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'I'm still here. I was lucky': Lawrence man, 94, recalls WWII on 75th anniversary of D-Day

Lawrence man, 94, recalls WWII on 75th anniversary of D-Day

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LAWRENCE — The campaigns listed on Herman Bazin's honorable discharge document, lying on his kitchen table, read like America's World War II history in Europe.

Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes, Central Europe.

Normandy sticks out on this list, today being the 75th anniversary of the largest coastal invasion ever. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, 160,000 troops were launched from England to France on a single day.

Bazin, of Lawrence, says his 94-year-old brain remembers events from so long ago like a series of still photographs. Gaps fall between the memories. 

It helps if he talks about the past chronologically. So he starts, and sometimes, when one of those gaps appear, he goes back and starts again.

His overall assessments are straightforward, spiked with humor and grounded in reality. 

He was born at home on Oxford Street in Lawrence, one of two children. His dad was a textile dye person at the Pacific Mills, and his mom a homemaker.

He was drafted a few weeks after the Fourth of July in 1943. He had just graduated from Lawrence High and was sent to Fort Devens for a nice flat haircut before being taken by train to Fort Hood, Texas for basic training.

Then came WWII and almost two years in Europe including stops in England, France, Belgium and Germany.

For years after the war, and after graduating from Northeastern University under the G.I bill of education benefits, Herman worked in labs as a chemist. He lived in Lawrence with his sister and her husband. He didn't marry and has no children.

"I am what they call the last man standing," he says, sitting at the table where sits a small old photo of him in uniform from 1943.

Mostly, the U.S. Army veteran remembers colorful and moving things — often about the conditions. 

Like departing on buses from Lawrence for Fort Devens with other young men and lots of crying. There were mothers crying over sons, sisters over brothers, girlfriends over boyfriends, wives over husbands. Puddles of tears, he said.

Or sweating profusely in the Texas summer heat during boot camp and sleeping at night among crawly things in the desert. He remembers pulling out his flashlight and seeing a snake crawl over him.

"That scared me more than the war," he said.

In WWII, in the cramped quarters of a tank crew, he sat on top of a live shell.

"If I ever got hit I would be blown into little pieces," he said. "But I'm still here. I was lucky."

After the Battle of the Bulge, he served in a tank crew with a bunch of Southern boys from Alabama and Mississippi. When snow and bitter cold ground all action to a halt and they all were freezing, Bazin advised they do what he did as a kid in Lawrence.

He showed them how to build a snow fort. The soldiers slept in the forts, sheltered from the biting cold and wind.

He told them to find some hay. They requisitioned straw from a nearby farm and stuck it in their gloves and boots to warm their fingers and feet.

ORDERS AND RATIONS

The war was all about survival, he said. It was thrust on you and you did what you had to do.

Early on, at boot camp, a salty old sergeant taught them about following orders. The first fellow who disobeyed ended up marching back and forth in front of the barracks with his foot locker on his shoulder.

Thereafter he towed the line, did what he was told. So did the others.

Bazin was a gunner in the 7th Tank Destroyer Group. He also was a radio operator.

When he first arrived in Europe on a troop ship to Liverpool, England, on March 11, 1944, the soldiers spent months marching and training in open fields. Everyone sensed something big was afoot.

They landed at Utah Beach on the coast of Normandy in one of the later waves after the beacheads had been secured by the infantry. He fought the Germans in France and Belgium and Germany.

While at battle they ate K-rations packed in a box. Spam from small round cans. Hard crackers. A chocolate bar. And two slices of chewing gum.

They were advised to keep their personal things in their pockets. To conserve space the tank crews hung their packs on the outside, where they were exposed to strafing fire and exploding shells.

Inside it was Bazin's job to fire the tank gun, its cannon.

He recalled being part of an operation in which his tank battalion and another group caught a German force between them and the Germans surrendered in droves.

After the hostilities Bazin was stationed in a Belgian town, given military police responsibilities. He was a beat cop, of sorts, keeping order among the GIs' with lots of time on their hands.

He returned back home to the states, again by sea, arriving in New York right before Christmas in 1945. He got a pass to go home and a train to Lawrence and walked to his house at 43 Newton St.

His sister saw him at the door and was so surprised all she could say was, 'Oh, that is you."

"When my mother saw me, oh my God, she started to cry," Bazin said. "She wrapped her arms around me and she wouldn't let me go."

The next day, all he had to wear was his uniform. So he went to a clothing store on Water Street and bought a suit.

He was honorably discharged Dec. 30, 1945.

POST-WAR LIFE

After that things got better. A friend told him about the GI Bill and a co-op program at Northeastern University.

He went to school and landed a job he liked.

The Lawrence Veterans Services office gave him a birthday party on May 10 this year.

Bazin gets Meals on Wheels and Donna Macklin Rivera and Jaime Melendez of the Lawrence Veterans Services check in on him. Neighbors look out for him, too.

Melendez says he looks at Bazin's service record and it makes him proud of the generation of WWII vets.

"I consider them a national treasure. As long as we have them, we have to appreciate them," Melendez said.

Bazin says his body feels good. 

He doesn't like using a wheelchair. He prefers two canes. He smiles and laughs.

When he looks at his old photo from 1943 he says he can't believe he had all that hair.

"I looked good," he said.

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