72 years ago they were there on D-Day

Jun-6-2016

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As the World War II veteran population shrinks, two Creekside residents remain among the "last standing"

HUNTSVILLE, Texas - More than 16 million Americans served during World War II, and now the number remaining stands at less than one million. Two local veterans are among those "last men standing." Verner Lathrop, right, will turn 101 on July 18, and Barney Driscoll will mark his 92nd birthday on October 22 this year.

The two men now live peaceful lives at Creekside Retirement Community, but 72 years ago their lives were anything but peaceful. Both participated in the D-Day invasion on the beaches of France on June 6, 1944.

Verner Lathrop left his sharecropper farm in Trinity, Texas, to join the Army at age 24 in 1939, just as Hitler closed the last remaining Jewish-owned businesses in Germany. After basic training at Ft. Sam Houston, Lathrop completed medical training at Camp Grant in Illinois before finally taking his assignment as part of the 77th Evacuation Unit. He was sent to Algiers, Sicily and Italy as part of the 261st Medical Battalion before being ordered to England to join troops preparing for D-Day.

At 7:30 a.m., after an 80-mile ride across the ocean aboard a Landing Ship Tank (LST), he landed as part of the second wave of American troops at Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Within 45 minutes of landing, and with German planes strafing the beach, he helped set up tents for the medical and food units. There he prepared food for doctors, troops and the wounded. In 10 days, more than 3,500 troops were received, treated, shipped out or buried.

Lathrop served in the European theatre until 1945 and stayed in the army until August 1, 1970, when he was honorably discharged at the age of 55.

Barney Driscoll saw D-Day action from thousands of feet in the air. He served as a radio operator sitting behind the co-pilot in a B-24. He can remember one mission where their airplane took heavy fire and landed with more than 300 holes blown into it.

He learned about D-Day the night before at a 10:00 p.m. briefing. They took off at 2:00 a.m. headed for Omaha Beach. The weather made the bombing mission extremely difficult because visibility was poor. The crews compensated by overshooting their targets, because undershooting would send bombs on their own Allied troops.

In all, Driscoll flew 30 missions. On one flight, he narrowly missed taking a chunk of shrapnel to the head. But one of his worst experiences occurred over the North Sea, where the plane "got shot up real bad." It lost an engine and crash landed at a British base. He spent three weeks in the hospital before returning to duty.

Driscoll has a few good memories of the war, though. His crew was one of the first to fly with radar, so it flew lead with other bomber groups. One of those groups included Jimmy Stewart, a well-known actor of the time. Driscoll visited with Stewart at annual reunions for more than 20 years after the war.

Statistics tell us the generation of World War II veterans continues to decline at a rate of 430 a day. They take with them the only remaining first-person memories of that terrible day. Thanks to Verner Lathrop and Barney Driscoll and thousands of other men who were there on D-Day, it was the beginning of an epic battle that they eventually won.