Growing up, Tom McCauley wondered why, every year, his father took his sons camping around June 6.
They traveled to southeast Ohio from their Upper Arlington home and pitched tents in Burr Oak or Lake Alma state parks. Lawrence McCauley drank a beer and smoked a cigar as he and the six boys fished, cooked over a fire and played cards.
The kids were aware that their father was a World War II veteran, but not that he had participated in D-Day, landing on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
“My Mom (Mary Ann) never really let Dad talk about the war,” said Tom McCauley, 55, the youngest son and seventh of eight kids. “We wondered why Dad would run around at 3 o’clock in the morning, screaming, and Mom was like, `Go back to bed.’”
So the boys didn’t realize that the camping trips were cathartic for Lawrence McCauley. It was his chance to get away and deal with the long-buried memories, such as the pain of seeing his good friend killed on the Normandy beach or the sight and smell of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Like many other veterans of his generation, he kept it to himself as he focused on building a liferaising his large family and becoming a successful banker.
It has been in the only past few years that McCauley, 97, has started sharing his stories and reluctantly accepting accolades and honors.
He has never been back to the D-Day beaches, though. He was set to go for the 50th anniversary in 1994, but Mary Ann was diagnosed with lymphoma and the trip was canceled.
Since then, he has passed up every other offer to go. By way of explanation, he gives a simple shrug.
“Been there, done that.”
Lawrence McCauley was the fifth of seven kids of John and Stella McCauley. He grew up on Mulberry Street in Lancaster, where his father owned a hardware store. His Lancaster St. Mary High School Class of 1941 was six months out of school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
He tried to join the Marines in January 1942, but his eyeglasses prevented it. Months later, the Army drafted him.
McCauley was a member of the 65th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, trained to drive trucks (armed with .50-caliber machine guns), halftracks and landing craft, just in case. In England, preparing for the invasion, he became fast friends with Otto Lutz, a tall Chicagoan.
“We were all very close,” he said of his unit. “You knew about their wives and children — everything you could know about your buddy, because there was nothing else to talk about.”
He and Otto were next to each other on a landing craft as it approached Omaha Beach. The front door dropped open and a bullet hit Otto in the forehead.
McCauley remembers looking back and seeing his friend’s face sink beneath the water.
“There was no stopping,” he said. “Our orders were `Don’t stop’ because you’re better off as a moving target. That’s hard.”
The 65th fought their way off the beach that day and climbed the bluffs. McCauley remembers the feeling as he reached the top: “Best grass I’ve ever seen.”
He was involved in the hardest fighting through France and Belgium, including the Battle of Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.
On April 11, 1945, McCauley was among the first to reach Buchenwald, liberating 21,000 emaciated inmates.
“They were packed in like sardines,” he said.
Tom McCauley said his dad told him the crematory ovens were still warm and he can’t get the camp’s smell out of his nose.
Later, McCauley’s unit stopped a train, opened it up and found young Jewish girls inside. They directed them to safety behind American lines.
Back home, McCauley attended Ohio University on the GI Bill, where he met Mary Ann. He graduated in 1949 and went to work for Ohio National Bank (later Banc Ohio and now National City Bank).
In 1955, John McConnell walked through the door of Ohio National, looking for a loan to start a business. He and McCauley hit it off, as both were World War II veterans (McConnell served in the Navy in the Pacific).
McCauley approved a $650 loan, and McConnell eventually founded Worthington Industries and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The two were lifelong friends.
Mary Ann died in 2003, but McCauley lived on his own until 2017, when he moved in with Tom and his family in Lewis Center.
Only since then, Tom said, has he been able to coax out details of his father’s war experiences.
Last year, the two attended a ceremony at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
There, they met two Holocaust survivorsJeanine, who said she remembers being freed from a train by American troopsand Annie, a Buchenwald survivor.
“Those two (McCauley and Annie) held hands at lunch for an hour,” Tom McCauley said.
Tom McCauley spent the better part of a year applying for the French Legion of Honor award for his father. It is the highest honor the French can give a foreigner, and in January, it was awarded to Lawrence McCauley.
“That was a heckuva surprise,” he said.
And even at 97, McCauley is still serving. Inspired by a British World War II veteran who recently walked laps around his retirement home to raise money for charity, the McCauleys plan to do the same soon, with Lawrence walking laps around the cul de sac where he lives.
Tom has set up a Facebook page for that effort. The money will go to food banks.
“We’re going to put the `Greatest Generation’ back to work, Pop,” Tom said to his father recently.
Lawrence McCauley said he appreciates it when people thank him for his service. But when asked if he considers himself a hero, he paused, as if he had never considered the question.
“Wow,” he said. “No, I was just doing a job.”