The 92-year-old veteran spent the latter half of October traveling through Belgium and France, visiting the very places he fought as a young Army soldier in the 2nd Infantry division. The two locations most significant to Hardy’s war experience — Omaha Beach in France and Wahlersheid Crossroads in Germany — were particularly special, he said.
“You get goose bumps at times,” Hardy said. “Knowing what you had to go through while you were there, knowing you’re standing in the same place where you were 60 years ago. Sometimes you want to cry, and on the other hand, you want to laugh.”
At Omaha, where Hardy came ashore in 1944 to begin his “first hard fight” across Hill 192 in Normandy, he was able to lower an American flag that now stands at the site. At Wahlersheid, where Hardy once led a patrol as part of the Battle of the Bulge, remnants of pillboxes and foxholes remain.
“I’m not absolutely positive, because it had been partially filled up, but I believe I found foxholes I helped dig the first day we were there,” he said.
With two weeks to spend, Hardy and Birmingham-based World War II historian Joe Chesnut, who made the trip with Hardy and pre-arranged their activities, were able to visit many World War II monuments and talk with locals who, much to Hardy’s surprise, are greatly appreciative of American veterans.
“I’ve heard it said that French and Belgium people hate Americans, but forget it,” he said. “It’s not so. I was treated like royalty everywhere I went.”
Chesnut has been on 17 trips to Europe and regularly takes groups of veterans to visit war locations, offering more personalized trips than the standard tour. He said the main take-away is always the meaningful interaction with locals.
“They treat our veterans better than we do here,” he said. “Marvin probably wrote his name more times than he has his whole life with all the people asking for autographs and pictures. It was a thrill for me to see him get that kind of attention.”
While there, Hardy received an honorary citizenship in Veilsalm, a city in Luxemburg, Germany, and his Army portrait was permanently hung in a pub in Bastogne, Belgium.
“My system and alcohol don’t mix, but they said I had to go into that bar, so I didn’t argue with them,” Hardy said of the surprise picture hanging. “I did notice they put me in a specific seat, and then they uncovered my picture, and it’s there from now on. I was surprised, you better believe it.”
Parts of the trip were emotional for Hardy, as he vividly remembers the sense of loss that comes with war.
“That was some trying times,” he said. “You could be standing talking together and, poof, one of you is gone, just that quick. Let me tell you, if you ever to go France or Belgium to one of those cemeteries where soldiers lie and you don’t shed a tear, there’s something wrong with you.”
Hardy brought back a pile of mementos from his visit, including pamphlets and photos from just about every location they went. Three rocks from Omaha Beach stand out among the stack of papers, though. Hardy was given two of the rocks for each of his daughters, and the third, a dark red stone, is meant to represent the blood shed there, he said.
Chesnut said Hardy needed little help remembering what or where certain events happened, especially in the woods at Wahlersheid.
“I had maps to follow, but he went right straight to where it was,” he said. “Usually people need a little help, because it has changed so much, but not him. It was amazing.”
Hardy was drafted in October 1943 and served for two years. He still recalls details of his 16 months spent at war — the snow, the fog, the German deserters who blew their heads off as Americans approached.
“Nobody can train you for what you have to go through over there,” he said. “They could train you to follow orders and protect yourself. Your duty is one thing, and that’s to kill Germans. That’s what it all boiled down to, so you’re just trained to protect yourself as
best you can.”
After landing in Ireland and moving to Omaha several months later on his 24th birthday, Hardy said his division moved across France, Germany and into Czechoslovakia in the course of a year.
“One year later, I walked out of Germany into Czechoslovakia on the second day of May 1945. Germans surrendered on May 8. We packed up, and they shipped us back to France and on a boat home. We landed on the 19th day of July in Boston, Mass. We were headed for the Pacific, but they dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, and that ended the war.”
While at war, Hardy was shot in the left hip and shoulder, a “million-dollar wound” that earned him a Purple Heart. That medal now hangs in a shadow box in his Sylacauga home, flanked by a Bronze Star Medal, awarded for acts of heroism, and a Good Conduct Medal, for “keeping his nose clean,” he said, along with his staff sergeant and Indian head shield patches and a ribbon representing the five campaigns across Europe he took part in.
“You sometimes hear about people wearing medals they didn’t earn,” he said. “Well, I earned these, and that’s not bragging, it’s fact. And a lot of other people earned their medals, too. It wasn’t just me.”
Hardy, who spent the rest of his career in carpentry and construction, has other memorabilia from the war around his home, but nothing is quite like the opportunity to stand in those same places again so many years later. It was a chance Hardy said he always wanted, but never thought he could afford until an anonymous group of friends made it possible.
“I can say I really enjoyed it,” he said. “There were two things different about this trip than the first time I was there. I had to have a passport this time, and nobody was shooting at me, so that was a great improvement from the start. It was tiresome, but would I go back? Yes.”