TEMPLE — Seventy years ago, D-Day came home to Bell County just after the invasion on the Normandy beaches.

Days after the assault on June 6, 1944, the first of four injured soldiers landed on the outskirts of Temple from Normandy, by way of Scotland. They were transported to McCloskey Army General Hospital (which later became the Central Texas Veterans Center).

Their arrival was part of a new shuttle hospital plane introduced by the Army that brought wounded men home in a matter of hours. Grinning but somewhat bewildered by their 30-hour flight from Europe, the quartet found friendly faces and healing hands in Temple. Included in those first four was a black soldier from Dallas. Although the troops were segregated at the time, all military hospitals — even in the South — were integrated.

The shuttle flew because the D-Day invasion had overloaded the already taxed English hospitals, said Brig. Gen. James A. Bethea, commander, McCloskey Army General Hospital.

Although June 6 is a day of remembrance, the actual invasion was a long slog of fighting that continued until victory in May 1945. D-Day has become a hallmark of the service of the generation born around the time of the World War I, who grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s and came of age in World War II. They have been described as “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”

Many accomplishments

However, D-Day is only one of this generation’s many accomplishments. Bell County Museum is presenting an overview of this generation in its upcoming exhibit “Our Lives, Our Stories: America’s Greatest Generation,” opening Saturday. The exhibit, supplemented with local artifacts and information, is a celebration of overcoming and creating anew.

The exhibition begins with the babies of the 1910s and 1920s, and then explores the events that marked major turning points in their lives, including the Depression, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, World War II, the rising awareness of Civil Rights and the growth of the media-driven consumer culture during the post-war boom.

The guest speaker at 2 p.m. will be Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the university’s Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

“This exhibit explores the life arc of the World War II generation — as told in their own words,” said Stephanie Turnham, Bell County Museum director. “It draws on memories and oral histories to help us understand who these people really were.”

Turning point

D-Day signaled the start of the Allies’ invasion of Western Europe in June 1944, and a crucial turning point in the war with Nazi Germany. Besides the staggering number of troops involved in D-Day itself, many times that number were involved in the ensuing campaign. On D-Day alone, 3,000 Allied troops died and an estimated 9,000 were wounded or missing.

One such D-Day hero was Al Purifoy (1924-2007), who said the only reason he became a paratrooper in 1943 was for the extra Army pay and benefits.

“I told people I’m only in this thing for the money,” Purifoy told the Temple Daily Telegram in 2001. “Paratroopers got paid $50 extra.”

Purifoy joined the 501st Airborne Regiment — a part of the 101st Airborne Division — and parachuted in behind enemy lines in the chaotic early hours of D-Day.

“Yes, I was scared,” Purifoy said. “Who wouldn’t be?”

Years later, after he founded a successful Temple insurance company, Purifoy called his battlefield experience “my paid vacation in France.”

Stories of war

Another sterling example was Temple High graduate Maj. Niven K. Cranfill (1920-2002), son of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Cranfill, then Temple High School football coach. Cranfill led a squadron of Mustang fighters against Nazis in France during the D-Day invasion.

His squad shot down three enemy aircraft in aerial dog fights, exploded 25 ammunition carloads and destroyed 10 light tanks and damaged 20 by dive bombing, destroyed five railroad bridges, 10 locomotives and 115 freight cars, demolished or crippled 107 trucks; set ablaze 25 oil cars.

He grew up in Temple and attended the University of Texas. He entered the Army Air Corps in 1941, serving as a highly decorated pilot during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He is buried in Bellwood Cemetery.

Former THS teacher and coach, Lt. Col. Bennie A. Zinn (1904-1978) of 82nd Airborne Division, was wounded when a sniper’s bullet hit him in the face on invasion day. After the war, he joined Texas A&M, where he was director of the Department of Student Affairs.

Capt. Joseph T. Dawson (1914-1998), Temple native and son of a former First Baptist Church minister, the Rev. Joseph Martin Dawson, was the first U.S. officer to lead his 400 men inland on D-Day after hitting the French beaches.

A commanding officer told him, “We are being killed on the beach — let’s go inland and be killed.” That made sense to Dawson, so his led his intrepid Company G inland. Dawson was shot, and many of his men died in the onslaught.

Years later, he was still reluctant to talk about everything he saw and did on that fateful day.

Thousands more stories may never be told as this generation fades away. They are dying quickly — at the rate of about 555 a day, according to Veterans Affairs.

The Bell County Museum exhibit runs through Aug. 11.

If you go

  • “Our Lives, Our Stories: America’s Greatest Generation”
  • Exhibit opening: Bell County Museum, 201 N. Main, Belton
  • Opening: Saturday, closing Aug. 11
  • Program: 2 p.m. Dr. Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin
  • Admission: Free

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