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Memorial service for World War II Navy veteran set for July 13

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By Laura Lewis, Reporter

He was a familiar sight at local veterans’ events, proudly attired in his U.S. Navy uniform that still fit decades after his military service.

Omaha Beach D-Day survivor Tom Koester was part of the Greatest Generation and the legion of World War II veterans whose numbers are dwindling daily by the hundreds, according to the National World War II Museum.

This past June 16, Koester died at 89 surrounded by his family following an illness.

The Navy veteran, a widower who lived off Calabash Road near his daughters after retiring here years ago from his native Pittsburgh, will be honored at a memorial service on what would have been his 90th birthday, at 1 p.m. this coming Sunday, July 13, at Calabash American Legion Post 503.

“We’re going to have a little birthday cake and all that,” Post commander Diane Larrowe said, adding the event is open to anyone who would like to come and pay respects.

Koester, along with his daughters, Linda Heyl and Diane White of Calabash, was actively involved with the Post.

“His whole family worked with the American Legion,” Larrowe said.

Heyl said her father was a wonderful dad, granddad and great-granddad who is still sorely missed by his family.

 

D-Day survivor

Seventy years ago, as dawn was breaking June 6, 1944, over the choppy English Channel, 19-year-old Koester was aboard one of the first U.S. landing crafts to reach Omaha Beach at the start of what has been recorded as the longest day in history.

As they approached at H-hour — 6:30 a.m. — at first it was a “picnic,” the Navy veteran recalled during an interview with the Beacon in 2009.

But when they were 200 yards from shore, German machine guns opened up from cliffs overlooking the beach. Koester remembered shells and rockets screaming overhead, so hot he could feel them on the back of his neck.

Recalling his role in the first and longest day of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Normandy, France, during World War II, the Brunswick County resident found it difficult to fathom the decades that had rolled past since.

A motor machinist 3rd class, Koester’s job was keep the 50-foot steel vessel’s engine running as it carried a demolition crew charged with coming in and blowing up German obstacles on the beach. Many of his fellow seamen perished that day. He was one of the survivors, sufering internal injuries he wouldn’t realize until weeks later.

“I was a kid doing what I was trained to do,” Koester recalled.

In the aftermath of that landmark day, Koester and his fellow survivors lived on the beach for a month, eating what they “stole off the Army” and bartering for food, he said.

Eventually, they made it back to England.

He wound up in Bremerton, Wash., where he was supposed to depart for the South Pacific. But a checkup at Farragut Naval Hospital revealed the extent of Koester’s injuries, and he received a medical discharge instead. Because he didn’t bleed, Koester was never bestowed a Purple Heart.

 

Family and retirement

He returned to his native Pittsburgh where he launched his career as a postman at a starting hourly wage of 99 cents. For the next 35 years, Koester carried mail in the hills of Pittsburgh. He also married his wife, Marie, followed by their two daughters, eventually retiring to Brunswick County.

In 1994, Koester revisited Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

Up until his illness these past few months, residents and veterans alike could always count on seeing him in full uniform at local Memorial and Veterans Day events, Larrowe said.

“He’s going to be greatly missed,” she said.

 

Laura Lewis is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or llewis@brunswickbeacon.com.