Those who survived the storming of the beaches at Normandy and still live after 70 years – the tough old men who saved a world – are in France today.
They are in their late 80s and 90s. They walk bent but never bowed. Their backs carried the future of humanity. Each is owed the “thank you” of an entire world.
Others are owed thanks, too. Such as parents who gave $1 million so other peoples’ kids could go to college and have a chance at a better life, and a son who never got to see 21, who died for his country.
Thousands of Allied soldiers, so far from home, died that day – June 6, 1944. D-Day.
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James Freddie Bechtler, 24, a young guy from Rock Hill in the Army Air Corps, was aboard a bomber flying from England to the French coast. He never made it as the plane he was on crashed with another. So many young men died in the battle before the sun rose. Bechtler was unmarried, 5 feet 9 inches tall, 129 pounds – and he still died huge, trying to save freedom for all people, big or small.
When the sun came up, that huge Allied force of Americans and others was attacking the beaches at Normandy under heavy German fire that included shells as large as trash cans. Men died by the dozens and scores, cut to ribbons.
From one of the amphibious landing crafts that crossed rough seas rushed a guy everybody in Rock Hill called Sonny. He was one of the very first men ashore, because he was a minesweeper. His job was to rid the water and beaches of German mines.
Ernest “Sonny” Carroll Jr., Winthrop Training School class of 1941. Class president.
“A mighty good man, even as a young man,” said Jack Cox, 90, a friend of Sonny’s since the time they were in the fifth grade. “We grew up together. He was the best.”
Sonny, the first in his family to go to college, was in his second year of studying engineering at what was then Clemson College when his draft notice came. So Clemson had to wait. Sonny left his parents – Virginia and Ernest Sr. – and went to war.
His father would go to war, too. At 40, Ernest Sr. enlisted in the Marines and was in the Pacific at Guadalcanal in some of the worst of the Pacific fighting.
After Sonny shipped out, his parents did not know he was neck-deep in the water on that cold gray morning in June. Virginia was home alone on Eden Terrace in their Tudor home that stands to this day.
“Sonny was a mine detector,” said Roe Inman, a cousin. “My own daddy, four years younger than Sonny, idolized Sonny as only a younger cousin can idolize somebody.”
The pack on Sonny’s back weighed so much, and once he stepped off that landing craft he immediately was soaked through in the cold water. Bombs and mortars fell and bullets flew, and that beach was so close that Sonny almost could have reached out and touched it.
But he never did.
Sonny Carroll – who loved Clemson, who chased birds in the fields of York and pretty girls on the streets of Rock Hill – was among the thousands who died on D-Day.
The telegram arrived on Eden Terrace soon after. Sonny was missing, it read. Newsreel footage showing a wounded GI that some thought was Sonny gave hope to the family – but that hope did not last. Sonny died, drowning amid the bullets and bombs, in the English Channel.
He is buried in Rock Hill’s Laurelwood Cemetery.
Virginia would say well into her 90s that half of her died the day it was confirmed that Sonny was dead. Still, she gave incessantly of time and money and love – another six decades.
Ernest Sr. would dedicate the rest of his life to other people’s sons and daughters, too.
“Ernie, Sonny’s father, was near the end of his life, and I asked him about Sonny and he said, ‘My Sonny?’ and he put his hand over his heart,” Inman recalled. “He said, ‘Sonny was a good boy.’ Then he asked, ‘Why does there have to be war?’ ”
There remains no good answer. But the Sonny Carrolls of the world and their fathers fought and won those wars. Their mothers and wives fought at home.
Any kid who ever learned to swim outdoors at the Charlotte Avenue YMCA in Rock Hill in the last 30-plus years did so in a pool named for Sonny Carroll – built by parents who lost their 20-year-old son in the most awful battle in the most awful war.
In the past decade, dozens of students have received help to pay for college from the $1 million that Virginia and Ernest Carroll Sr. gave to Clemson University in honor of their son. It was money earned by the Carroll family bottling soft drinks and founding the old Rock Hill National Bank and in other endeavors of hard work and investment in York County and its people.
It is an endowment honoring Rock Hill and York County that will last as long as there is a Clemson University.
Virginia and Ernest Carroll Sr. were married for almost 77 years, after getting hitched when she was 17 and he was just 16. Sonny was their only child.
Ernest Sr. died in 2000. Virginia died in 2002.
But what these people – and their son – gave to their community, their state, their country and the world cannot die. It is a gift of sacrifice and love for people and country, for humankind.
As we stop today to remember what happened on D-Day, as we hear from and see those who survived it, don’t forget James Bechtler and Sonny Carroll – who left Rock Hill and never came home.