By Tom Graham
I felt compelled to travel to Normandy, France, 75 years after the D-Day World War II invasion, on June 6, 1944.
My West Side Rowing Club teammate, Sargent Jim “Chick” Hewson, was a paratrooper in the 82nd Army Airborne. He answered the call to arms in World War II, and served with great courage and distinction with jumps in Italy, Sicily and Normandy on D-Day.
Hewson jumped behind enemy lines on D-Day, near the town of St. Mere Eglise, prior to the 6:30 a.m. invasion of the American troops on Utah and Omaha beaches. The goal was to capture St. Mere Eglise, and cut off the major roads to the beaches. The paratroopers saved the lives of many American soldiers when they hit the beaches on D-Day and began the end of the Nazi reign of terror in Europe.
Hewson was injured in the jump, hidden by the French resistance and evacuated to England for medical care. Hewson, as one of the “Greatest Generation,” never told me about his service in WWII. He died in 1978.
It was very emotional to visit the American cemetery in Normandy. I was in awe when I first saw the perfectly aligned headstones on 9,387 graves. I felt I was walking on holy ground. In the Garden of the Missing, there are the names of 1,557 more soldiers.
I was 2 years old on D-Day and Chick Hewson was 26. When Hewson returned to Buffalo, he resumed his intense training for rowing, race walking and marathon running.
As a boy I would go to rowing regattas in Buffalo and Canada, to watch my older brothers compete for the West Side Rowing Club. In the winter of 1956, as a freshman on the Bishop Timon rowing team, I watched four men training for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. The greatest oarsman in the 115-year history of rowing in Buffalo, Jim “Chick” Hewson, at age 38, was pushing his three teammates to train longer and harder. Now I understood what was required to become a champion oarsman.
To my surprise, the year after the 1956 Olympics, I became Hewson’s coxswain for the West Side Rowing Club. I had a front row seat, as a cox, to see how hard Hewson trained, and how he pushed his much younger teammates to pursue a very rigorous training program on and off the water. Hewson and the other older oarsmen mentored me.
Hewson won 49 rowing gold medals at the Canadian Henley. He won 26 U.S. national rowing titles. Hewson rowed in boats that were finalists in the Olympic trials for the 1948, and 1952. He won a rowing silver medal at the 1955 Pan American Games.
Hewson represented the USA in the 20K race walking event at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. In 2018, he was inducted to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
I brought sand from Omaha and Utah beaches, water from the English Channel and flowers from St. Mere Eglise, Normandy, back to Buffalo. The Normandy flowers were added to a floral wreath, with a picture of Hewson in a winning rowing shell. With the Hewson family, my family and West Side crew mates, we placed the sand, English Channel water and wreath into Black Rock Channel, in a blending of his spirit to ours.
May he look down upon us and know we remember.
Tom Graham, of East Aurora, is a former coxswain, oarsman and rowing coach.