Visiting With Two Very Special Veterans
By Steve O’Connor
(Originally posted on May 24, 2009)
In the following essay, originally read on UMass Lowell’s Sunrise program on WUML, Steve O’Connor remembered a day spent with two very special veterans, Edwin Poitras and Jack Flood, both of whom survived unsurvivable circumstances during World War II. Both are real American heroes. Poitras died in 2006. Flood died in 2013.
While doing some research on the internet lately, I came across a web site dedicated to the Museum of World War II, in Natick, Massachusetts. It’s possible to take a virtual tour of the museum, but I learned that it is not open to the public; an invitation is required. Prospective visitors must write an explanation of who they are and why they would like to see the private collection. This is just the sort of mysterious affair to pique my curiosity, so I immediately sent an email explaining that I was doing research for a novel and wanted to visit with a couple of decorated WWII veterans to commemorate VE day. A few days later, I received a call from the curator, asking if May 7th would be convenient. He gave me directions, explaining that the building was unmarked, but that there was a 14-inch shell on either side of the front entrance. In police circles, he said, we call that a clue.
When I asked Edwin Poitras and Jack Flood if they’d like to go, both accepted readily. A survivor of the North African campaign against German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Jack Flood found himself wading through waist-deep water on a little piece of hell on a beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Edwin Poitras, a Lowell resident who speaks French, was selected for spy training, and was dropped into Nazi-occupied France to prepare the way for invading soldiers like Jack.
The weather report for May 7, like the weather report for D-Day, was stormy. The weatherman said that there would be high winds and torrential rains. My wife said, “Maybe you should postpone the trip.” Somehow I just couldn’t imagine telling a guy who stormed Omaha Beach and another guy whose plane was shot down shortly after he parachuted out of it that we couldn’t go because it was raining. They had been to places where it was raining fire and lead. So, I set off with Edwin and Jack for Natick. The old fellas talked a little bit about the war on the way down, and a lot about their boyhoods in Lowell. Neither man had an easy life.
Edwin’s father died when he was a boy, but he got a job with the carnival, selling popcorn and candy apples for a dollar a day, plus food. He sent all the money home to his mother, because he only needed food. Later, he worked five days a week in the Boot Mills, and on Saturdays helped the ice man deliver blocks of ice for the ice boxes people used to keep food from spoiling.
Jack worked at the A&P Market beside the Sun Building in Kearney Square. He said that someone there knew a lot of the kids from Upper Broadway and got them jobs. He also later drove a Lowell Sun truck with Pugsy Walsh and Buster Meehan, father of the current UMass Lowell Chancellor. Guess where Jack’s seven dollars a week went? You got it. To his mother. “Your grandfather,” Jack Flood tells me, “was working up in Tyngsboro painting a house. He could take the train back to Lowell for five cents, but he preferred to walk back to Lowell, so that he could stop in North Chelmsford and spend the five cents on a cold glass of beer.” He told me how my grandfather and father would leave their house in the Acre, carrying a ladder, one at each end, over to Pawtucketville or Centralville, or up to Belvidere, to paint a house. “And that’s as true as there’s a God in heaven,” he says.
Edwin turns around in the front seat and says, “Hey Jack, howabout hot water heaters? Wasn’t that a blessing? We hooked them up to the stove,” he explains to me. It’s difficult to believe that the two men with me come from a time before hot water, before electricity in homes, and when painters carried their ladders on their shoulders across the city. They discover that they were both friendly with the blacksmith whose business was near the School Street cemetery. “You know where they buried all the dead horses?” Edwin asks, “Over at Dead Horse Lane.” There’s a colorful address for you.
I can’t help wondering if their hard lives and simple faith were part of what made the Greatest Generation so great. They seem to have had so little, and yet they seem to have had so much. We arrived at the Museum of World War II by mid-morning. Predictably, neither man had bothered with an umbrella, and both scoffed at the idea that I could drop them off at the front door, and go park the car. “We’ll go with you, Okie,” Jack says. And Edwin adds that a little water never hurt anyone.
Touring the museum with these two old soldiers 60 years after the conclusion of their war is something I’ll never forget. We had to show identification, and sign a form that if we injured ourselves in the museum we would not hold the owners responsible. We were given a hand-held speaker phone; each room and each individual display had a number, and by punching in that number, we could hear an explanation of the exhibits. The voice from the hand-held speaker warned us that some people found the first room upsetting, and might want to skip it. It was full of artifacts from Nazi Germany, including life-sized wax SS soldiers in black uniform, replete with Totenkopf or Death’s Head insignias, and a wax Hitler wearing Hitler’s actual shirt. There was a massive gold swastika that once hung behind Hitler at a rally. There was a ten-foot painting of Adolph, which he gave as a present to Goering. There was a sign in German, which translated, read “Swing Dancing is Forbidden.” There was also, of course, a lot of anti-Semitic, and anti-British and American propaganda.
Edwin Poitras was in his element in the room dedicated to the OSS, the American version of Britain’s SOE, an elite network of spies and undercover operatives. He was immediately drawn to a suitcase radio similar to one he used to send and receive messages in occupied France. “We used to move 70 miles every seven days, because the Germans would begin to home in on the source of the transmission with their direction finders.” He points out the tiny Minox cameras that look like cigarette lighters, flat blades that can be taped to the body so that they will not be noticed in a pat down, a device that looks like a pen, but actually fires one .22 caliber bullet, and a double-edged knife whose handle contained an L pill. L for lethal. “I carried two,” Edwin says. In case of immanent capture the L pill was the only guarantee that an agent would not talk, and death would be quicker and less painful than death by Gestapo methods.
One other room contained a tank the size of a Hummer on top of another Hummer. I was surprised to hear the voice on my hand-held speaker phone say that if you chose you could mount the tank and even get inside, so long as you put on one of the two army helmets that sat on the front of the tank. “No wonder they wanted us to sign that form, Jack,” I said, but when I turned around, I saw that 83-year-old Jack Flood had the helmet on and was climbing up the front of the tank as if he were back with the 88th regiment, the tank killers, in 1943. “Come on up here, Okie.” So the two of us were perched on top of the tank in army helmets, looking down the barrel of an 88-millimeter cannon. Never having been a soldier, I honestly felt a little like Mike Dukakis up there, but Floody was right at home, and I had to wonder what scenes were playing out in his mind. There were machine gun nests full of weaponry. It amazed me how much these men still remembered after 60 years, but I suppose there are some things you don’t forget. Edwin picked up a Thompson machine gun and said, “This was a lousy gun. Couldn’t hit anything unless it was right in front of you.” There are other guns they admire and praise, as dependable old friends that helped them win the war and get home. “This is really something else Steve, I’m glad we came,” Jack says, but then he adds quietly, “but I bet I’ll have nightmares tonight.”
The nightmare in Europe that began on September 1, 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland, ended on May 8, 1945, 60 years ago. Once, while waiting for a ferry in Le Havre, France, I ducked into a store to buy a newspaper. I got talking to the old fellow who worked there, and when he heard my accent, he asked, “Etes-vous Americain?” “Oui, je suis Americain.” He extended a hand across the counter and took mine.