For nearly 20 years until his death three years ago at age 91, World War II paratrooper Richard “Dick” Field of Oceanside made a regular pilgrimage back to the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he fought beside and lost most of his buddies in the Army’s 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion.
For many of those years, Field was accompanied on the trips by his daughter, Ginni Field. The Oceanside real estate broker went with her dad to see firsthand the gratitude the French people showered on him; to see his joy in reuniting with old friends; to manage the many interview request he’d receive as one of the battalion’s last survivors; and to support him as his health declined.
She’ll return once again to Europe in her dad’s honor for the 75th anniversary of the day he parachuted into a vineyard on the Valbourges estate near La Motte, France. On Aug. 15, 1944, Field was one of 10,000 Allied airborne troops who participated in Operation Dragoon, the successful campaign to liberate Southern France from German occupation. The invasion, which occurred 10 weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy, would become known as “the other D-Day.”
Most of the 551st battalion was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge just four months after Operation Dragoon, and nearly all of the 100 or so survivors have since passed away. But every year on Aug. 15, the grateful people of Southern France, as well as European history buffs and the children and grandchildren of the 551st gather for a parade, battle re-enactment and commemoration of the historic Allied operation.
Field, 68, said her father was her best friend and she delighted in traveling with him and preserving his story. Since his death on April 25, 2016, she has turned a room of her home into a museum showcasing her dad’s photographs, medals, honors, war mementos, uniform, and wartime letters home. Going back to France and Belgium this summer, she said, isn’t just an honor, it’s a tradition she plans to keep up for as many years as she’s able.
“It was never a question of whether I would keep going after my dad died,” Field said. “Those people have become my family. Now that I don’t have my dad anymore, I just feel like when I’m over there, I’m home.”
Dick Field, an 18-year-old New York native, was eager to see action when he was drafted into the Army infantry in Spring 1943. While finishing up boot camp in North Carolina, he volunteered to train as a paratrooper. The dangerous job would involve parachuting behind enemy lines and fighting the Germans at close range. Before he flew overseas in April 1944, he married his childhood sweetheart, Ann, a marriage that produced two children and endured 65 years until her death in in 2008.
Over the next 21 months in Europe, Field helped liberate numerous French villages and cities, spent two months fighting back German troops in the Maritime Alps of eastern France and took part in the final push across the River Elbe near Berlin that led to the German surrender in May 1945. But the horrors he experienced in The Battle of the Bulge from Jan. 3-7, 1945, so haunted Field that he refused to talk about his war experiences with his family for nearly 40 years.
It wasn’t until 1982, when he was working in car sales for the Bob Baker Auto Group in Carlsbad, that he saw a magazine article about an upcoming reunion of 551st survivors in Pennsylvania. Memories came flooding back, but fortunately most of them were good ones, said Ginni Field.
“That was when it exploded for him. It was an explosion of joy,” she said. “He was all in from that point on.”
Field began attending reunions and events around the country, and in 1995, he and a buddy from the 551st made their first trip back to Southern France to retrace their footsteps. Overwhelmed by how much the French people appreciated his war service, he began returning every year. Ginni Field even threw a surprise 86th birthday party for him in France that drew 80 people from as far away as Belgium.
In later years, Dick Field began adding visits to the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and the forest battlefield of Rochelinval in Belgium. During four days of combat in January 1945 on a German-fortified ridge in Rochelinval, the 551st suffered a crushing 84% casualty rate. Many men froze to death and others were slaughtered like “fish in a barrel” fighting uphill against a dozen German machine guns, Ginni Field said.
“He told me the first time he saw that field again, it was in winter, and it was terrible for him,” she said. “He said, ‘when I look at it, all I see are dead bodies.’ ”
During the battle at Rochelinval, one of Field’s best friends, a Navajo paratrooper from Arizona named Marshall Clay, was severely injured by a mortar round to the head. Field carried Clay to the medical tent, where doctors found Field had severe frostbite in both feet. After a few months of recuperation in England, Field tried to return to the 551st only to discover that so few men had survived Rochelinval that the battalion was deactivated and the remaining members like himself were folded into another regiment.
Clay did survive the battle and nearly 57 years later he reunited with Field at a 551st reunion in San Diego in 2001. At his request, after Field died in 2016, Ginni carried some of his ashes to the snow-covered ridge at Rochelinval.
“He wanted his ashes scattered where so many of his friends had died,” she said. “It was crushing for me. I remember the snow was so white and his ashes were not.”
These days, Ginni Field travels to Europe once or twice a year. She tries to visit the Henri-Chapelle cemetery in Belgium each January, then each August, she visits it again, along with a visit to Southern France for the annual Operation Dragoon commemoration.
In his later years, Field enjoyed staying in touch daily with his fellow survivors, their family members, European battle re-enactors and families in Southern France through a memorial Facebook page for the 551st. When Ginni shared the news of her father’s impending death on the page in 2016, she was overwhelmed by the more than 3,000 comments of support that poured in.
“I felt held up by the all of the messages,” she said. “It was the most comforting thing I could ever experience.”