World War II Air Force veteran visits Normandy 70 years later
Fauquier native, 92-year-old Harvey Pearson vividly recalls the life-changing experiences from his time in the Air Force during World War II. Of those experiences, one of the many that stands out for him and many Americans, was hearing of the harrowing encounter that transpired on the beaches of Normandy, France on D-Day.
“To think of how things would have been different if it weren’t for the incredible persistence of the D-Day soldiers,” Pearson explained. Ever since, he had wanted to pay tribute to his comrades who fought so courageously that day. Over seven decades later and after a heartfelt gift from his beloved grandson, he finally got the chance.
Pearson’s grandson, Hunter Pearson, entered an essay contest being held by his employer; the theme of the contest was “What would you do with $10,000 to change a person’s or organization’s life?” Hunter, aware of his grandfather’s service to our country and the important role that World War II and D-Day played in his life, explained in the winning essay that if he was to win the contest, he would take his grandfather back to Europe – to the very beaches where his comrades fought on D-Day. So in September 2017 Pearson obtained his chance to visit the beaches of Normandy, France, compliments of the funds from Hunter’s essay prize winnings.
“Until you stand on that beach and see the cliffs the infantrymen scaled, and understand their position, you cannot comprehend what they experienced,” said Pearson, shaking his head. The commitment and determination to the mission to advance the allied forces into France made all the difference. The success of this mission was due to these exceptional soldiers which took ten weeks to complete and culminated in the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944.
Harvey Pearson was drafted into the Air Force during World War II and served as a left waist gunner in the 463rd Bombardment Group (H) 5th Wing/15th Air Force, known as “The Swoose Group.” He was stationed in Foggia, Italy on D-Day. “We were told at 4 a.m. [on June 6, 1944] about what was happening in France. We left two hours later for a five-hour mission to Belgrade, Yugoslavia with the Marshalling Yard as a target. We were all eager to return to base to hear the news of Normandy,” he recalled. Since that day, he hasn’t forgotten the infantrymen on the beaches. “To think of what they experienced in that water, with all that gear, guns shooting at them, and they couldn’t defend themselves,” he said. “You can read about it, but until you put your foot on that soil where they were, you don’t know what those boys went through.”
During the war, Pearson and his crew flew 50 missions while stationed in Italy. Seven missions were to the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. The objective was to attack and destroy the Romano Americano Oil Refinery to disable Axis oil production. German anti-aircraft flak guns positioned on the ground defending the fields made these critical missions exceptionally dangerous.
“You never knew where the flak guns would be,” said Pearson. “If we learned of their location one day, they were moved the next and there was nothing you could do but hope they didn’t hit you. But it was safe to say they were near your target.”
Pearson flew with many airmen during the war, but the crew he shared his tent with at the end of each day were the ones that became part of his brotherhood. “We relied on each other for so much while we were there,” he recalled. Remarkably, Grogan’s Gang, named after their pilot, Ralph Grogan, survived all 50 missions and returned to the United States. “We had been sent in as a replacement crew,” said Pearson. “The previous crew had been pretty torn up.”
Pearson’s returned to the United States by ship. “It took us 13 days to reach the New York Harbor after the war. We went through a big storm, I can hear the steel cracking now, oh it was awful,” he recalled. “As we reached the harbor, I believe I saw Lady Liberty waving at us, she was [seemed] alive.” Despite their plans to enjoy the city that night, their orders were to remain on the ship and disembark in the morning. “We spent the night in the New York harbor,” he said, remembering their disappointment. The next day, Pearson was given leave to go home.
After his service, Pearson returned to Warrenton and continues to live a long and happy life here. He married, had two sons and a daughter, and is now the proud grandfather of six. “After the war, I never wanted to leave home again, and fortunately the county was good to me and I was able to stay here.”
Pearson ran unopposed as the Clerk of Court for the Fauquier County Government for four eight-year terms. “I was very lucky,” he explains. When asked about respect towards his service and sacrifices, he is quick to interrupt: “I’ve been given more respect by this county and this country than I deserve.” A well-respected man in the community, the Armory across from Fauquier High School is named in his honor.
In 1991, Pearson invited his fellow crewmen and officers to visit him at this home in Warrenton. One man had passed away, and his widow came in his honor. “We [didn’t run] out of things to talk about [until] after about three days,” laughed Pearson.
Thanks to Hunter’s success in the company-sponsored contest, Pearson was able to fulfill a lifelong dream of paying his respects to comrades who fell on the beaches of Normandy, and gain a better appreciation of what the infantrymen on the beaches experienced. It truly gave him a long searched-for perspective of the incredible challenges they overcame and the determination, bravery, and courage it took to accomplish that mission and the liberation of Paris.
Yet another consideration of the war for him has always been the solidarity of the Americans at home, which he has long appreciated. “Everyone was united and working for the same cause. The people at home were heroes too, and sacrificing just as much as the guys fighting overseas. We were all in it together. There were no protests,” shared Pearson. Of today’s climate, Pearson offers some sage advice: “We all need to pull together and fly straight.”
The Pursue Your Passion Essay Contest
Pearson’s trip was made possible thanks to his grandson, Hunter Pearson. Hunter submitted an essay to a contest that his company, RSM US Foundation, was sponsoring titled “Pursue Your Passion” that asked employees to write a 1,000-word essay describing on how they would help an individual or organization change their lives. Hunter participated in the contest and hoped to change his grandfather’s life.
It wasn’t hard for Hunter to write about what a trip to the beaches of Normandy would mean to his grandfather. They had always been very close, working together on the family farm and watching college football together. Hunter had already written how much his life was influenced by his grandfather in a middle school SOL topic on heroes. He concluded his Pursue Your Passion essay with: “Harvey Lee Pearson is now 91 going on 92 years of age. With limited time remaining it would mean the world to help my grandfather live his dream for helping provide us the American Dream.”
Twice Harvey Pearson made plans to travel to Normandy, France; both times fate intervened. “He first planned to go with my grandmother on September 13, 2001. The events of September 11 cancelled those plans,” said Hunter. “He planned to go again several years later, but my grandmother was suffering from congestive heart failure and could not make the trip.” His wife passed away in 2007, and although Pearson was (and still is) in remarkable health, time was running out.
Hunter was a winner and his essay was awarded the $10,000 prize. He immediately began planning the trip. The hardest part was, he laughed, that he had to wait three weeks after he found out about it to tell anyone; the company wanted to make a special announcement. He did tell one person, though: his grandfather. “We [our family] decided to pitch in a little money each and were able to have ten family members come on the tour with us,” said Hunter. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans organized the tour for the family.
The 2017 Normandy Tour.
“Each day had approximately five stops and the days were set in chronological order until the liberation of France. Each day we learned several new details of the war and gained new perspectives as we walked in the same footsteps of the brave soldiers in 1944,” Hunter wrote. Near the end of their six-day tour in September, the group was brought to the Normandy American Cemetery where the American flag waves beside the French flag, a symbol of the appreciation the French have for the American assistance. “I am glad the cemetery was one of the last stops [on the September tour],” said Pearson, recalling the emotions evoked by the visit. Gary Pearson, Pearson’s son, wrote, “We had the coordinates [at the American cemetery] to find the grave of Granville Payne, Latham Payne’s brother, who died after running over a landmine in a jeep at St.-Lô. Lantham, a close neighbor of Pearson’s, has been a friend to him since the two met at Fauquier High School during their freshman year and was the best man in Pearson’s wedding. According to Hunter, “The cemetery was everything we expected and was immaculately kept. Granville’s resting place reflected the gravity of his sacrifice and it meant a lot to all of us to remember a Warrenton boy who gave his all.” Hunter wrote, “Once the grave was located and respects were paid, he [my grandfather] looked at me and said, ‘Hunter, I am officially done with Normandy.’ It was not necessarily a happy moment but an emotional moment that needed to be had. I feel it brought closure concerning World War II and fulfillment to my grandfather.”