I start feeling especially sentimental about Boykin and his service at this special time of commemoration, the 69th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Before World War II, Boykin worked for Granddaddy in the family drugstore. As our country entered the war, Boykin joined the Navy and was trained as a pharmacist’s mate, given his experience in pharmacy. (Boykin explains that morphine administration was an extremely important role for medics).
Leading up to D-Day, Boykin became a combat medic. Boykin was a part of the first wave landing on Omaha Beach.
The first landing craft he was on began sinking and had to be abandoned. After being picked up by a second boat it, too, began sinking. He and the others were picked up by a third boat, which soon became hung up on a sandbar a couple hundred yards off-shore. Boykin speaks of Stanley Swann, a “young ’un” of 17 or 18 years who immediately and voluntarily jumped in with all of his equipment to check the water depth (even though men all around were drowning due to the weight of their equipment).
Boykin gets emotional when he tells about the water coming up to Stanley’s ears. I think that Boykin was especially touched by Stanley’s bravery at his young age (after all, Boykin’s nickname was “Grandpa” due to his “old” age of 29 years). Stanley went on to survive the war and started a successful plumbing business in New Jersey.
Medics were not armed during the D-Day invasion. As he rushed toward the beach, Boykin picked up a .45-caliber handgun off of a dead officer “who didn’t need his gun anymore.” That gun stayed with Boykin for the rest of the war.
Boykin remained on the beach at Omaha in a first aid station doing triage for a month. The expected doctors never showed at the station. He was then placed in a hospital outside of London for a short time and was ultimately sent to Okinawa in the Pacific aboard the hospital ship USS Okanogan. Boykin worked in the pharmacy in the fantail of the ship.
The nighttime threat from Japanese kamikaze planes was constant. People often wonder how Boykin was able to sleep at night. He figured that if a kamikaze hit the bow of the ship then it would wake him up anyway and if one hit the stern of the ship then he would never wake up. His ship, like many others, used a smoke machine to throw the kamikazes off.
Boykin’s unit trained for an invasion of Japan, but fortunately the invasion was not needed. Boykin says that the use of the atomic bomb, while tragic, saved countless American lives and ended the war. He credits Harry Truman for a bold decision.
Boykin took part in a horrifying war. He has seen the best in humanity as well as the worst. There is much which he cannot bear to share. When Boykin pauses in speaking about the war, it is only because he needs a minute to hold back the tears. Boykin’s detailed memory is uncanny.
I am overwhelmed when I consider all that our vets (and current military) have done for this country. When I wrote of the people in this country who are overlooked and underserved in my last column, I referred in large part to our veterans.
Let us remember our veterans within and outside of our families during this time and throughout the year. Seek out the vets who might not have a family who cares for them. Consider it a blessing if you have a vet in your life. Introduce your kids to these heroes. Listen not only to their stories, but also to their wisdom. Many, like Boykin, see troubling history beginning to repeat itself in many ways.
Boykin gives his family a present far greater than anything we could give him: a willingness to share his stories about war and life.
Claire Dunaway Cyr of Marietta is an artist, elementary school art teacher and group fitness instructor.