D-day scrapbook

Grandmother didn't talk much about World War II, but her pal is a living memory.

Published June 6, 2007

We eat tuna fish and look at Tampa Bay from her apartment on Bayshore Boulevard. At 88, she is nearly triple my age. I saw her face years before we met. In the yellowed photograph, she wears full GI attire, curly hair fixed under a helmet. She marches beside my grandmother on the morning of the D-day invasion. Both were nurses.

Martha Cameron knew my grandparents before they were my grandparents. She tells me things I've never heard.

Grandma Gladys Flynn died in the winter of 2000 at age 81. I lost a wise older woman who had set an example for whom I should be. She stood 6-foot-1, rail-thin and quiet, but had incredible power in her presence. She earned a Bronze Star during the Normandy invasion, then gave birth to 11 children, one being my father.

Her death left a void. But then I met Martha.

My father knew Martha lived in Tampa, where I had found a newspaper job.

He had become acquainted with her while writing a book about their medical unit.

She joined my family two months ago for a visit to Tortworth Court, a mansion outside Bristol, England, where she and my grandparents were stationed with the 128th Evacuation Hospital for seven months leading up to D-day.

Theirs was the first MASH unit to see combat in the African and European Theaters of World War II. It was the first on Utah Beach for the Normandy invasion.

On the plane to England the flight attendant called Martha "Mrs. Flynn." We didn't correct her. It had a nice sound.

During the trip, our relationship blossomed. My grandparents had died without telling me, or my father, very much about their experiences.

But Martha remembers in unvarnished detail.

She recalls seeing her first war injury, a chatty major in a private room in North Africa. She removed his soiled bandage and realized she was looking at brain tissue.

"He was missing a piece of skull and it was the first brain I had ever seen other than as a specimen," she said. "I couldn't get over his calmness."

And she remembers with vivid clarity, the morning of June 6, 1944.

They had marched out of Tortworth, and took their places in the largest seaborne invasion in history, one in which nearly 3-million troops crossed the English Channel.

She recalls the view as she descended from the Liberty Ship William N. Pendleton. She remembers names of the nurses she trailed: Adkins, Brittingham and Browning. They waded into hip deep water at Utah Beach on June 10, 1944, each wearing a musette bag and a pistol belt that held only a first aid kit.

"We couldn't believe how many ships there were," she told us at Tortworth, a look of amazement on her face. "It was so overwhelming you didn't even need to think. And then you'd look up and the sky was full of planes."

Martha had wanted to revisit Tortworth, now a hotel, out of curiosity and sentiment. As we neared the mansion in our rental car, she peeked around each turn, looking for the giant archway reading "WELCOME."

During the war, the walls had been protected with plywood. Now elegant oil paintings flank the rising staircase.

Martha's memories had found a home.

She told us that on the voyage to Normandy, a glider bomb from a German plane narrowly missed the Pendleton.

The explosion rocked the vessel. Martha was sure water would come pouring in from all sides. "I don't usually say my prayers, so I'm not going to pray now, " she remembers saying at the time. "I repeated that so much that it became a prayer."

Post-war paths

Both women had been drawn into service by the Pearl Harbor attack, Martha enlisting on that very day. But once the war ended, they went on to lead completely different lives.

Grandma married 1st Lt. John Flynn and wound up on an 11-acre farm in rural Kentucky, ringing chicken necks and milking cows.

Martha stayed in the Army and then Air Force 20 more years, working as a nurse anesthetist stationed in Manila, Okinawa and Casablanca. She moved to Jacksonville and then, in 1996, Tampa.

Grandma had 40 children and grandchildren. Martha, married for 30 years, had no kids of her own. Her husband had two from a previous marriage, who visited on the weekends.

Grandma was Southern Baptist teetotaler. Martha likes wine, or a Campari soda.

Grandma had no time for complainers, or anything petty. Martha, laid-back, laughs at everything.

But they had plenty in common. Both were natural-born nurses, caring and strong.

Grandma, pushing 60, would climb the roof to fix a shingle.

Martha, at age 76, thought nothing of leaving a cruise ship alone to find her old haunts in Casablanca.

"No one wanted to go with me, " she said. "I was right at home. They are very peaceful people really."

Not all the answers

Back in Tampa, we sip white wine and flip through photographs from Tortworth.

We don't always talk about the war. Martha recalls sharing a Pullman with then-Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the train to bury her mother. She tells of injecting her cancer-ailing mother with morphine shots as a young girl. At age 10, she decided to become a nurse.

All these years later, she misses her profession. She gets excited when she has to have minor surgery, almost giddy just being in an operating room. She talks the doctor's ears off until the anesthesia knocks her out.

I hear how she reinvented herself in the aftermath of a divorce; by joining a church, becoming health conscious and further exploring the world.

A golden silk translucent kimono hangs on a wall in her Canterbury Tower apartment, the outstretched arms billowing when the sea breeze wafts through a sliding glass door.

She tells me of a pendant that came on the kimono. One side says, "The act of remembering has brought me here." On the flip side, "So I must stay a long time."

A Picasso hangs near the dinette. You don't notice right away that she cut it from the New York Times and put it up with double-sided sticky tape. There's a news article about the origin of matter in the universe, also taped to the wall. "One of these days I'll get around to reading it, " she said.

In my own dining room, I keep a picture of Grandma.

It was taken during the war.

She's 25, five years younger than me, leaning against a German cemetery wall in North Africa. She sent a message, but only two words have survived the years: "Love" and "Gladys."

She has a huge smile and her hair is done up. I wonder what she was thinking.

Was it that my grandfather was taking her picture? They had met during the war and would soon be married in Belgium.

Or, was it that Patton's army had pushed back the Germans?

Martha has many answers, but maybe not all.

Kathleen Flynn, a photojournalist for the Times in Tampa, can be reached at kflynn@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3309.