Charles Maupin remembers coming ashore on Omaha Beach 75 years ago and seeing rows of fellow U.S. soldiers in the bloodstained sand, their bodies covered with ponchos. He remembers American officers interrogating German captives in the shadow of a cliff as a military truck smoldered nearby. He remembers following a column of tanks into the French countryside while they fired their machine guns at pockets of resistance in the woods, their tracer rounds glowing bright red.
The 99-year-old Columbus veteran will help others remember Thursday when he attends a commemoration at Fort Benning — complete with an Infantry School graduation ceremony, a jump by the Silver Wings Parachute Demonstration Team and a reading by a President Franklin D. Roosevelt reenactor — for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Western Europe that helped hasten the end of World War II.
Maupin is among a rapidly dwindling group of heroes. As of September, there were 496,777 surviving American veterans of WWII, including 9,323 in Georgia, Veterans Affairs Department figures show. The nationwide total is down by nearly half from 2015. Like Maupin, many survivors are in their 90s. The VA estimates there will be none left by 2045.
For these reasons, Maupin is urgently sharing his story. He especially wants young people to know it.
“Freedom isn’t free,” he said. “It comes at a terrible cost. But think of what it would cost, if you lost your freedom. Once lost, you can nearly hardly ever get it back.”
Plenty of close calls
Maupin lives alone in a Columbus retirement community, Covenant Woods, where he is revered. Recently, he sat in his easy chair, cradling his chin in his left hand and glancing at his framed collection of medals. A Bronze Star with an oak leaf cluster is among them.
Another collection of mementos sits on display to his left: a glass box full of gray sand and rocks from Omaha Beach, a French government medal naming him a knight of the Legion of Honor and a black-and-white photo of him in uniform from 1945, when he was still in Germany. His grave expression in the picture is perhaps a reflection of horrors he had witnessed in his journey across Europe. Outside on his balcony, an American flag flutters in a gentle breeze. Maupin shines a spotlight on it night and day.
Born in Columbus to an educator and an insurance company secretary, Maupin joined the military in 1942, three years after Germany started the war by invading Poland. He trained as a radio operator and was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 3rd Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. He remembers his voyage across the English Channel. In the morning of June 6, 1944, he saw Allied ships of all sizes darting toward France and heard the drone of airplanes overhead.
Because of the fierce fighting and confusion on the beach, his unit was unable to land on Omaha Beach as planned that day, so it arrived the next. When he arrived, he encountered a fellow American soldier who had apparently landed the day before. “Boy, are we glad to see you guys,” the stranger told Maupin.
Maupin’s unit would spend months fighting its way into Germany and then occupying it. The troops pushed through France along hedgerow-lined roads, once spotting a truckload of German soldiers pass by. Outside Saint-Lo, Maupin dug a trench along a road and crawled inside it for some rest, a lucky decision. Moments later, a German mortar round exploded near his trench, seriously injuring another radio operator who had not taken cover.
“Why was I spared?” Maupin said. “Sometimes I wonder: Divine intervention? But why me? Why not this guy, the guy who got hit?”
Plenty of other close calls prompted Maupin to deeply consider his mortality and his purpose in life. One day, an exploding German artillery shell injured his hand. He received a Purple Heart for that.
Another day, he had just dug a trench in the shade of an apple tree and had started writing a letter home when he heard a German shell whistle overhead. He scrambled for cover before another round hit 8 feet from him, spraying him with dirt. One shell struck an American soldier nearby, instantly killing him. Maupin remembers his most frightening experience in the war, the day he accompanied his battalion commander to the front line. The Germans began firing their cannons at them. Maupin hit the ground, making himself as flat as possible.
“I just prayed for it to stop. I had never been in something that bad,” he said. “Fortunately, I wasn’t hit. When I got up, there were shell holes within a few feet of my position.”
After the war
With expressive eyes and thick hair parted neatly to the side, Maupin appears far younger than his 99 years. His memory still sharp, Maupin can vividly recall his journey through Europe. He sprinkles in compelling details, like the time he encountered a Frenchwoman riding her bicycle past his convoy in the countryside. Strangely, she appeared unfazed by the fighting all around her.
When he finally got home, Maupin went to work as a building estimator. He married, got divorced, married a second woman, divorced her and then remarried her. His second wife, Marjorie, died in 2006. His stepsons look after him now.
“I didn’t expect to live this long. In fact, I didn’t expect to live through the war, but I did manage,” he said. “I have had a good life. I have lived longer than most of my friends.”
When he talks about the war, Maupin paraphrases the 19th-century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.
“War is merely an extension of politics by other means,” he said. “Politicians are the ones who want to go to war. The people don’t want war.
“It is a terrible thing,” he added. “In a war, both sides lose.”
But WWII, he said, was “a just war to prevent the enslavement of millions of people all over the world.”
“It was something I was glad I experienced, but I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”
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