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World War II vets attend showing of D-day documentary made by LR professor
World War II vets attend showing of D-day documentary made by LR professor

As an Army veteran and history professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, Dr. Mark Hager has a deep connection to military history.

Over the last year, that has only grown.

Hager directed and produced a documentary "The Last Gathering: 75th Anniversary of D-Day June 6, 2019" building relationships with World War II veterans Harold Frank, James Deal and Kenneth "Rock" Merritt along the way as they toured Europe and attended a highly celebrated event in Normandy commemorating the 75th anniversary of the invasion.

"I wanted to film this and worked with the (National World War II) museum to make sure I had all the credentials to get these veterans anywhere I could get them," Hager said.

That included returning to the sites those veterans fought through all the way to the beaches of Normandy. Hager documented the trip and put it all together in a documentary that was shown on campus Tuesday, Feb. 25, at P.E. Monroe Auditorium.

"We landed in Amsterdam," Hager said of the trip. "We toured through Belgium along the Atlantic wall back into France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I coordinated with the museum to set up tours to go over to the battles they fought."

Frank, 95, of Mocksville, North Carolina, served in the 357th Infantry Regiment, 90th Infantry Division during the war, seeing action in France as the third wave of the D-Day invasion. He was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, which he wears around his neck every day along with the bullet that struck his shoulder during the fighting. He was captured and spent 10 months in a prisoner of war work camp near Dresden.

"I thank God every day that I was born in the United States," Frank said. "I ain't good at giving no advice, but we should all be thankful we was born here. I didn't ask no one's permission to come here, and I know y'all didn't have to get permission to come talk to us and see this movie. That's freedom. I want y'all to remember that."

Deal, 97, of Faith, North Carolina, is a veteran of the 737th Tank Battalion, 35th Infantry Division. He saw action in General George Patton's army during the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded by a mine in Czechoslovakia.

Merritt, 96, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was also featured in the documentary, however, he was unable to attend the showing at LR due to health concerns. He was awarded the Silver Star after disabling a German machine gun nest single-handedly. He made his first combat jump into Normandy with the initial invasion and made four other combat jumps as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. Merritt spent 35 years in the military retiring as a Command Sergeant Major.

"I was anxious to see what the reaction would be like during our visit (to Europe)," Hager said. "Men, women and children kept walking up to us just to shake their hands. There were American flags, French flags and British flags everywhere we went."

Fort Bragg is opening a Normandy exhibit May 16. Hager, Frank, Deal and Merritt are planning on attending. There will be a private showing of the documentary for veterans followed by a ribbon cutting ceremony and opening of the exhibit for the public.

They are also tentatively planning on attending a similar event at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans the beginning of June.

Hager took extensive video footage during the trip, which he is donating to the National World War II Museum. He said the youngest veteran at the June celebration last summer was 94 years old, meaning it was possibly the last large gathering of veterans in Normandy.