Normandy vets drop back in
Stars and Stripes June 8, 2003
AMFREVILLE, France — Joe “Buck” Tolbert walked hand in hand with his niece, searching the Normandy countryside for memories that were 59 years old.
“I remember it clearly,” he said. “Someone changed the roads. But it hasn’t changed in my mind.”
Tolbert dropped into Normandy on June 9, 1944, three days after the invasion began as part of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The unit was sent as part of the D-Day invasion to drive the German army from northern France.
On Friday, Tolbert walked the hedgerows again for just the second time. Some of his comrades had come for a ceremony here to honor the fight they waged. As they gathered with some local French people at a monument in the Americans’ honor, Tolbert went in search of something more personal.
“This is all he wanted to do,” said his niece, Beverly Tupper, as they walked through a back yard off a dirt road that had looked familiar to her uncle. “He’s waited 59 years for this.”
They weren’t alone.
Tolbert met a local Frenchman the night before who knew the countryside and the history of the battle for Amfreville. By Friday, a crew of a half-dozen locals had joined in to help Tolbert.
“His very best friend dropped into the water and drowned,” said Tupper, who did most of the talking for her uncle. The area where they’d landed 59 years ago had flooded.
“Joe was desperate, too, but somebody pulled him out,” she said. “There were 189 men in his unit. Eleven lived. Most of it took place right here in Amfreville when they were fighting the Germans.
The niece said her uncle was shot in the face two days after he dropped into Normandy when he tried to steal a truck.
“His commanding officer said they needed it to carry ammunition,” she said. “After he was shot, they took him to a liberty ship. His face was really swollen.
“He told the doctor: ‘No, I want to keep fighting.’ ”
The old soldier was dressed for the search.
Tolbert wore Army fatigues with shiny black boots laced up high. Het wore his dog tag around his neck, which he said was still hanging by its original string.
Roger Delarocque, the Frenchman leading the way, was the only local who spoke English. He asked Tolbert if he wished to ride in a car, instead of climbing into an old jeep brought in for the occasion.
“The jeep,” Tolbert replied.
The motorcade drove down dirt roads and between hedgerows, stopping whenever Tolbert sensed something familiar. Then they’d get out and walk. The Frenchmen peppered him with questions, which were translated by Delarocque.
Tolbert walked slowly. He talked slowly with an Oklahoma drawl. But as he scanned pastures and old buildings, his mind worked quickly behind his furrowed brow.
The small motorcade stopped at a pasture on a one-lane dirt road, and Tolbert once again climbed out of the jeep. He said something into his niece’s ear.
“Is your foxhole out there?” she asked.
“That’s got to be it,” he replied.
But Tolbert did not know for sure. He couldn’t. The roads aren’t the only things that have changed in 59 years. Saplings have grown into trees. Old buildings have been torn down and grown over.
When asked about the small commotion created by the local French, he replied, “These people are trying to help me, and I think they have helped me.” He looked out into the pastures as black-and-white cows wandered close by.
“I wish I could just go bounce around in that field for a while [to find his foxhole]. “I believe we found the place where we were.”
Tolbert later fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where his niece said he was again enlisted to steal trucks for use by the Allies.
His experience paid off.
After the war, he fixed his grandfather’s old truck and used it to haul watermelons in Seminole, Okla. One thing led to another and he eventually built up a trucking company that employed 22 men and ran 30 tractor-trailers.
He and his wife, Shirley, were married for more than 50 years. She died a few years ago. Two years ago, Tolbert had a stroke. His niece said he has made a great recovery.
“His mind is very sharp,” she said.
Tolbert’s motorcade pulled up to yet another house that looked familiar. A woman old enough to remember the battle came out. She answered Delarocque’s questions as best she could.
The old soldier wandered behind her property. He walked behind an old shed and looked out past some trees, said something in his niece’s ear.
The entourage returned to their cars — Tolbert in his jeep — and motored away down dusty one-lane road. The lady stood on her doorstep, smiled and waved goodbye.
The search party returned for lunch at a local reception.
Tolbert leaned on the jeep and thought about what the trip has meant.
“I still didn’t see what I’d come to find — unless that was it back there,” he said, referring to the cow pasture.
“And I think it was.”