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War hero teaches from the heart.

Bill Beem is an 80-year-old World War II veteran with a mission. He speaks to both teenage and adult students about what it was like to land on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, and fight during World War II in both the European Theater and in the Philippines.

Beem recently walked into a sophomore high-school history class in Southern California to give his 45th talk. Two students followed, toting boxes of World War II paraphernalia including a headhunter hatchet from the Igorot Indians of the Philippines and a Nazi dagger. Beem looked at home in front of the blackboard wearing his 60-year-old uniform decorated with numerous ribbons and 45 medals.

Whenever Beem talks to a class, the scenario is the same. Students quiet down quickly and look with interest towards the gentleman who promised to bring alive some of what they study in their history books. Beem always starts his speech by orienting students to his life.

"I was born on Sept. 7, 1923, in Texas," he says. "I did three years of ROTC in high school, which proved very helpful to me in my wartime duties. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, I tried to enlist in the Navy but was rejected because I was colorblind. Later I was drafted into the Army, and my special vision turned into an asset, especially in the Philippines jungle where I could see lines, not camouflage, so I could spot enemy trucks and jeeps nobody else could see. After being a drill sergeant at Camp Hood for a year, I became part of the largest convoy to ever leave New York City.

"We left a day after D-Day, June 7, 1944. On June 19, as part of the third wave, we arrived at Omaha Beach in one of the worst storms Normandy had ever seen," says Beem. "It was so fierce that the cement landing docks, called mulberries, that had been floated over from Britain so that the tanks could land, had disintegrated. The tanks were waterproof and had snorkels in them, but the Navy could not drop them close enough to land. One hundred eighty tanks tried to land in that deep water and the men in those tanks drowned within minutes. Only six tanks made it to the shore that day. All I could think of was 'floor it,' and we somehow made it. We knew we had lost many buddies and fellow soldiers but there was no time for fear or grief, we just had to go forward."

That tragedy was only the first of many the 19-year-old Beem and the four other men in his tank encountered. Beem's tremendous faith in God was his strength throughout.

Beem has students imagine what it was like living 24/7 in a tank for 11 months. They lived on rations and took turns sleeping in short increments. When it was freezing cold, Beem's tank crew would lie on the engines to keep warm. They lived in constant danger, most of the time hungry and tired but alert and ready for action.

"It was really scary," Beem says. "We crossed over the border from France into Germany, not knowing if the bridge we had just gone over would be blown up, leaving us stranded in enemy territory."

Beem tells students about blowing up a German train's engine, then boarding the train and asking an SS colonel wearing a black coat with shiny silver buttons for his knife. Eventually the colonel relinquished the knife to Beem.

The Nazi dagger is now worth $9,000. The impressive knife is engraved with "Germany Forever" written in German and the swastika symbol is imbedded in the handle. Beem passes the knife along with other mementos, such as a bag of sand from Omaha Beach, around for the students to examine. Beem's Bakelite hardhat multitasked as a stool, and when it was turned upside down and the lining taken out, it was used as a kettle in which he would cook.

There were victorious times along with the hardships. When Beem's tank crew liberated Alize, a small village in Southern France, a woman who owned the local restaurant took them in.

"She and her family hugged and thanked us," he says. "And then the most amazing thing happened. She went upstairs and unsealed a door, letting her niece out of the attic where she had hidden her from the Germans for four years. The girl was 17 and pale as snow. We were so moved by the girl's presence and by the fact she now had hope for a future that it made our mission seem all the more worthwhile."
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Title Annotation:Bill Beem
Author:Stroh, Susan
Publication:Grit
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:774
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