Preserving D-day memories with a tattered flag
By Gary Friedman
The assignment seemed routine — a portrait of a couple for a story about personal finance. But as I was soon reminded, sometimes an interesting, if not extraordinary, story lurks just beneath the surface. Such are the regular discoveries of a newspaper photographer.
The subjects of the assignment were Patrick Webster and his wife, Susie Martin. As I entered their Redondo Beach apartment, I immediately noticed something framed and hanging on the wall: a tattered American flag.
Patrick told me the flag had belonged to his father, Charles William Webster, who served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard. The flag had flown on his father’s Coast Guard cutter as the crew picked up casualties off the beaches of Normandy during the D-day invasion in 1944.
I was stunned. I couldn’t help gazing at it, thinking about its history, where it had been and what it had meant to those thousands of men who stormed the French coast that horrible day. This flag may have been the last American flag some soldiers ever saw.
Lt. Charles William Webster was born on Oct. 21, 1920, in Escanaba, Mich. He graduated from Marquette University when he was 21 and decided he wanted to help in the war effort. He joined the Coast Guard and volunteered for duty as part of Rescue Flotilla One, a group of 60 cutters, 83-foot patrol boats that provided search and rescue during the invasion of Normandy.
Patrick recalled difficult memories his father shared with him, including his efforts to rescue a nurse from a bombed hospital ship. The young lieutenant was among the first on the scene and plunged into the water, but he couldn’t reach the nurse in time. That haunted him the rest of this life. As Patrick tells it, the cutters of Rescue Flotilla One saved more than 400 people on D-day alone, and by the time the unit was decommissioned in 1944, they had saved 1,438 people.
The story was so moving — so powerful — it was almost difficult for me to photograph this wonderful couple. The flag reminded me of how I visited Normandy on the anniversary of D-day in June of 1999 and how aging veterans, some walking with difficulty, made their way down to the beach after a ceremony to scoop up sand into plastic bags. These men and women experienced the battle first hand, just like Patrick’s father, and I felt honored to be there with them and to shake their hands and to call them heroes.
After Sunday’s story about Patrick and Susie was published, I received an e-mail from Patrick:
“It was nice meeting you and seeing the interest you took in my father and his story. I believe that you are the first person other than I who has referred to my father as a ‘hero’ and that means a lot to me. The word ‘hero’ is used too often these day to stand for someone saving a life and someone who plays basketball … it has lost its meaning.”
No matter what your beliefs about war, on this Memorial Day, 2013, if you see a veteran, or someone on active duty, or perhaps one of their family members, extend your hand and thank them for their service to our country. They all are heroes, just like Patrick’s father.
May 24, 2013, 4:49 pm
I'm proud of Lt. Charles William Webster, father of a very good friend – Maureen Webster, Catholic Charities Director Phoenix, Arizona.
May 24, 2013, 6:28 pm
Thank you, Gary, for the article and picture. Patrick is my brother and this really helps make this a very special Memorial Day.
May 25, 2013, 8:03 pm
I only served in the USCG Reserve Program, but I am proud of that service. I trained for and participated in only a couple of minor rescues or actions, but I applaud all of my fellow Coast Guardsmen for their service. I feel such pride when I see rescue missions performed by my beloved Coasties. Semper Paratus!!! Tom Levien
May 26, 2013, 9:26 am
Thank you for this story. So many times the US Coast Guard is left out of the story. The USCG has been involved in every war in our history.
Thank You to Lt. Webster for your brave and honorable service to our country and our Coast Guard.
May 26, 2013, 5:54 pm
As a Coast Guard vet myself, I read the story with interest. I have heard too many negative comments about how the Coast Guard "isn't *real* military," "never gets in harm's way ," "stays safe on shore," or drivel like that. People hear "Coast Guard" and think of lighthouses, drug busts, and rescuing pleasure boaters. Too few people realize the roles played by Coast Guardsmen (and women) during every major conflict in our country's history. Stories like this one make people realize that in addition to our peacetime duties, we are *real* military, too.
Thanks very much, and "Bravo Zulu" to Gary Friedman, Patrick and Lt. Webster, and every Veteran, including Coasties, especially the ones who never came home.
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