Mannix About Manatee: Warren Sweetman to be saluted Nov. 16

November 11, 2012 

Warren Sweetman would sit at the counter in Popi's Place IV eating breakfast, one of the regulars who enjoyed the family diner in Ellenton.

New patrons might take him for another retiree until they spotted his World War II veterans ballcap.

Maybe they'd nod respectfully and leave it at that. Or maybe they'd ask him about the war.

Whether they did, the decorated infantryman was content to be in their company.

"When I see a family ... at the restaurant, I just feel like I had the privilege to fight so those people could go and do that," he told the Bradenton Herald in 2004.

It's a shame they won't see him anymore.

Sweetman died Oct. 23. The former Palmetto volunteer firefighter was 89.

Pancreatic cancer did what German artillery and machine gun fire could not.

Another member of the Greatest Generation is gone.

Sweetman will be memorialized at a military service at 3 p.m. Friday at Impact Community Church, 209 Seventh St. W., Palmetto.

A young staff sergeant with the 1st Infantry Division -- the famous Big Red One -- the Illinois native saw combat from D-Day through the Battle of the Bulge until the war's end in Europe.

He spilled his share of his own blood and the enemy's, earning a Purple Heart with two clusters, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and the French Croix de Guerre, too.

It took Sweetman 36 years to receive those medals, as well as his Army disability, but his memories of that war and the cognizance it engendered were everlasting.

"You wonder whose father, brother, whose husband that was," he said about killing and combat. "Why am I here and why did my buddy die right in front of me? There's a lot of guilt."

Death, he said, became a way of life. Sweetman found that out on June 6, 1944.

He was in the first assault wave at Omaha Beach, the costliest of the five beachheads at Normandy, the first breach of Hitler's Fortresss Europe by the Allies.

That graphic 25-minute invasion sequence in Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan"?

Sweetman lived it.

"It was hell," he said. "No matter how much training you have, nothing prepares you for it."

Within the first few hours, 3,000 American soldiers were dead, wounded or missing.

Sweetman was almost one of them.

German artillery blew up his landing craft with 40 aboard.

Seven survivors, including Sweetman, struggled ashore onto a killing field where German troops fired down from bluffs overlooking the exposed beach.

"It was complete chaos," he said. "There were bodies, parts of bodies floating all around. Men screaming, 'Mom! Mom!' The water up front was blood red. People were dying everywhere."

That the Americans were not pushed back into the sea was a lasting testament to their bravery.

"We were flat up against those cliffs when that commander (Col. George A. Taylor) said, 'There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach -- those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here,'" Sweetman recalled.

They did, capturing the bluffs hours later.

Such courage humbled Guy LoFaro, a 1981 West Point graduate, decorated veteran and military historian.

"When you see those cliffs and what those men had to do to get up there in the face of such withering fire, it's almost unfathomable," he told the Herald in 1998.

"They were genuine heroes."

Sweetman insisted he was not a hero.

Sounding a refrain common among WWII veterans, he spoke of fallen comrades interred beneath thousands of white crosses in the American Cemetery at Normandy.

"Those are the heroes, not me with a bunch of medals," he said.

"The medals mean I had the honor and privilege of serving my country and I had a small part in getting us the freedom we have today."

A fitting epitaph for Warren Sweetman on Veterans Day.

Mannix About Manatee, by columnist Vin Mannix, is about people and issues in Manatee County. Call Vin at 941-745-7055. Twitter:@vinmannix.

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