WWII Hero, Normandy Veteran Dies

By Danny Schrafel

dschrafel@longislandernews.com

 

Seventy years after the Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, the inevitable march of time is taking its toll on the men who took part in that assault to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation.

One of the most recent lost is William F. Edwards, a Northport resident, Army parachute and proud U.S. Army veteran whose service continued into the Korean War. He died May 27 at the age of 86, in the care of the Northport VA Medical Center.

Joe Sledge, the medical center’s public information officer, said Edwards was always most concerned about others.

“He had this amazing military experience. He’s a great guy, raised a very beautiful family in Northport and was always interested in other people. I just found him to be a very nice man,” Sledge said.

The Edwards family was deeply affected by the D-Day operations and the struggle that followed, his son William G. Edwards said.

The elder William’s brothers, Patrick and Robert, both died in those battles, which began on June 6, 1944 with 160,000 Allied forces landing on the shores of France as part of the largest naval invasion in recorded history. With parental consent, William F., known as Billy to friends, was soon parachuting into battle-scarred Europe in support of the Allied war efforts, his son said. The inroads made by the Allies immediately following D-Day set the stage for restoring the French Republic and their march across Europe in defeating the Nazis.

On the rare occasions he would try to bring up his fallen brothers, the son recalled, the veteran would quickly change the topic.

“My father really couldn’t speak much about it. It was one of the difficult topics in life that you just don’t talk about,” he said.

William F. Edwards was in the service for a total of seven years and fought in the Korean War, where he earned a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars. But he was always quick to humbly demur to the service of others, according to his son.

“He was very decorated… but he always talked about how other guys were hurt worse than him,” the son said.

After returning from war, he worked with the MTA in New York City for 38 years as a power maintainer and possessed a knack for languages – German in particular – and picked others up quickly.

Later in life, his service was in the spotlight once again, thanks to a conversation with a Hollywood luminary that was captured on film.

During an observance marking the 65th anniversary of D-Day at the Colleville American Cemetery in Normandy, “Saving Private Ryan” star Tom Hanks was there making the rounds and talking to as many veterans as he could. When Hanks got to Billy Edwards, the two became engrossed in conversation, his son said. When Hanks’ handler prodded him to keep moving, Hanks told him to hold on a minute – he was talking to Mr. Edwards.

“All the camera men were kind of around and that’s when they took the picture,” the son said.

The image was picked up by the Associated Press and other outlets and made its way around the world. When Edwards got home from his trip, the answering machine was filled with messages from around the country with the same words: “We saw your picture with Tom Hanks.”

“My father came home and said what a wonderful man Tom Hanks was,” William said.

But to his son, Billy was more than a decorated war hero; he was a source of great support.

“I’m going to miss him more as a friend than anything else,” William said.

In addition to William G., William F. is survived by his children, Thomas F., Valerie M., Mary Alice, and Victoria E., as well as his wife of 54 years, Patricia.

A funeral Mass was celebrated May 30 at St. Philip Neri R.C. Church. Burial, accompanied by full military honors, followed at Calverton National Cemetery. Arrangements were by the Nolan & Taylor-Howe Funeral Home.