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Hell of A Day

By   /  June 8, 2019  /  22 Comments

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Slim Chance

Thomas Calabrese — Danny ‘Slim’ Day was a young man from Escondido, California who became fascinated by a crew of linemen erecting transmission towers across his uncle’s property. Being a restless and adventurous individual, Danny asked the foreman, Pop Farrell for a job, “Are you hiring?”

Pop Farrell looked at the wiry teenager and smiled, “You look a little frail for this kind of hard work.”

Danny snapped back, “I’m wiry, not frail and I’m no stranger to hard work. I do the job of two, sometimes three men on this here farm!”

Red Baird, the crew’s best lineman walked over, “Hey Pop, you better not mess with this kid!”

Over the next two weeks, Slim would finish his chores on the farm and make his way over where the linemen were working and sit off to the side and watch them. Red could see how interested the young man was and would often call to him from high on the transmission towers, “Hey Slim, how you doing?”

            “Doing good, how about you, Red?” Slim would yell back.

            “I’ve got a great view and a steady job, what else can a man ask for!” Red’s voice boomed over the open landscape.

At lunchtime Slim would sit next to Red and ask him questions about what it was like to be a lineman. Finally Red asked, “If you got a job with a line crew, you’ll have to leave your uncle’s farm. We’re gypsies, we go all over the place, are you prepared for that kind of lifestyle?”

            “ When I got here after Ma died I promised my Uncle Arlo that I would give him a good day’s work for letting me stay,” Slim added, “But I made it clear that this was only a temporary situation for me and that I would be moving on someday.”

The line crew finished their job at their current location and moved down the road twenty miles. Slim had given up hope about being hired and went back to his normal work routine. When one of the line crew showed up for work drunk and almost killed two men when he passed out driving a supply truck, Pop fired him on the spot.

Red approached him, “We’re short one man.”

Pop knew what Red was thinking, “If I hire that kid, you’re responsible for him. If he messes up, it’s on you.”

Red slapped Pop on the back, “You’re a good man.”

Slim was hired as a ‘grunt’, an assistant on the ground that sends tools and parts to the lineman. Red and Stumpy another ‘grunt’ made sure that Slim knew what he needed to and the young man was an eager and quick learner.

What really cemented the relationship of Slim with the crew was a poker game in the town of Ramona. Slim was standing off to the side and noticed that one of players was cheating Red and Pop. Slim stepped forward, grabbed the cardshark’s arm and pulled out an Ace of Hearts. The man’s friends stepped forward and a brawl broke out in the bar. Standing side by side the line crew fought the bar patrons and townspeople.

Three days later lineman Wyatt Granville put on a defective harness and it failed while he was high on a tower and he fell to his death.  The company sent a high ranking supervisor to investigate the accident and it soon became obvious that they were going to hold Pop responsible. The old man had a family and was close to retirement and if he got fired, nobody would hire him again, especially at his current pay or position. 

Red approached Horatio Boggs, the by the book company investigator, “I knew that the harness was defective. I was going to turn it over to Pop, but I forgot. The accident is my fault.”

            “You’ve been a good lineman for the company, but I have no choice but to fire you,” Horatio Boggs replied.

            “I understand,” Red smiled, “I’ll pack my gear and be on my way.”

As Red prepared to leave, Slim walked over and got his things. “Where are you going?” Red asked.

            “With you,” Slim answered.

Both men were saying their farewells to the crew when Pop walked over, he was very emotional and it took him a few seconds to compose himself, “Thanks Red.”

            “You would have done the same for me.”

Pop embraced Red, “You boys take care of yourselves.”

Red and Slim bounced around California and Arizona for the next few months until they heard that a company was hiring at Mammoth Mountain, California. When they arrived, Red told Slim, “Let me do the talking.”

            “How much experience do you have?” Supervisor Luke Atwill asked.

            “About 10 years between us,” Red answered, but neglected to say that the ten years was about nine for him and less than a year for Slim.

            “In this business, it doesn’t take long to find out how good a man is; you’re hired on probation.”

For the next three months Red and Slim worked around Reedley, Kingsburg and Madera. In late December a powerful blizzard was headed toward Mammoth Mountain. Red and Slim were part of a crew that was sent to an isolated substation to do routine maintenance. Red and Steve Reuther climbed up the transmission tower while Slim waited below. They had almost completed their work when it began to snow heavily. In a matter of minutes the wind was so strong that the snow was blowing horizontal and the two men high above the ground were struggling to hold on. Slim cupped his hands around his eyes and tried to see Red, but it was useless. “Hey Red! Are you alright?”

Red had almost finished securing the power line when a powerful gust of wind blew both men off the tower. Steve Reuther was killed on impact and when Slim found Red, he was near death. Red had just enough strength left to mumble, “Finish the job,” before he died.

Slim hooked up his harness and started for the tower. One of the crew grabbed his arm, “It’s too dangerous!” Slim knocked his arm away, climbed up the tower in whiteout conditions and finished the job that Red started.

Slim worked another year for the same company then enlisted in the Army the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was assigned to the 169th Engineer Battalion and participated in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 then continued to the mainland invasion of Italy that began on 3 September 1943. Sergeant Dan ‘Slim’ Day’s unit was currently assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and was building temporary bridges over the Volturno River where they fought with entrenched German troops. Progress was slow as demolished bridges, roadblocks and mines delayed the Americans. The nature of the countryside in the toe of Italy made it impossible to by-pass obstacles and so the Allies’ speed of advance was entirely dependent on the rate at which their engineers could clear obstructions. Slim and his fellow engineers worked around the clock so that the advance could continue.

 By early October 1943, the whole of southern Italy was in Allied hands, and the American armies stood facing the Volturno Line, the first of a series of prepared defensive lines running across Italy from which the Germans chose to fight delaying actions, giving ground slowly and buying time to complete their preparation of the Winter Line, their strongest defensive line south of Rome. The next stage of the Italian Campaign for the Allied armies was a grinding and attritional slog against skillful, determined and well-prepared defenses in terrain and weather conditions that favored the Germans and neutralized the Allies advantages in mechanized equipment and air superiority.

In early January 1944, Slim and his fellow engineers were assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 15th  Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. When they arrived, they were directed to meet up with Sergeant Audie Murphy. While helping clear roads and fields of German land mines, Sergeant Day made friends with Sergeant Murphy and they participated in the First Battle of Cisterna. Sergeant Day’s engineers and Sergeant Murphy’s infantry platoon killed the crew of a passing German tank. Both sergeants crawled toward the disabled tank and Murphy disabled the tank with rifle grenades while Slim provided cover fire. Both men received the Bronze Star for their actions.

 Two weeks later, Sergeant Murphy’s unit left for Anzio and Slim receive orders to return to England. During the Italian campaign, Sergeant Day was wounded twice and was the only survivor of his engineer platoon. Once he arrived in London, Sergeant Day was placed in charge of a group of replacements who had no combat experience. In preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the Allies organized a series of large scale rehearsals. The code name was Operation Tiger. The exercise was to last from 22 April until 30 April 1944, and covered all aspects of the invasion, culminating in a beach landing at Slapton Sands. 30,000 troops were on board nine large tank landing ships (LSTs) and prepared for their mock landing which also included a live-firing exercise. H-hour was set for 07:30 and was to include live ammunition to acclimate the troops to the sights, sounds and even the smells of a naval bombardment.

During the landing itself, live rounds were to be fired over the heads of the incoming troops by forces on land, for the same reason as directed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, who felt that the men must be hardened by exposure to real battle conditions. The bombardment was scheduled to begin fifty minutes prior to the landing, but several of the landing ships for the rehearsal were delayed.

The naval officer in charge, American Admiral Don P. Moon, decided to delay H-hour for 60 minutes, until 08:30. Unfortunately some of the landing crafts did not receive word of the change and were on the beach at their original scheduled time and were either killed or wounded by Allied naval bombardment.  Sergeant Dan ‘Slim’ Day’s entire platoon from the 1st Engineer Special Brigade was part of that unlucky group.  As Slim was being treated for his wounds on the beach, the medic cursed leadership for their gross incompetence, “Damn idiots, are they afraid that the Germans aren’t killing enough of us!”

While being medically evacuated on LST-531 with other wounded soldiers, the naval vessel came under attack by German E-boats in Lyme Bay. It sunk within six minutes of being torpedoed, but luckily for Slim that he was on deck and was able to hold on to a piece of floating debris and was able to grab another injured sailor until they were rescued. 424 Army and Navy personnel, most of them below deck perished in the sinking. Before Operation Tiger concluded, a total of 946 American servicemen would be killed.

Staff Sergeant Dan ‘Slim’ Day recovered enough from his injuries to volunteer for the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. There were five beaches, code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Sergeant Day’s combat engineer unit was assigned to land at Omaha Beach where the defenses were unexpectedly strong. Artillery shells rained down on the approaching Americans and overlapping machine gun fire sprayed the beach. A country boy from Alabama who was pinned down at the water’s edge commented to Slim, “Running through this is going to be like running through a rainstorm without getting wet.” Two minutes later, he was ripped apart by a burst of enemy fire.

Sergeant Day knew that they were dead if they stayed right where they were, “Engineers, on me!” Losing men every minute, the engineers struggled to clear the beach of obstacles, but by the end of the day only a few heavily defended exits off the beach had been neutralized. This caused delays for later landings and the Americans struggled to maintain two isolated footholds at the base of cliffs to conduct operations.

Surrounded by steep cliffs and Germans pillboxes above him, Sergeant Day and a group of Army Rangers began scaling a massive promontory (a point of high land that juts out into a large body of water; a headland.) that was located between Omaha and Utah beach. Dodging hand grenades being thrown down at them by the Germans the Americans eventually reached the top and secured a small parcel of the high ground at a high cost of lives. Sergeant Day, his few remaining engineers and the Rangers took out two pillboxes. They took a much needed break to evaluate their next course of action. When Sergeant Day looked out to sea, he was stunned by the extent of the carnage. The dead and wounded were all over the beach and bodies were floating in the surf while dozens of landing crafts were burning. An Army Ranger walked over and tapped Slim on the shoulder, “Hell of a day. What do you want to do?”

Sergeant Day took a deep breath and replied, “Finish the job.”

The Americans moved inland where they found German artillery pieces hidden in an orchard that were bombarding the beach and approaching landing craft. After a fierce battle, the engineers and Rangers killed the Germans and took control of the artillery pieces. The entire D-day invasion lasted from June 6 to June 30 and. Sergeant Day and his engineers were there most of this time removing obstacles and mines. As it turned out Omaha was the bloodiest of the D-day beaches with 2,400 U.S. troops turning up dead, wounded or missing. The carnage was so severe that during the landing Lieutenant General Omar Bradley considered abandoning the entire operation. Luckily there were men like Sergeant Dan ‘Slim’ Day on Omaha Beach and defeat was not an option for these heroic Americans. The numbers were staggering; 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing during the Battle of Normandy. This figure includes over 209,000 Allied casualties, with nearly 37,000 dead amongst the ground forces and a further 16,714 deaths amongst the Allied air forces.

Dan ‘Slim’ Day was promoted to Master Sergeant and in the space of three months went from the beaches of Normandy to a victory march in Paris while participating in Operation Overlord. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for actions when the Germans launched the Ardennes Offensive, also known as the Battle of the Bulge, the last major offensive of the war on the Western Front. A U.S. tank was disabled when it rolled over a land mine and several of the tank crew were wounded. Sergeant Day made his way across an active mine field to reach the tank and took control of the .50 caliber machine gun. He held off waves of approaching German troops until they retreated. His fellow engineers then cleared the minefield, allowing medics to reach the injured Americans.

When Sergeant Day was discharged, he returned to California to resume his career as a lineman and eventually became a superintendent. When Universal Studios decided to make a movie about Audie Murphy’s historical military career, called To Hell and Back! the most decorated man in World War II contacted Dan Day and asked him to be part of the cast. The 1955 film was a huge commercial success and the two war heroes remained close friends until Audie Murphy perished in a plane crash on the side of Brush Mountain in the state of Virginia on March 28, 1971.

Dan Day had lost so many friends during his lifetime that he often wondered how he managed to survive so long. His humility prevented him from thinking that he was anything special. His wife, Martha of 46 years, passed away in 2006 and while being in his late nineties and living in a senior community, Dan was still relatively self- sufficient. What was kind of ironic was that he born on June 6, 1924 and while a few of his fellow surviving D-Day liked to return to the beaches of Normandy to honor their fallen comrades, Dan preferred to take the early bus to the beach, walk to the end of Oceanside Pier and stare off into the distance, alone in his thoughts.

It was June 6, 2019 and the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. It was hard for Dan to believe that so much time had passed since that horrific day on Omaha Beach. Some of his memories were so vivid that it could have been yesterday for him, while others were so monstrous that he had to make a conscious effort to keep them buried in the darkest recesses of his mind. Dan had been on the pier for almost two hours and when it began to get crowded, he decided it was time to leave. As Dan approached Pier View Way and waited for the light to turn green before crossing, he noticed a young girl with a playful puppy on a leash. When the girl bent down to tie her shoe, she momentarily released her grip on the leash and the dog raced into traffic. Without thinking the girl chased him in the street and picked him up in her arms. Even at his advanced age and limited mobility, Dan somehow found the quickness and strength to jump off the curb and push the girl and her puppy out of harm’s way. Unfortunately he was not able to get out of the way himself and the driver of the truck did not even have a split second to apply the brakes. The elderly veteran was killed on impact.

Dan Day was buried at Miramar National Cemetery with full military honors. Army Chaplain Vernon Smith conducted the ceremony. “When you look at the totality of Master Sergeant Dan ‘Slim’ Day’s life before World War II, his exploits during the War and his accomplishments in helping to build this great nation of ours after he returned, and you can see why he is a charter member of the greatest generation. He lived by the philosophy; finish the job, no matter what the risks, no matter what the costs and no matter what the danger. Greatest was an understatement when referring to Dan Day.

Chaplain Smith hesitated for a moment as he looked out to the small audience then continued, “He picked up the nickname ‘Slim’ as a young boy and it fit him perfectly and not just because of his lean physique. When the situation was hopeless and death seemed imminent during the campaign to retake Italy, scaling the vertical cliffs of Omaha Beach or in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge and scared men knew that they only two chances, slim and none. Slim was always good enough.”

As several of the attendees wiped tears from their eyes, Chaplain Smith continued with the emotional eulogy, “It was fitting that Dan Day’s last act on this earth was one of self-sacrifice to protect another. We implore God to welcome this American warrior into his kingdom and bestow upon him his just and everlasting reward for a life well done. The forecast for heaven is as follows; expect one Hell of a Day!”

June 6, 1944, may our country never forget that day or the men who were there.

The End

NOTE: Aspiring Writers Join us on the 3rd Saturday of each month between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm Veterans Writing Group of North County (non veterans are welcome) 1617 Mission Avenue , Oceanside,Ca. 92054
(619)  991-8790www.veteranswriting group.org – www.facebook.com/VMGSDCounty

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  • Published: 2 weeks ago on June 8, 2019
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  • Last Modified: June 6, 2019 @ 9:46 am
  • Filed Under: The Back Page

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22 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    Very compelling story. Enjoyed it.

  2. Ron Pockett says:

    Good story Tom.

    Thanks

  3. Joe says:

    Thanks for another great story, Tom.

  4. Pat says:

    Tom: this was especially moving. Great story

  5. John Michels says:

    Nice story and very nice tribute

  6. Clyde says:

    Very touching…I was truly moved

  7. Steve says:

    This story had everything, great main character, action and a very well developed story with a timely message.

  8. Cary says:

    A fitting tribute to a member of the greatest generation

  9. Larry says:

    Very good…enjoyed it from beginning to end

  10. Josh says:

    One of your very best…enjoyed it very much

  11. Tony says:

    An appropriate and emotional story by Mr. Thomas Calabrese in this Sunday’s story. A Gallant and Tough man to the end. Died a Hero.
    Very well written as always and keeps my attention throughout the entire story. Make one thing that this story appears three days after the Invasion of Normandy and the Americans and Allies were still working their way inland and off the beach. Brave men all of them and respect to each and every man and woman that had a role in the Normandy Invasion.

  12. Mona says:

    Touching story filled with great facts about that infamous day! I truly enjoyed it.

  13. Jeremy says:

    A story of a true American hero…how can you not like that

  14. Jocelyn says:

    My grandfather was at Normandy..he was one of the lucky ones to survive, although he was wounded later. Thanks for acknowledging their sacrifice and courage.

  15. Kyle says:

    Thanks for another good story…really liked the main character

  16. Tamara says:

    I enjoy your stories…always look forward to the newest one

  17. Guy says:

    A fitting tribute to a heroic man. Dan ‘Slim’ Day was truly a great man. Thanks for writing this story,

  18. Janet says:

    I wanted Slim to live forever …he deserved it

  19. Joe says:

    I truly enjoyed every part of this story….very timely

  20. Dan says:

    Our debt of gratitude to the greatest generation is immense

  21. wolf says:

    Another good one by Tom. A timely and Fitting story to honor the battle of Normandy.

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