Lynn Stockdill was a 20-year-old military policeman attached to the 101st Airborne Division when he arrived on Utah Beach on June 7, 1944 — D-Day plus one.
In a letter to his future wife, he wrote tenderly of his love for her and memories of home. He only briefly referred to his arrival on the beaches of Normandy in Nazi-occupied France the day after allied troops stormed the beaches at great human cost.
“Well, Arlene, I imagine even before you received this letter that you had guessed that I’m no longer in England, nor have I been for some time. But don’t let it worry you honey because actually I’m just as safe here as I was in England,” Stockdill wrote. “To tell the truth I’m real lucky. I’m back here where it’s safe and all I had to give up when I came here was my cot, and well for some of the fellows up front it isn’t quite that simple.”
SLIDESHOW | Read Stockdill's full letter home
Seventy years later, his daughter Bonnie Schmitz and granddaughter, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tamera Hall, retraced his steps using a map he kept on his wartime travels.
They devised the trip, Schmitz said, once they knew that her daughter was to be stationed in Germany.
“We thought it would really be cool if we could go to Normandy, being dad had landed there,” Schmitz said.
In the fall of 1945, Stockdill returned to North Dakota, where he was born on his parent’s rural Midwestern farm in what is now the ghost town of Hartland. He married his sweetheart about a year later and went on to raise a family.
Like many in his generation, however, he didn’t talk about the war much and never showed any interest in returning to Europe. But one day, when Schmitz’s two boys were visiting grandpa and grandma on the farm, she recalled, her oldest son had brought along the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”
The boys said their grandfather watched the entire movie very quietly. When it was over, he got out the pocket map that he carried with him during the war and showed them the routes he traveled, marked in pencil.
Using the map, letters that Stockdill wrote home to his sweetheart and the few stories that he did eventually share, Hall and Schmitz were able to piece together a plan to retrace his steps.
Starting in the village of Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy with their husbands, Dick Schmitz and Ray Hall, they visited the Airborne Museum and were overwhelmed by emotion. But tears turned to smiles by the time the group continued on to Utah Beach. Hall spoke of her grandfather’s lighthearted spirit. Stockdill passed away in 2010.
“I think that we spend so much time being sad,” Hall said. “And being able to laugh and enjoy that whole trip is probably how grandpa would’ve wanted it.”
Schmitz and Hall gained insight and understanding on their trip, though both said it was hard to put into words why the trip was important. It was a way to honor a man they adored.
“It’s being able to walk where he did and see the things that he saw,” Hall said. “But being able to share that with him, even though he’s not here, kind of keeps that bond alive.”