Ann Arborite Tom Fournier
by Eve Silberman
Tom Fournier, eighty-seven, ex-Seabee, his mop of white curls topped by a blue cap that announces "WWII Vet," says that he was "too young and dumb" to be really nervous on the morning of June 6, 1944.
"We had no idea what an invasion was really like," Fournier recalls. After practice runs loading and unloading equipment, he and his fellow navy construction troops "were pretty cocky." Waiting on a barge while fighting raged six miles away on Omaha Beach, his buddies played pinochle while Fournier watched for the flashing lights that would summon them into history.
When the battalion finally landed near dusk, Fournier stumbled and fell over what he quickly realized was a corpse. "Charlie's had a hard day," one of the GIs joked. "Everyone laughed," Fournier says, "to keep from crying."
Their first task, the next morning, was graves detail. About 3,000 young Americans died on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Fournier's Seabees picked up the bodies--"all shot up, maybe the legs missing and the arms missing"--and delivered them to freshly dug graves.
A Detroit native who'd managed to enlist even though he was underweight and not yet eighteen, Fournier dodged German snipers in the weeks after the invasion. But his closest brush with death came later, while visiting a friend in London. "All of a sudden there was a big kaboom," he recalls. "His apartment had been bombed!" Debris blocked the door; frantically, the two men kicked it open. An air raid warden directed them to a crowded stone cellar. Fournier was startled when a woman said to him, "Yank, you're bleeding," and tied a cloth around his forehead.
"Everyone gathered around," Fournier recalls, "asking, 'Are you all right, Yank? Are you all right?' Then they started to sing, 'There'll always be an England.'
"It was so emotional. I was singing at the top of my lungs with them."
Fournier survived two more amphibious landings, in New Guinea and the Philippines. In August 1945, he and 10,000 other
men were camped on a beach, getting ready to invade Japan. By then, "We were all battle weary," he recalls, "wondering 'What if my time's run out?'" When Japan's surrender was announced, "The first thing we did was go to the edge of the ocean and throw our grenades in to see to see how many fish we could blow up!" Exhilarated, the men kept firing their weapons until their commanders confiscated their ammunition.
More than twenty years later, marching in an antiwar demonstration in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, dramatically draped in a black robe to symbolize death, Fournier recalls being "a little irritated" when onlookers taunted him as a coward who "had never fought for his country." The old navy discipline kicked in, and he didn't respond.
Fournier relaxes in the living room of his tiny house near Kerrytown, where an American flag flutters on the porch. He and his late wife, Joan, moved here from Ypsilanti in 1979.
A large, solitary fish swims in an aquarium. A licensed counselor, Fournier finds the fish useful in his practice: when clients stop talking about their lives and stare at the fish, he knows they've hit on a painful subject, one they'll need to revisit.
The war dramatically changed the direction of Fournier's life. He had been attending the Henry Ford Trade School when he enlisted, and when he came home at age twenty, he could have returned, eventually joining Ford as a tool-and-die maker. He would have retired with a "good pension," he reflects. Instead, he married Joan, his high school sweetheart, and took a job at her father's lumberyard. He was in line to take over the yard, but when his father-in-law suffered a stroke, the family had to sell it. He ended up back at Ford, as a technical writer, then moved into sales--but quit when he was pressured to "cram those cars down the dealers' throats."
He and Joan raised eight kids, living in Niles for many years while
he worked for heavy-equipment maker Clark. From there they moved to Kansas City, where as a product manager for a company making hydraulic bucket trucks, he learned how to touch high-voltage lines without getting electrocuted. But Joan disliked Missouri, so they returned to Michigan, where they settled in Ypsilanti and Joan enrolled at Eastern. So delighted was she by her studies in English--she became a librarian--that it made Fournier want to go to college, too. With two kids still at home, he managed to juggle various jobs and earn a B.A. in English, then a master's in counseling at U-M. He did everything from marriage therapy to acting as legal guardian for vulnerable seniors.
Seeing the pride and confidence Joan developed on her job, Fournier found special satisfaction in counseling women of their own generation, who often came in with a severe lack of confidence. "I always enjoyed seeing it when they saw themselves in a different light." He and Joan had been married sixty-three years when she died two years ago, and he sometimes tears up when talking about her. His children, several of whom live nearby, and grandchildren provide him both comfort and distraction.
Despite his grief, Fournier is still thinking ahead. He stopped counseling when Joan was ill, but now plans to return, part-time. He's also taking baking classes at Zingerman's, meets weekly with a memoir-writing group, and is seriously considering taking a solo long-distance drive across the country. Told that sounds like a young man's dream, he replies, "I gave up my teenage years to the war."
Fournier takes pride in the Presidential Unit Citation his battalion received for "outstanding service" during the invasion of France. But he does not belong to any veterans' organization, and plans no special activities for the D-Day anniversary other than personal reflection.
Perhaps Fournier's most significant memorial came more than twenty years ago, when he revisited Normandy with Joan. After visiting the graveyard where the American soldiers whose bodies he gathered are buried, he walked the beach where they landed in 1944. This time, he cried.
[Originally published in June, 2012.]