As 91-year-old WWII veteran Howard Beach took his seat on the auditorium’s stage at Santa Ana’s Bethel Baptist School on Nov. 10 in preparation to speak with the student body, a hush fell over the room in anticipation.
Principal Danny Thomas, in commemoration of Veterans Day and the school’s 50th anniversary, invited Beach to share his military experiences with the students.
Although walking with a cane—a temporary aide until his sciatic nerve pain subsides—Beach was jovial and witty as he addressed the 225 students, many of them international students.
Beach shared his passionate stories of how his infantry unit stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, in the early days of June 1944 that began the assault on the German army.
“I wanted the students to have an appreciation of what sacrifice is and what it meant to sacrifice for your country,” said Beach, a devout Catholic and a parishioner of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fullerton. “I realized that the Divine Mercy was urging me to accept His “tough love” and to maintain sanity under the extreme regimen forced upon all of the troops, to face the stark reality of combat. It was an epiphany that consoled and brought me to embrace God’s mercy; to place my destiny in His Hands; His will be done.”
Over the next 11 months, Beach, just 18 years old at the time, fought in numerous battles in France, Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany.
Beach spoke about the severe conditions his unit endured, the despair of hopelessness, combat numbness and the constant fear of being ambushed.
The students were moved by his stories.
”I liked his presentation very much,” said 8th grade student Jessica Le. “He was so humble and I now understand about the sacrifices that were made for all Americans.”
Larry Barton, a history teacher at Bethel and a Vietnam and Gulf War veteran, explained the importance of the medals Beach earned during his service, including the Silver Star, awarded to Beach for his heroics in 1944.
“I wanted our students to meet and hear from a real WW II hero,” said Barton. “I wanted them to know that freedom is not free and many soldiers have given their lives for their country.”
Beach recalled a story about his unit coming upon a German hospital, filled with German soldiers confined to wheelchairs. They told the Americans they knew they were losing the war and displayed grave concerns that the Russians would occupy their section of Germany following the war.
“Ironically, for a few hours we had relief from the war,” Beach said. “We could relate to the injured German soldiers and we actually had compassion.”
Arriving in Marburg, Germany, Beach’s unit met an American woman, from Brooklyn, who was thrilled to open her home to the American soldiers. She had come to Germany before the war to visit relatives, but once the war broke out the Nazi government wouldn’t allow her to leave. She was homesick and thrilled to spend a few precious moments with fellow Americans.
Beach said the brief visit was a morale boost, however only a few hours later they were reminded of the brutal nature of war. His unit came upon 24 American soldiers who had been killed by German aircraft.
Beach captivated the young students with his fatherly manner and tone.
“It was educating,” said Olivia Moxie, 14. “I can’t believe I actually met a World War II veteran and heard his military experiences. His memory of what happened was so clear.”
One of the final stories Beach shared, and perhaps the most uplifting, began with the saying, ‘what goes around, comes around.’
Beach’s unit helped liberate Munster, Germany in the final months of the war in 1945.
“More than 60 years ago, I was involved in battle near Munster, Germany,” said Beach, a proud native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “That very city, in 2005 and 2006, is where my oldest daughter, Maripat, taught advanced German students [under the Fulbright Program]. I never could have predicted that she would be part of a process to build positive and construction relations in the same venue as my participation in the destruction back in 1944-45.”
As the program came to a close, Principal Thomas had the students rise to their feet and repeat, “I met a WW II vet.” It was followed by a roaring applause for Beach, who was clearly moved by the gesture. Following the program, Mrs. Dawn White and her second grade class presented Beach with an American Flag.
Touched by the enormous compassion, Beach personally greeted students and answered questions.
Beach completed his Army service in October 1945 and began a long career with the Industrial Corporation Appraisal Company. Over the past several years, he has made countless visits to schools throughout Orange and LA Counties sharing his military experiences. Beach also has written a book on his military career, The Private War of Howard Beach.
In 2004, Beach and his family traveled to Normandy to attend the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. During the ceremony, Beach was privileged to meet President George W. Bush and actor Tom Hanks.
Beach and his wife of 68 years, Murphy, currently reside in a senior living community in Fullerton.