One more mission for 98-year-old vet: Honoring a D-Day hero

Richard M. Snethen, 97, served his country in Europe in WWII. He lives in Nutley and is a poet. Photo by Linda Stamato
Richard M. Snethen served in Europe in WWII. He lives in Nutley and is a poet. Photo by Linda Stamato
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By Linda Stamato

War is about many things. Certainly, it is about courage and bravery, and, sacrifice.

In the words of Paul Fussell, the author of The Great War and Modern Memory, who died at 88 in 2012, it’s also about what you come to know:

…You learn that you have much wider dimensions than you had imagined before you had to fight a war. That’s salutary. It’s well to know exactly who you are, so you can conduct the rest of your life properly.

Every year we learn more about the men and women who have had the direct experience of war, have reached Fussell’s “wider dimension,” and have chosen to tell us about it. Many tell their stories to the Rutgers Oral History Archives because so many of the university’s students went to war.

Indeed, we have four dedicated places of remembrance on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick to honor and to remember those who served.

One of these places is very special for Richard Snethen, now 98, who carried out intelligence and security missions in the Philippines as a Counter-Intelligence Corps officer during World War II.

Snethen, honored by the Rutgers Oral History Archives some years back, has his story recorded here.

And Snethen’s class, the Rutgers Class of 1943, dedicated a Grove of Remembrance, on Rutgers’ Livingston Campus, in 1983. Surrounded by lush cherry trees symbolic of the 31 classmates who gave their lives, the memorial includes an engraved poem by the late Irving Pape, RC’43:

… Through my reverie and the swirling mist of memory I hear the shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of marching feet, a gentle cadence, a steady beat. Louder and louder, closer and closer it comes, and through the mist I vaguely see the twenty-one and ten of ’43, all are marching home.

In 2001, benches were installed, providing a peaceful place to sit and reflect.

Snethen wrote the following poem to be delivered at the dedication of the Grove of Remembrance. In April 2018, the year he attended his 75th college reunion, he dedicated this poem to his classmates who gave their lives in the war:

This silent sentinel stands, bedecked with roses
To remind us of those who served us well.

We heard those words spoken long ago
“Four score and seven years ago…”
To remind us to dedicate this day to
Those who served us well

Taps reverberate with mournful melancholy tones
To remind us of some unknown poet’s words.
“Rest easy, sleep well, my brothers.
Know that the line has held.
Your job is over. Others will take up where you fell.
Rest easy. Peace, Peace, Farewell.”

Snethen has one more mission: Spreading the word about one special classmate, his boyhood friend, John L. Thompson, both “Ag” students at Rutgers; they had been friends since the 4th grade in Nutley. Snethen wants to learn about his friend’s later years, and make sure his heroic exploits are acknowledged in “the historical record.”

What Snethen does know is this: Johnny, as he refers to him, was assigned to the 115th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Army Division, then preparing for Operation “Overlord,” better known as the Normandy Invasion.

On D-Day, Johnny was among the men who landed on Omaha Beach, under horrific machine gun crossfire and artillery barrages. He made it to the shelter of a cliff, along with survivors of other units.

He gathered some of the men—those who were fit for continued duty—into a makeshift fighting group, leading them along the cliff until they reached a path leading to the top. There they held a strategic advantage.

The group, Snethen says, wiped out two machine gun emplacements and neutralized the artillery battery, helping to secure the beach for the successful landing of additional troops and war material, and making the Normandy breakthrough possible.

Next, the 29th was ordered to secure the deep water port of Brest. After winning the battle there, the 29th fought its way across Belgium, into the Rhineland, and then into Germany, ending in Central Europe at the war’s conclusion.

Johnny was awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts and the Croix de Guerre with Star. These honors were bestowed in recognition of his selfless and heroic contributions. Snethen says his friend would have thought he simply did what he had to do.

Johnny died in 1994. When Snethen learned of his death, he looked to see if Johnny had been interviewed for the Rutgers Oral History Archives and learned he had not. And other information about Johnny’s service seems to have disappeared. Snethen’s search has yielded nothing.

So Snethen himself is bringing Johnny’s story to light.

It’s a privilege to carry these stories forward, Thompson’s and Snethen’s, and to let readers know that the Rutgers Oral History Archives are open and accessible for them.

Memorial Day 2019 is a good day to visit.

MORE COVERAGE OF MEMORIAL DAY 2019

Morristown resident Linda Stamato teaches in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and co-direct its Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers University.

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