,” said Carmen, who is 91.
Despite his reluctance to kill the enemy, Frank performed his scout duties admirably, receiving numerous medals for his service. Former French President Francois Mitterand honored Frank and other D-Day veterans for their service.
After the war, Frank went to a dance competition in San Francisco, where a woman caught his eye.
“All the women wanted to dance with him because he was a great dancer,” Carmen said. “I didn’t want to dance with him, because I couldn’t dance well.”
But Frank was smitten, even though Carmen, just out of high school, acknowledged it wasn’t love at first sight.
“He was my first boyfriend, and my last,” she said.
Frank persisted, eventually marrying Carmen, and they had three boys and three girls. They started a cabinet-making business together, and Frank was in a band and could play many instruments. The couple have been married for 71 years.
Even though Frank has had a number of health problems throughout his life, Carmen said he has been successful at everything he’s turned his mind to in life.
“To me he is a great hero,” Carmen said.
Both Carmen and Frank said they are happy to share the memories of their long lives.
“It’s a miracle we’re still here,” Carmen said.
“It’s a miracle I’m still here,” Frank said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email@example.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.