Remembering a hero
For a recent family vacation, David Sturrock, his wife, Gwen, and their two sons, Augie and Alex, spent a week in France, touring Paris, Normandy and Brittany and stopping at the Eiffel Tower and the Chartres and Notre Dame cathedrals.
But this trip was more than just sightseeing.
Last week, the Sturrocks, along with other members of David’s family, attended the D-Day 70th anniversary events at Utah Beach in honor of his grandfather, Eugene Caffey. In all, 14 members of the Caffey family were there for the ceremonies, which included a formal ceremony on June 5, where about 20 Utah Beach veterans were made Chevaliers of the Legion of Honor by the French Secretary of State for Veterans Affairs. They were also guests at a June 6 reception that honored veterans of the Band of Brothers from the 101st Airborne Division.
Caffey was the commanding officer of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade. The highly-specialized unit executed the most difficult beach assaults in both the European Theater (Sicily, Italy, Normandy) and Pacific Theater (Okinawa).
Caffey was born in Georgia and grew up in the Army. He graduated from West Point in 1918.
“He went through in three years,” Sturrock said about his grandfather.
Caffey was a career Army officer, who also did tours in Chile and Nicaragua. The Army agreed to send him to law school at the University of Virginia, Sturrock said. He saw more opportunities in the Judge Advocate Corps. Caffey graduated from law school in 1933 and served in a variety of legal posts within the Army during the 1930s. He argued a case for the United States Supreme Court in 1935.
In the late 1930s, Caffey knew the war was coming. He was in his 40s with nine children. He undertook a rigorous training program to prepare himself, figuring he would be sent to combat zones, Sturrock said.
“Because of his engineering background, he was part of three amphibious invasions,” Sturrock said.
In the story that he’s heard, Sturrock said that his grandfather wasn’t supposed to be in the first wave at Utah Beach.
“He went,” Sturrock said. “He got into one of the landing boats.” Caffey had not been assigned ammunition, so he requisitioned one bullet from each of the other men on the boat, Sturrock said. “Then he went ashore.”
Caffey landed on Utah Beach at H-Hour of D-Day, among the first waves of assault troops and was the first colonel to reach the beachhead, Sturrock said. Sturrock said Caffey’s job as the commander of the engineering brigade was to get their bulldozers off the landing boats and onto the beach so they could clear the debris of the Americans and Germans.
“Later, he was commander of the Utah District for five months, supplying U.S. troops further inland with food, munitions and medical care,” Sturrock said. “While commanding the brigade he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star and two Legions of Merit.” Caffey was also awarded the French Croix de Guerrre.
One of the two beaches in Normandy where U.S. troops landed on June 6, 1944, Utah was critical to the invasion’s success because it served as the primary port for a number of months, receiving 836,000 troops and 225,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment, Sturrock said.
When WWII was over, Caffey went to the Judge Advocate Corps, serving his last two years as Judge Advocate General. Sturrock said his grandfather retired in 1957. Caffey retired to New Mexico to join a law school colleague’s firm and died in 1961.
Sturrock had the opportunity to attend the 30th anniversary of D-Day in 1974 when he was in high school, going with his parents, grandmother and several other relatives. Since then, the French highway system has become more developed, Sturrock said, and the day-to-day planning is much easier. He said that members of his family have gone back to at least seven of the anniversaries.
“This was the most decisive event of European Theater,” Sturrock said of D-Day. “If it was going to succeed, everything had to be done just right.” Luck was also critical, he added.
To be there, the things that struck him, Sturrock said, was how deeply the people of Normandy remember that day.
“Everywhere you drove, you saw flags hanging from homes,” Sturrock said. “People remember the sacrifice, the liberation. They revere the memory of that liberation.”
“It’s hard to put yourself in that time and place,” Sturrock added.
There were thousands of people at the D-Day ceremonies, Sturrock said, and he remembered talking to people from Holland and Sweden.
Sturrock and his family also visited with Charles de Vallavielle, the director of the Utah Beach Museum. After D-Day, Charles’ father, Michel, had forged a friendship with Caffey. Michel was also the driving force for the establishment of the Utah Beach museum in 1962, Sturrock said.
“The museum has won accolades as one of the finest facilities of its kind in Europe,” Sturrock said.
Sturrock said there was a Canadian tour guide present during his visit to de Vallavielle. When Sturrock mentioned he was the grandson of Caffey, the guide said that Caffey was one of his heroes.
“Wow! What a thing to hear 70 years on – from a fellow from another country,” Sturrock said.