A WWII History Lesson That Never Gets Old

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

Ron Drez just knew he was in big trouble.

A few days after the opening of fifth grade at St. Rose de Lima School in New Orleans, Drez wrote his essay on a topic familiar to every child who ever attended Catholic school: What I Did on My Summer Vacation.

And now, Sister of St. Joseph Louise Aimée Hannamann, principal of St. Rose School, was calling his mother at home, asking her to come to school the next morning for a meeting.

“My mother was quizzing me, ‘What could you possibly have done? The principal doesn’t just call out of the blue. You must have done something terrible,’” Drez recalled.

Drez started racking his brain. He came up empty.

The next morning, Drez’s mother brought him to school, and they both saw the principal heading their way.

“Mrs. Drez,” Sister Louise Aimée said. “I just have to tell you, you have something that’s very special here.”

And then she held up 10-year-old Ron’s 500-word essay. It wasn’t about traveling to the Mississippi Gulf Coast or going swimming or fishing with the family.

“I wrote about the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg,” Drez said, laughing.

“That’ll tell you how addicted I was to history,” said Drez, now 78 and one of the pre-eminent military historians in the United States, a protege and collaborator with the late Dr. Stephen Ambrose of the University of New Orleans on every aspect of WWII. “I had a voracious reading appetite, and there weren’t a lot of things to do back then during the summer. There was no air-conditioning, there were hardly any organized sports. It was just the beginning of the Korean War, and all of the streets weren’t even paved. You had to do something for yourself, so I read. I’m sure what I wrote was deathless prose.”

Drez went on to Jesuit High School, where he ran the hurdles and the quarter mile, and then to Tulane University, where he was part of the Naval ROTC, choosing the Marine Corps option. In the summer before his senior year at Tulane, Drez was required to participate in the Marines’  “Training and Test Regimen” at Quantico, Virginia.

“It was a very innocuous-sounding place,” Drez said, laughing. “It was eight weeks of getting your butt kicked.”

Drez entered at 185 pounds and, he thought, in tremendous shape. He left two months later, 160, with washboard abs, 100 percent muscle, 0 percent fat.

“The word had filtered down, ‘Don’t report in as the Pillsbury Doughboy,’” Drez said.

But even Drez was not prepared for what his hard-drinking, Irish Quantico drill instructor, Sgt. Jack Tevnan, had in store for the unsuspecting boot campers.

“They called them the hill trails – you know, ‘hill trails’ sound like ‘over the hill and over the dale,’” Drez said. “This thing was 11 mountains. We had gotten over the third one, and I was ready to die, and so was everybody else. And then Sgt. Tevnan yells, ‘You little sissies, wait till you get to the next one. We call it Little David.’ And then someone, of course, pipes up, ‘Why do they call it Little David, Sergeant?’ And Tevnan shouts back, ‘Because it’s a giant killer!’”

Drez spent seven years in the Marines and served two tours of duty in Vietnam, finishing up 13 months of mostly jungle fighting in March 1969, returning to his wife Judy and their three young children – Ron Jr., who was 2 1/2; Kevin, who was 18 months, and Diane, who was 6 months, “the daughter I had never seen.”

“I came home to something that was intact, and that made a big difference,” Drez said. “A lot of the guys who had trouble had trouble before they left, so they left from nothing and they came back to nothing. And that was very, very difficult.”

During his military career, Drez picked up a skill that was invaluable in New Orleans: he knew how to properly load a ship, figuring out the weight loads in different cargo holds “so you don’t break the ship in half.”

One day as he drove upriver on River Road to load another grain ship, Drez heard broadcaster Wayne Mack interviewing a man on his afternoon radio program. 

“The guy was terribly interesting,” Drez recalled.

He was so interesting, Mack had him on for three consecutive afternoons. It was Ambrose, talking about his newly released book on Crazy Horse and General Custer.

Drez was so fascinated with Ambrose that he told Judy he would love to bump into him someday but didn’t know how that might happen.

“She tapped me on the skull and said, ‘Why don’t you sign up for one of his classes?’” Drez said.

That began Drez’s 4 1/2-year quest for a master’s degree in history at the University of New Orleans, taking virtually all of his classes with Ambrose.

They hit it off famously – Ambrose loved how Drez wrote and researched his papers, and the feeling was mutual. Ambrose nixed Drez’s first master’s thesis idea with a WWII theme and told him to write from the heart about something he knew – the Siege of Khe Sanh in 1968.

Drez’s award-winning thesis led to an even closer professional relationship. Drez became a top researcher for Ambrose, helping his professor on what he called his “Normandy Project.”

“For the next eight years, I crisscrossed the country getting the stories of men who had been involved in the landing of the 6th of June, 1944,” Drez said. 

That research was the foundation for Ambrose’s “D-Day: June 4, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II” and also for Drez’s first book, “Voices of D-Day.”

“Up to that time, all you had were a bunch of stupid, anti-American films like ‘The Deerslayer’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Platoon,’” Drez said. “Suddenly, the American people fell in love with  WWII and the people.”

With the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaching next June – and with so few WWII vets still living – Drez cherishes his conversations with a German soldier, who was just 18 at the time of the invasion at Omaha Beach.

“I can tell you there are no atheists in foxholes,” Drez said, who himself had bullets whiz past his head in Vietnam. “Everybody is coming to grips, especially on the eve of battle, with their own mortality. That is, unless you’re an idiot. They all end up in a state of resolve where they put everything in the hands of a higher authority.”

Drez said, by far, Catholics and Jews made up the majority of those killed on the beaches of Normandy in the cause for freedom.

“Most of the soldiers who were killed at Omaha Beach came from Pennsylvania and New York, so you had those big cities there, and the Catholic Church was very much an influence.”

As the invasion advanced, Drez said, among the first major targets in the French cities were the Catholic churches.

“In the Normandy area, every village had a church, but it didn’t take G.I. Joe very long to understand that the steeple was a great place for snipers,” Drez said. “The first thing that came down was the church’s belfry or steeple.”

The bravery of Catholic chaplains during WWII also fascinated Drez: the chaplain on the USS Franklin, in flames after being struck by a Japanese kamikaze pilot, “calmly blessing a man and giving him the last sacraments on the flight deck”; the four Catholic chaplains during the Battle of Solomon Islands who, after their ship was torpedoed, “took off their lifejackets and handed it to men who didn’t have them”; the Catholic priests at the Dachau death camp who remained steadfast in their faith and led to the eventual restoration of the permanent diaconate.

So many stories; all worth retelling. 

The Clarion Herald is hosting a pilgrimage June 11-23, 2019, to the shrines of France and the beaches of Normandy in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Ron Drez will speak at an informational gathering Jan. 10 at 7 p.m. at St. Edward the Confessor Parish in Metairie, 4921 West Metairie Ave. For information, call 834-4951.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.