A Son Pays Homage to the Father He Never Knew
05/30/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
The two men—uncle and nephew—walk along the bluffs of Omaha Beach, their eyes red-rimmed with tears. Fifty years later, the events of June 6, 1944, seem both unbearably fresh and maddeningly distant. At one point Randy Morehouse, 51, asks his uncle Philip, 75, how the body was identified. "They had dog tags," says Philip. "One to leave with the body, one to cut off to report to records." "Do you still have his?" asks Randy quietly. "Yes," says Philip. "I'll give them to you." And with that, another piece of a puzzle that will never be finished slides into place.
In the coming weeks, some 15,000 American veterans and their families will be visiting Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D Day. Among the most eager visitors to France will be the veterans of the Army's crack 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed the Big Red One, which was one of the first units to hit the beach. But for Philip Morehouse, a retired probate judge from Darien, Conn., who served with the Big Red One, the visit will not be so much a bittersweet nostalgia trip as a rite of passage. He has brought Randy, who was only 18 months old at the time, to the spot where his father, Philip's older brother Alan Morehouse, was killed in action on D Day at the age of 29. "This makes me appreciate and understand more about my father," says Randy, now a marketing manager for Avon Products in New York City. "It's a good feeling."
Not that he feels good all the time. One of those on the tour along with the Morehouses is Eston White, now 75, who was a major in the 1st Infantry Division. He was Alan's close friend, his commanding officer and perhaps the last person to see him alive. The two were in the same landing craft and plunged waist deep into swiftly running water. Then, in the chaos of the assault, White lost track of his friend. "We were under fire," says White. "Afterward, Al was not with us. Apparently he got hit in the water." Standing nearby as White speaks, Randy Morehouse is crying silently.
His uncle Philip has his own agonizing memories. A captain assigned to 1st Infantry headquarters, Philip splashed ashore at Omaha Beach five days after the start of the invasion. His first instinct was to find out about Alan, who had commanded one of the first Big Red One companies to hit the beach on D Day. Told initially that his brother was missing in action, he soon learned from a sergeant that Alan was dead. In that instant a hollowness suddenly entered his life. "I never got over my brother's death," says Philip. "I miss him every day."
Growing up in Darien, the two brothers, who also had an older sister, Mary, were extremely close. Graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1937, Alan took a job teaching history at the junior high school in Portland, Conn.; Philip, four years younger, followed at UConn before enlisting in the Army. The brothers married a month apart. In January 1943, Alan and his wife, Eunice, had a son, Alan Jr., whom they called Randy.
After the war broke out, Alan was called to active duty and joined his brother's outfit. The two look part in the North Africa campaign, where Alan was wounded, and the invasion of Sicily. Alan was well-liked by his men, respected by his superiors and cool under fire. Once, while being shelled in Italy, he nonchalantly continued reading. "He was very calm," says White. "He was kind and considerate and concerned that the men had fair treatment."
The last time Philip saw Alan was roughly a month before D Day. Alan confided that he had experienced a premonition that he would not survive D Day. "He said it looked like a rough go," recalls Philip. "And he told me to take care of his wife and child." His body, which was buried temporarily on Omaha Beach, was returned home after the war.
Alan's death came as a crushing blow to his young wife. A widow at the age of 27, Eunice took a secretarial job at a hospital, lived above a bakery and worked hard to make a decent life for her son. "I used to wonder where my dad was," says Randy. "Mom herself didn't want to know how he had died." Perhaps no one, though, took the news of Alan's death harder than his mother, Ruth. "I asked her once, when I was maybe 7, how my father died, and she broke into tears," says Randy. Not long afterward, Ruth died at the age of 62. "My mother was very sensitive," says Philip. "She declined in health after Alan's death, and I'm sure it was her grief."
As Randy grew up, Eunice often talked about Alan, even after she was remarried, when her son was 5, to a local resident named John Gotta. "They could have not told me about my father," says Randy, "and I never would have known the difference." But Gotta, now 77, a retired foreman for Pratt & Whitney aircraft, was a loving stepfather who never tried to erase Alan's memory. When Randy turned 21, his mother gave him his father's medals, including a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.
In recent years, Randy, who with wife Priscilla, 50, lives in Bethel, Conn., and has two sons of his own, Jamie, 27, and Alan III, 25, has felt a growing need to know more about his father's life and death. Last month, Philip took him to his first reunion of the Big Red One, where Randy had a chance to meet some of Alan's old comrades. Last year, Philip, who had just lost his own wife, Cynthia, proposed treating Randy and Priscilla to the trip back to Normandy for the 50th anniversary.
If nothing else, the two days they have spent at Omaha have had a bonding effect for the Morehouses. Randy and Priscilla vow to bring their sons back for the 60th anniversary. Meanwhile, at one point Philip tries to sound an optimistic note. "I'm all wept out," he says. "I can't weep any more." But before the day is over, he has.
CATHY NOLAN in Normandy and JANE SUGDEN in New York City