Melrose D-Day Vet , Irving Smolens, steps out to talk to Obama

... Using his presence at a D-Day Comemmoration in France Irving speaks his piece to the President of the United States.

by Joe Sullivan

The Daily Beast, an American news and opinion website that is visited by 17 million readers, carried an article on June 6, 2014 that should be of great interest to people in Melrose.   

The story, by Christopher Dickey was about something that happened during a ceremony at Colleville-Sur-Mer cite of the giant American military cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach, one of the landing areas during Operation Overlord, the invasion of France at Normandy on D-Day June 6, 1944. Buried there are 9,837 Americans including 1,557 who could not be identified.

Dickey was there to cover the 70th Commemoration of the D-day landings. Those attending the ceremony were the heads of nations including President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, and Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

The writer's story was a speculation, until he got to talk to him, about what one of the attending veterans said when, from a large group of American D-Day Veterans, he stepped out to take Obama’s hand as he was walking by them to lay a wreath.

Stepping out and stepping up.

Dickey described him as pale and bent beneath his baseball cap “as if it weighed down on him.” He would not let go of Obama’s hand until he said his piece. It’s unfortunate that somebody from Melrose was not there with Dickey. The Melrosian would have instantly identified the person with Obama….he  was Irv Smolens of Melrose, Massachusetts and the reason the Melrose person could be so sure was because of the way Irv had stepped out from the group to face Obama.

To describe him as “pale” and “weighed down “ was hardly a description of who Irving is. Those are conditions that go with the territory when you’re pushing 90, Irv was born in 1924. The “until he said his piece” description was right on. Irv has never had any trouble standing up or stepping out to tell you what he thinks. He’s a perfect personification of the old Yiddish aphroism, “for two cents, plain.”

A deserving prescence.

If anybody was entitled to be at the commemoration it was Irving. The cemetery, scene of the commemoration, overlooked Omaha Beach. On D-Day Irv landed on the beach next to it, Utah. He was in the 29th Field Artillery Battalion, Battery B, a component of the 4th Infantry Division. The group was part on an enormous undertaking. Over 150,000 military personnel left England in 2,300 landing craft to cross the English Channel. 100,000 of them would disembark on the Normandy Beaches Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword  to fight their way off the beaches and then to objectives inland.

Irving’s 4th Infantry Division would be an integral part of the Allied army that would go on to fight it’s way across France, Belgium and finally into Germany to force the collapse of the Nazi Third Reich in May 1945. At 19 years old he would participate in five major campaigns including the Battle of the Hutgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.

Irving's light artillery.

The 4th Infantry Division’s 29th Field Artillery Battalion’s main weapon was the 105 millimeter Howitzer. There would be 18 of them divided among three firing batteries. Irving’s B battery, like the other two, would have six Howitzers.

Artillery is frequently perceived as “Big Guns”. This was not the case with Irving’s 105 Howitzers. Weapons like these are categorized as light artillery. They directly support the infantry and must be highly mobile. To move them gun crews attach them to the back of two-and-a-half ton trucks, (“deuce and halfs” as every soldier called them) which haul them to their destination.

Being in the field artillery can be like being in a fire brigade, on call to go where the infantry needs it. In a fast moving Army like the one fighting its way across Europe it must have been frequently an exhausting job.

After the war Irv came home, went to BU for his degree and married his sweetheart, Edith. He had a career as a buyer of women’s and children’s clothing.

A special person.

Irving is special to group here in Melrose. He was a charter member of the Melrose Mirror. He has written a number of stories about his experiences as a soldier. You can find them by clicking on “Who we are” that appears in the upper left hand corner of the front page. The click will produce an alphabetical listing of all the writers who contribute stories to the Mirror. A third click on Irving’s photo will show a short biography and a list of his stories.

The people least surprised by Irving’s stepping out to talk to the President are right here at the Mirror. We know what that feisty personality produces. As one member described Irv's meeting with Obama, “Vintage Irving Smolens”

As with Christopher Dickey’s Daily Beast story you’ve had to wait to the very end to find out what Irving said to President Obama. When Dickey sorted his way through the crowd to get to “the man in the blue hat” who turned out to be Irving he asked him, “What did you say to Obama?”

“I thanked him for keeping us out of war.” Irving said.

There was one thing Dickey’s story didn’t say and that was what was printed on the blue hat. Anyone who knows Irving will guarantee that Irving’s hat carried a message about the war that nobody kept him out of, it commemorates World War II's D-Day the 6th of June.

It’s no big risk to say that. Has anybody in Melrose ever seen Irving in public when he wasn’t wearing a hat with the D-Day message? No way, guaranteed.     

July 4, 2014

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