Operation recall: Will WWII vet get back to Normandy?

Posted: May 28, 2014

ARMY VETERAN Harry Snyder used to have the letter the French schoolteacher sent to his mother in Philadelphia asking if he'd survived the war.

He can't find it anymore. It's been 70 years.

Snyder, 92, doesn't know if his mother ever wrote the man back. He doesn't know if the teacher who invited him to his home for dinner when he was a young soldier ever knew that, unlike so many others, he made it out alive.

A group of young filmmakers from the Philly suburbs is hoping to give Snyder the chance to find that schoolteacher and to visit France, which he last saw during the Invasion of Normandy 70 years ago.

"This isn't like going to the mall or something," Snyder said. "This is a big thing."

Snyder is one of an estimated 1.2 million World War II veterans still alive today out of the more than 16 million who served. World War II vets are dying at a rate of more than 500 a day, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that in just 22 years, there won't be any veterans left from America's "Greatest Generation."

Director Britt Rawcliffe, 24, assistant director Rachel Smith, 27, and producer Jonathan Kobryn, 23, aren't much older than Snyder was when he landed on the shores of Normandy, but the world they live in is immeasurably different.

"Seventy years is a long time and it is a whole world apart," Rawcliffe said. "We can't even imagine what it was like during World War II."

Thus, the title for their documentary, "Normandy: A World Apart."

Rawcliffe, a freelance photographer specializing in aerospace and military work, said she grew up watching World War II films, and many of her family members have served in the military.

"This project started because we wanted to make sure future generations don't forget what happened and the sacrifice that all these gentlemen and women made," she said. "And also, so our veterans' families have records of that time in their life and that they might talk about something that they may have not known."

Smith said they began talking about following a veteran back to Normandy in November and started with the project full-force in January. They searched for a subject by posting "wanted" fliers for veterans who'd served in the Normandy invasion.

"A lot of the nursing homes were accusing us of soliciting," said Smith, who is using the documentary as her thesis at the University of the Arts. "So it was kind of difficult."

After spotting one of the fliers, a friend called Snyder, who lives in Lansdale with his wife, and told him to reach out to the group. That was in April.

"We clicked right away," Rawcliffe said. "He has a fantastic personality."

Snyder was engaged to Doris, the pretty girl he met at the Pla-Mor Roller Rink on Frankford Avenue, when he was drafted into the Army in 1943 and stationed in England. Snyder said he wasn't part of a regular unit but rather a "package" of about 100 men of all different skills.

As D-Day approached, Snyder's group was taken to a beach in England where the men were given French money, "a letter from Eisenhower telling us what we're going to do," and various types of clothing. They were then put into a barbed-wire enclosure.

"Before the invasion all the troops that were going to partake in the invasion were contained so nobody could find out what the actual day was going to be," he said.

Snyder didn't land on the beaches of Normandy until June 12, six days after D-Day. By that time, all the bodies had been removed from the beach but there were broken tanks and artillery everywhere, he said. The line was four or five miles back from the beach by that point.

"We walked up this big hill on Omaha Beach," he said. "There was white tape on either side you had to stay in or you might step on a mine."

Snyder, a half-track driver, eventually fell in with the 67th Armor Regiment when they experienced heavy casualties. He said he did a lot of menial jobs, like digging foxholes or doing guard duty until Operation Cobra, when the troops started to move inland.

"They had a thousand bombers come over and bomb a strip five miles wide, half a mile deep," he said. "Everything in there was dead. It was strange to watch all those planes come over and drop the bombs in the same place until there was nothing left, until everything was cleaned out.

"We didn't know what was happening until they said, 'Let's go!' " Snyder said. "Then, we moved out."

As Snyder and his company made their way through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, he had several close calls with death, but what he'd rather remember is the celebration of life he saw along the way.

"All the civilians were clapping their hands and cheering; everybody was happy," he said. "That's the way it went along through the little villages; everybody was glad to see us."

He remembers the schoolteacher who invited him to his house for dinner, and he remembers drinking his first glass of champagne with some French citizens who'd hidden a stash of it from the Nazis in anticipation of a victory they didn't know was coming.

He also remembers falling asleep outside his vehicle one night and a French woman coming to tuck him in when his blanket fell off his body.

When Snyder returned home, he didn't talk about the war.

"I don't know why," he said. "I didn't think it was that important, I guess. At that time, I didn't realize how important it was."

Snyder married Doris in February 1946, two months after he returned. The couple had three children. After a job with a microfilm company, Snyder spent the remainder of his career making precision parts for an instrument company.

Doris Snyder said she doesn't recall her husband talking about the war.

"But I know if we were in the movie or something and they'd always have a news thing on first, he'd look away," she said.

She said her husband has only really opened up about his experiences as a result of the documentary.

"I was never a hero, I was never John Wayne running with machine guns and shooting," Harry Snyder said. "We all had our jobs to do."

Now, Rawcliffe, Smith and Kobryn feel it's their job to document Snyder's story and bring it full circle by taking him back to France.

Snyder, who hasn't been out of North America since World War II, just got his passport. Unfortunately, the trip, which they hope to make in late June or early July, is still in limbo.

The filmmakers, who are holding a crowdsourcing campaign to finance their voyage, have raised only a third of the money they need. Those interested in donating to "Normandy: A World Apart" are asked to go to film's fundraising site at www.indiegogo.com/projects/normandy-a-world-apart.

The group is also holding a beef-and-beer benefit at 7 p.m. Friday at the Willow Grove VFW. Anyone interested in tickets can contact normandy@aworldapart movie.com.

Snyder said the filming and interviews the crew have done with him have already brought "a lot of stuff back that I forgot about." A trip to the land he helped to free could bring back so many more.

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