Like many of his generation, Howard Wilcox didn’t dwell much on the horrors he saw in the European theater during the Second World War. Landing at Omaha beach on D-Day plus three, he said the thousands of bodies of his fellow soldiers had already been cleared.
“I guess they didn’t want us to freak out,” he said. “If we’d have seen all those bodies we might have refused to keep going.”
But keep going he did. As fighting raged from village to village across the French countryside, Wilcox directed traffic, utilizing his training as a military policeman as the sounds of battle raged in the distance. Combat was always near at hand though, and one of his comrades was shot through the neck and died on duty at a crossroads one night.
An American fighter pilot landed in a nearby field after being shot down and gave Wilcox his wool-lined leather coat and boots. Later in the campaign, during the freezing days of the Battle of the Bulge, the young military policeman would be grateful for the gift. After VE day, Wilcox was sent to the south of France to begin the long journey to the Pacific to fight against Japan, but the atomic bomb negated those plans.
Wilcox recalls a French woman with a sick infant and bringing her to an American field hospital in the days after D-Day, but there were so many wounded soldiers that he wasn’t sure if the baby was ever tended to, despite its deep, wracking cough.
Other impressions from his war: the French teenage boy who asked him to dinner with his family and Wilcox declining their offer of fresh rabbit because he knew they needed food more than he did; the young woman who showed him the paperwork she said was proof she had no sexual diseases as he patrolled local bars; heading back to Paris after the Germans were pushed out of France and a Big Band that played Swing for hours on end, “There was a lot of noise in a very large hall,” he said.
And perhaps his most lasting impression: “Not long ago I visited the Normandy cemetery with row after row of white crosses,” he noted. “I could feel the silence which was an extreme contrast to the noise of the invasion. I realized ‘but for the grace of God there could have also been a cross there for me.”
Wilcox was 18-years-old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He grew up in Jackson, Michigan, not far from Ann Arbor. After the war, he worked as a draftsman for an abrasive- and grinding-wheel company in Niagara Falls, New York. He rose in the company to salesman and worked across the Northeast. He moved with his wife Phyllis, their four children and his mother-in-law to Goleta in 1960 for a job with Hughes Aircraft, but his wife died of Leukemia soon after.
Later, he married his wife Francis, who worked at Hughes, and they eventually settled in her parents’ home in Concha Loma. When asked what his hobbies have been in retirement, he says “going to Switzerland,” where he’s been over 20 times and where his grandfather came from. His two sons and two daughters have gone on to successful lives, and his “younger brother” (75-years-old) also lives in Carpinteria.
At 95, Wilcox has lived through the greatest changes the world has yet seen, and he seems to consider it all with equanimity and purpose. “I didn’t dwell on the war,” he said, “I didn’t let it keep me from living my life.”