John Hinchcliffe, who served with the 1st Infantry Division on D-Day, is buried at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent. Some of his ashes were scattered at Omaha Beach in France. (Contributed Photo)

John Hinchcliffe, who served with the 1st Infantry Division on D-Day, is buried at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent. Some of his ashes were scattered at Omaha Beach in France. (Contributed Photo)

A D-Day hero has passed, but his family keeps memory alive

John Hinchcliffe, of Lake Stevens, was part of the first wave to storm Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

In 1998, when “Saving Private Ryan” came out, John Hinchcliffe saw the epic World War II movie with another local veteran. Both men had survived the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

Hinchcliffe, of Lake Stevens, was a 22-year-old 2nd lieutenant on June 6, 1944. On that history-making day, Allied forces — 160,000 strong — landed on the beaches of northern France to battle Nazi Germany. He was a platoon leader with the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed “the Big Red One.” And he was part of the first wave to storm Omaha Beach.

Eighteen of his 21 men died that day — along with more than 2,500 other Americans and some 1,900 Allies.

“There wasn’t any doubt about what you had to do: Get up there. You had to get off that beach,” Hinchcliffe told a Herald reporter in 1998, after he and Navy veteran Joe McCann watched “Saving Private Ryan.” The film’s opening is a horrifically graphic re-enactment of the Omaha Beach landing.

“He said it brought back a lot of memories he’d tried to erase for over 50 years,” said Mike Miles, of Arlington, who is married to Hinchcliffe’s daughter, Joan Hinchcliffe Miles. Those D-Day memories — dodging bullets and grabbing soldiers who had lost their buddies and leaders — were just the beginning.

During the war, Hinchcliffe was shot in the mouth and nearly blown up by a grenade. Taken prisoner and shipped to Poland, he escaped, was recaptured, and escaped again.

Surviving it all, after the war he married a German bride, served in the U.S. Air Force and raised a family. John Frederick Hinchcliffe died in 2001 at age 79. Along with his daughter, Joan, he is survived by a son, John William Hinchcliffe.

He had returned to Normandy in 1994, when asked to present a wreath during ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

“My mom told me how emotional Dad got,” said Joan Miles, 64. Her mother, Gisela Hinchcliffe, died June 9, 2018. “She was from Berlin. She had her own stories and horrors.”

John Hinchcliffe’s grave is at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, but Mike Miles said Tuesday that some of his father-in-law’s ashes were returned to that place he could never forget.

Miles, 66, said he and his father-in-law — “my best friend for 30 years” — often went hunting and fishing together. Sitting around a camp fire, Miles said the World War II veteran told him he wanted his ashes returned to Normandy. In 2007, on D-Day’s 63rd anniversary, Joan and Mike Miles attended the ceremony there, and honored Hinchcliffe’s request.

“It was overcast and rainy, like the day they landed,” Mike Miles said. “We walked down to the beach,” his wife said. “Mike knows just where Dad was when he landed.” Together, they found a final resting place near where “he landed and fought his way up,” Mike said.

On Thursday, Allied heads of state, including President Donald Trump, will be at Normandy’s Juno Beach for an international ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Anniversary events, which will happen through the summer, include parades, air-drops, concerts and fireworks.

With surviving D-Day veterans now in their 90s and older, the 2019 commemorations represent the closing of an era. Seventy-fifth anniversary events at the National D-Day Memorial have “The Final Salute” as a theme. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to attend that ceremony in Bedford, Virginia.

None of the local men interviewed for a 1994 Herald article about the 50th anniversary of D-Day are alive today.

Everett’s Joseph “Eddie” McCann, who watched “Saving Private Ryan” with Hinchcliffe, had lied about his age to join the Navy. On June 6, 1944, he was in an LST (Landing Ship Tank) to land troops at Omaha Beach.

McCann spent D-Day ferrying supplies and ammunition in, and the wounded out. A few days later, he was put on a detail picking dog tags off bodies floating in the surf, according to the 1998 Herald article. McCann was 80 when he died in 2009.

My dad, Richard Ahrens, landed at Utah Beach in Normandy 17 days after D-Day. He served in the Army’s 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division, and in Germany after the war with the Army of Occupation. At 96, he’s still living in my childhood home in Spokane.

Since her father’s death in 2001, Joan Miles has often placed memorial notices in Hinchcliffe’s honor in The Herald.

“We want to keep the memory out there,” she said. “So many people don’t even know what D-Day is. It was such an important turning point of the war.”

Her father didn’t tell her many war stories, nor does mine.

Joan Miles shared one tale that Hinchcliffe told. She said her father told her that, while hiding in a church basement in France, he and his men shot holes in barrels they found. Those barrels, she said, contained Calvados, an apple or pear brandy made in Normandy.

“They put Calvados in their helmets,” she said. “One of the things Dad did after the war, he had a toast of Calvados on D-Day. And every D-Day, we still do that as a family.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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