Often in studies of the Second World War, and events like the Battle of Normandy, the sheer scope of the conflict prevents us from digging deeper. Figures of those wounded, captured, or killed become simply that: numbers, and we are unable to connect names to stories. It requires more than a momentary pause to truly understand the depth contained in such short fragments. These numbers represent individual men, many of them just boys, with names, hometowns, childhood memories, and rich, full lives that they led before volunteering for service and, out of a sense of duty and responsibility to their country, to risk making the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of others.
Standing here today, I would like to tell of the life of one of these courageous young men.
Theodore Gancarz was born in the western part of Massachusetts in the city of Holyoke. His parents, Adam and Felecia, were both immigrants from the European region of Galicia. He was the youngest of four siblings, with two brothers, Stanley and Chester, and a sister, Helen. His family situation changed over the years, although he lived at the same address, 121 High Street in Hampden, for most of his life.
Like many of his peer growing up in the shadow of the Great Depression, Theodore did not finish high school. He completed through his sophomore year, and then got a job as a sweeper in a nearby thread mill, working hard. Also like many of his peers, he married young, at 22, to his wife, Lillian. They moved to the nearby town of Chicopee together, where Theodore found work as a printer.
In a display of extreme self-sacrifice, Theodore left the safety of his new home and enlisted in the United States Army in 1942, the same year as his brother Chester. He was part of the 331st Infantry Division of the 83rd Infantry Regiment, which also served in WWI.
At Camp Atterbury Indiana, Theodore joined young men from all over the country, fresh from civilian life, to begin basic training. The men bonded with each other as they learned skills that would be put into use a mere two years later, transforming from civilians into soldiers. After further training in Tennessee, Kentucky, and New York, Theodore and his division sailed for England in April of 1944.
The division landed on Omaha Beach on June 21st through June 24th 1944, to replace the 101st Airborne Division at the front, taking defensive positions near Carentan. Overgrown mazes of hedgerows, forming tunnels, became a living hell for Theodore and his fellow infantrymen. Confusion, desperation, determination, and fear – always that shaking, stomach-churning fear, became part of daily life as they lived in the slit trenches of the bocage. But Theodore unselfishly pushed aside his own doubts and thoughts of home, and continued to fight.
On July 6th, the 83rd took the tiny hamlet of Coulot, and on July 7th were moving to taken neighboring Hottot the following day. The battles continued as strongly as they had before, among the hedgerows and the towns blow to pieces, mud in the grass mixing with blood. It was during this horrible fighting that Theodore Gancarz was killed in action. He was only 25 years old. He left his parents, siblings, and wife Lillian, who lived as a widow until her death.
Theodore’s division went on to fight with valor in Luxembourg and the Hurtgen Forest during the Battle of the Bulge. As the fighting raged on, men like Theodore, lost in the early days of such a bloody campaign, were not forgotten. Commended by Eisenhower at the end of the war, monuments to the unit’s sacrifice and bravery stand throughout Europe. Their sacrifices live on in the hearts of those they liberated at such great cost, showing us that they selfless deeds were not in vain.
As we must take steps to remember the men lost in all the battles of the war, we must remember to commemorate the men lost in the hellish hedgerow mazes that took their youth along with their lives. The spirits of Theodore Gancarz and the men he fought with still rest in the pews of the French churches that once held the wounded, the beaches that are now home to leisure instead of the slaughter they once saw, in the fields of farmers, and in the now-quiet, sunlit paths over which the hedgerows still tower, and where if you stand still enough, you can hear their voices. It is our job now, to listen.
Those lost on D-Day and in the days and weeks following cannot be forgotten. These men believed in their country and the democratic ideals it represented, pushing aside their own plans and dreams to free those living under tyranny. It is now our duty to honor and remember them by finding and telling their stories, by removing the dust that has gathered over the passing years. We must let others know of the sacrifices of these individuals, and to pass on the duty of memory to our children.
Every name in this cemetery has a story. These men deserve to have their stories remembered. The bravery, grit, and courage of men like Theodore Gancarz are an inspiration to us all, and their sacrifices, made in the most brutal of conditions, stand as monuments to the human spirit, lighting the way for us along the paths we walk together. It is because of him, and because of thousands of others like him, that we may stand here today in peace. Thank you.