An 89-year-old veteran skipped a date, fought a war and returned to marry

Don O’Hara fought in World War II to rebel after his father stopped him going on a date. He landed at Normandy 70 years ago today — and made it home to marry the girl he stood up, says John Verling

An 89-year-old veteran skipped a date, fought a war and returned to marry

DON O’HARA sits in his armchair. He is wearing slippers and his TV remote control is nearby. His home is quiet, just outside Annascaul, in Co Kerry. Around him are intricate models of the Titanic and of other famous ships, all crafted in his workshop in the back garden. That’s up a few steps from the putting green, which he installed. Don will be 90 in September, but today he’ll mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and his part in them.

At the outbreak of World War !!, in 1939, Don was still at school, and also worked in his father’s construction business and on the family farm, in Lancashire, in England. With no electricity in the valleys, Don was up before dawn to milk the cows by hand. Then, he’d take the horse and cart on deliveries, leaving the horse to find its own way home while Don went to school. Across the valley lived Gwen Jackson. In January, 1942, Don arranged a date with her for a Saturday night. The back seats at the cinema were booked and Don was dressed in his best. Heading out the door, he met his father.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.

“To the cinema with Gwen. It’s all booked,” said Don.

“The teeth on the stone crusher in the quarry need changing. That’s what you’ll do and forget about those women.”

Don obeyed his father, though Gwen sat with him in the quarry, easing his frustration. Still angry on Monday, Don skipped school and went to his local recruitment office. He asked to join the Royal Marines but, because he was under 18, he needed his father’s permission. Don took the application form and forged his father’s signature. Back inside, the form was stamped and Don was a Marine, leaving on the Wednesday.

With barely time to say goodbye, Don was gone. He didn’t return to the family home till after the war, because his parents were upset that he had joined up. They knew that he was exempt from service, as a farmer and a carpenter. Don’s father had lost an eye in WW1 and was only too aware of the horrors of battle.

Don liked training, and volunteered for all the specialised instruction. He learned to parachute, drive a tank, and deep-sea dive. He learned unarmed combat, and how to handle explosives, both on land and underwater. Soon, he was taken into the Special Forces Unit, one of just 200 men being prepared for the Normandy landings.

D-Day was never mentioned, just that some big push was coming. 40 of Don’s unit were chosen to join the French-Canadian Commandos. Don and the others were placed in a temporary camp, above an underground factory. This was home to 3,000 women workers, who were only too happy to have 40 men on site for a few days.

Not that Don had forgotten his Gwen; they were in constant contact by mail. By now, Gwen had finished her City and Guilds and was working as a seamstress in Lancashire. There still wasn’t any contact with his family, though Don knew that his two brothers had also joined the forces.

Training was intense with the Canadians and they were on constant standby. After many false alarms, they put to sea on the night of June 3, 1944. Bad weather scuppered the planned landings, but as Don’s unit was already at sea, they weren’t called ashore. They spent the next 48 hours onboard their flat-bottomed landing craft, going around in circles, in terrible weather. Everyone was sick and wet. “They could have shot everyone and we wouldn’t have cared,” says Don. On the night of June 5, the weather lifted. They found the tiny gap in defences that was left open for fishermen and, before dawn on June 6, they landed on the beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer. The Germans were still asleep as they snuck through the streets. It was four miles outside of town before the first shot was fired. By then, the bombardment from the sea had begun and the landings were in full swing.

Their objective was to secure Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse, on the road from Caen to Bayeaux. Though only 22 kilometres from where they landed, it took them three days to get there; such was the resistance they met. Outside Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse, Don caught the scent of freshly baked bread and followed it to a farmhouse. He asked the woman if he could have some. She nodded, but pointed to the road outside. Don looked around the corner to see a unit of German soldiers, waiting and ready. He scarpered back with a loaf under his arm.

With Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse secured, they were sent home for a well-earned rest. After a night in camp, Don made his way back to Gwen. She had bought a house with the money Don had sent home. Don was a home-owner, had fought in one of the biggest battles in history, and yet was still to turn 20.

Two weeks after returning home, Don got orders to report for the planned invasion of Japan, from which he had a 97% chance of not returning. Gwen’s mother arranged a quick marriage; as Don was in the forces, they could do so with 24 hours’ notice. Gwen said to Don “if you die out there, at least I’ll get your pension and the house”. They married on Saturday and Don shipped out on Monday.

When off the coast of Japan, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Don’s war was over. He returned home to Gwen and a handshake from his parents. Gwen feigned upset at not being a war widow, at not getting that pension and the house.

After the war, Don found plenty of work. As a deep-sea diver, able to handle explosives, he spent the next 20 years blowing-up the war wrecks around Europe’s harbours.

Gwen contracted Parkinson’s disease in 1955 and Don built a swimming pool to ease her suffering. “She was happiest in the water,” says Don.

In the late 1960s, she developed cancer in both lungs and died in January, 1973. Don had been overseas when she died and retired a while later.

In 1974, he married Alma, the sister of a friend and they built a home together, outside of Annascaul, Co Kerry.

Alma died in January, 2003, also from cancer. As Don says: “January isn’t a very lucky month for me.” Don still lives in that house, spending his time modelling ships and ornaments.

When I called, he was shaping the hull of the Mayflower and had a wooden mug on the lathe, ready for boring. The flag was flying on the putting green, ready for a few practice shots.

As the only member of his unit alive, the Marines wanted Don in France for the 70th anniversary. Don wasn’t keen and will mark June 6 with a whisky at home.

A drink richly deserved.

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