READING — We can scarcely imagine what it was like to sit on one of the landing crafts, speeding toward the fortified beaches of Normandy, 75 years ago. There are novels, movies, and documentaries that in some small parts encapsulate the experience, but the best way to learn about D-Day is by hearing the stories of veterans who had lived through it. At the Pleasant Street Center, Reading honored D-Day veterans Al Azjian, Arthur Hubbard, and Jack Swymer during a meeting of veterans, government officials, and family, recounting the events from a war fought long ago.
To liberate German-occupied France, the Allied forces launched the largest amphibious landing operation in military history on June 6, 1944. A lifetime later, the anniversary of D-Day fell on the first Thursday of June, coinciding with the monthly meeting of Reading veterans known as the Scuttlebutt. Every first Thursday of each month, Reading Veterans’ Services Officer Kevin Bohmiller invites veterans to the Pleasant Street Center for catching up, sharing stories, and discussing military history. This Scuttlebutt was filled with attendees as they crowded to hear the stories of Reading’s Hubbard, 95, and North Reading’s Swymer, 93. Both men had landed at Normandy in their late teenage years and remembered their wartime experiences with clear detail.
Swymer, originally from Woburn, joined the war effort at 18 as a diesel engine mechanic. By the time of the Normandy invasion, Swymer was a Third class Machinist Mate tasked with checking the engines of the LCT (Landing Craft Tank) and manning the front ramp. Swymer, speaking in front of the packed room, described his challenges in moving the heavy equipment to the front lines, facing enemy fire and the natural obstacles of the beach. He recalled that a transport hit a sandbar and unloaded a jeep, which sunk into the sea. Over the course of the invasion, Swymer and the transport crew managed to deploy other tanks and troops with greater success.
Moving back and forth between the beaches and the cargo ships, Swymer encountered many different soldiers on the transports. Some, he described, were “green,” meaning they were new to the armed forces and this was their first invasion. Swymer contrasted them to the experienced soldiers who had previously fought in the Salerno landings during the Italian invasion. On the transports, the “green” soldiers were more eager to hold a conversation, even joking a bit. Before deployed to the beaches, one asked Swymer, “Why are you dropping me off and you’re leaving?” Swymer replied, “That’s the way things happen.”
With thousands of men deployed to the beaches, Swymer described the multitudes of ships contributing to the massive firefight. He unloaded the chaplain’s vehicle onto the beach, recounting that the chaplain, from Boston Archdiocese, had dropped with the paratrooper forces earlier and was killed in action. Swymer continued to operate the LCT ramp, bringing more crucial equipment to the men on the beaches. “At the end of the day, we were okay,” Swymer said. With the success of D-Day paving the way forward for the Allied victory in Europe, Swymer concluded that the invasion was “such a magnificent undertaking.”
For Hubbard, a Corporal in the US Army, his experience with D-Day was significantly different. He had landed on Omaha Beach twice. In a camp off the southern coast of England, Hubbard had prepared six months for the invasion. There, he observed maps of Pointe du Hoc so detailed that when he eventually arrived, he said, “I almost felt I was there before.”
On June 1, Hubbard boarded an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) to France. This LST, USS LST-510, is still in operation in New London, Connecticut as a ferry to Long Island. On the day of the invasion, Hubbard’s main task was to locate an advance scout who had lost contact. “The ocean was just loaded with boats,” Hubbard remembered, also adding that the sky was filled with planes above the invasion fleet. The next day, Hubbard and the 110th AAA Gun Battalion observed the wreckage of the beaches. Unable to find the scout, Hubbard recounted the difficulty of identifying the countless fallen soldiers on the beaches. The scout was later found alive, rejoining the Allies in England. After a few weeks on the French coast, Hubbard participated in several prominent battles, including the Liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Battle of Remagen. Fighting through France, Belgium, and finally into Germany, Hubbard was in Stuttgart when he learned the war was over. After 18 months of combat, he was just 20 years old.
Azjian, a Navy signalman and gun crewmember aboard the SS Theodore Parker during D-Day, was unable to attend the event in Reading due to medical reasons. Bohmiller thanked Azjian for his service, and honored the more than 4,000 American soldiers that gave their lives during the invasion. This included Private Roy J. Sherrod of Reading, who was a member of the paratrooper regiment of the 101st Airborne Division and was killed in action.
Several state legislators and government officials attended the event, thanking and honoring Hubbard and Swymer. State Senator Jason Lewis said, “In the presence of two American heroes, it’s so humbling.” Awarding the two men with Senate citations, Lewis said that the current way of American life was thanks to their generation’s wartime sacrifices.Reading’s State Representatives Bradley Jones and Richard Haggerty delivered adjacent citations, thanking the veterans for their service. Haggerty said that their generation “built the America that I inherited,” fighting for liberty. Jones had spoken to his family before the Reading event, and said, “They knew I wouldn’t be able to get through this without getting misty eyed.” He concluded by delivering the citations, “The greatest generation is leaving us far too fast.”
Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena was the last government official to award the two veterans, handing them both commemorative Challenge Coins and affixing D-Day remembrance pins to their shirts. Extending thanks from Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, Urena then thanked all of the veterans in the room for their service. “Whenever you get the chance, talk to a veteran and pass on their story,” Urena said, concluding the event.