Sixty-eight years ago, Army Private Fred Layher lived through some of the most terrifying experiences of his life.
He was an amphibious engineer during the second wave of assaults on Normandy’s Omaha Beach. He fought in the waste-deep snow during the Battle of the Bulge. But among the most intimidating of all his experiences during the war in Europe in 1944 was the moment his fellow soldiers forced him on stage with actress Donna Reed—star of It’s a Wonderful Life—during one of the first USO shows in France.
“The guys they knew I was a timid type of guy, so they threw me up there on stage with her to see what I would do,” remembered Layher with a smile. “They were chanting and heckling me, and of course they just thought it was hilarious that I stood there paralyzed.”
“I was just 18 years old,” he added. “I knew how to use a weapon. I knew how to fight the Germans. But I had no idea what to do with this beautiful woman standing next to me.”
A month had passed since the Normandy invasion when the USO launched one of its most vigorous tour schedules in history—just in time for war-weary troops like Layher, who had been fighting hard to take the land from the Germans.
“I remember we really needed the comic relief at that time,” said Layher. “It was almost surreal what was happening in the war, what we’d been through and the things we’d seen. It was all well and good that we were beating the Germans, but it came at a heavy cost. We lost a lot of guys, and the morale boost from that USO show couldn’t have been better timed.”
Thanks to a grant from Ford Motor Company, 86-year-old Layher was among 75 WWII veterans flown free of cost to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. today, on the anniversary of D-Day–the first wave of the Normandy invasion 68 years ago.
The trip was organized by Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization on a mission to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.
“It’s a beautiful memorial,” said Layher. “Not quite as pretty as Donna Reed, but it does bring back the memories, which I’ll always be grateful for.”
– Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer