Jammed shoulder to shoulder in amphibious landing craft No. 418, hardened Army Rangers sang "Happy Anniversary" as they crossed the English Channel in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
It was June 6, 1944, Sgt. Walter Geldon's third wedding anniversary.
The voices of comrades raised in song may have elicited the young soldier's final memories of his wife, Anna, back home in south Bethlehem.
Within seconds of hitting Omaha Beach, 23-year-old Geldon was dead.
Gone, but not forgotten.
On Sunday, 60 years to the day after he died, Geldon's three brothers and sister -- all Bethlehem residents in their 80s and 90s - - mourned at the fallen soldier's grave in Ss. Cyril & Methodius Cemetery, Bethlehem.
Six decades had not erased the Geldon family's sense of loss. As if the clock had slipped back to World War II, they gathered on a hilltop to bid farewell to a loved one lost overseas.
"It's still sad," sighed Helen Geldon Dozer, 87, Walter's sister. "You never really get over it."
Walter Geldon was in the first platoon of Company C, 2nd Ranger Battalion.
Steven Spielberg based the gruesome introduction to the movie "Saving Private Ryan" on the Ranger battalion, one of the first to hit the beaches on D-Day.
One-third of the company was killed, another third wounded on the blood-soaked sands of Omaha Beach.
John Lamana of Bethlehem Township says Geldon, his great-uncle, was the only Lehigh Valley soldier in the 2nd Ranger Battalion.
"Walter was suddenly and violently taken from us," recalled the Rev. Wayne Killian, Catholic chaplain at Lehigh University, who officiated graveside. "He gave his life for freedom and democracy."
Frank Geldon, 91, held arm in arm by his brother Joe, 85, laid a wreath the shape of an Army Ranger patch at his brother's headstone.
On the stone, beneath red, white and blue carnations, was a color photograph of Sgt. Geldon in his Ranger uniform. Next to it, where Anna's name is engraved, was the couple's wedding portrait. She remarried and lived in New Jersey, but was buried beside her soldier when she died at age 78 in 2002.
The 40 people who attended the service bowed their heads in silence to the Polish hymn, "Serdeczna Matko," an ode to the Blessed Mother.
The honor guard from American Legion Post 397 in Hellertown fired a three-shot volley over the grave. A baby cried. The bugler's taps echoed over the cemetery, evoking the solemn image of rows of white crosses in Normandy.
Man of Steel
Walter Geldon quit school in 10th grade to take a job at Bethlehem Steel, where he polished 16-inch artillery guns destined for U.S. battleships.
The Geldons were a die-hard Steel family.
Frank Geldon, the patriarch, made steel for a living. So did all four of his sons -- Frank Jr., John, Joe and Walter.
Ironically, Walter, the youngest, was killed. He'd be 83. The three other brothers survive him, with a sister, Helen Dozer.
On June 6, 1941, while still working at Steel, Walter married Anna Hitcho in St. Peter and Paul's Byzantine Rite Church in Freemansburg.
Joe Geldon, then a corporal stationed at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, risked an absent without leave charge to attend his brother's wedding. In the dead of night, with a couple of Army buddies, he slipped out of the barracks and drove to Freemansburg in a borrowed car.
He could not have known it, but the wedding reception would be the last time Joe Geldon ever saw his younger brother. The image of Walter in a tuxedo and Anna in her wedding gown remains etched in his mind.
"You guys make a nice couple," he told the newlyweds. "I wish you all the luck in the world."
Joe Geldon went to North Africa to do battle with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's tiger tanks, and Walter was drafted in 1942.
"I never saw him in uniform," lamented Joe Geldon, who returned to Bethlehem Steel and retired with 42 years of service.
Walter Geldon wanted to be a paratrooper. With a trim waist and muscular arms, he had the makings of a combat jumper. He and Joe worked out at the National Sokols Hall in Bethlehem, and competed in statewide gymnastic events.
Weak knees kept Walter from going airborne.
The newly formed Army Rangers, he figured, was the next best thing.
"That's like a suicide squad," Joe Geldon warned in a letter to his brother. "You have no chance of coming out of there."
"I can handle it," Walter replied.
He was assigned to 1st Platoon, Company C, 2nd Rangers, the unit that would be immortalized as "Rudder's Rangers."
In early 1943, the Rangers underwent intensive training at Camp Forrest, Tenn. Maj. James Earl Rudder, a Texas football coach, honed the troops with grueling marches, log-lifting drills and obstacle courses.
In September 1943, the Rangers practiced amphibious raids in the insect-infested swamps of Fort Pierce, Fla. From there, they went to Fort Dix, N.J., for advanced training. They completed their training at Camp Shanks, N.Y., before heading to Great Britain in December 1943.
Walter would come home on weekends to see Anna, who lived with his parents in south Bethlehem. He'd bring Army buddies, who would feast on pierogie and halushki from Helen Geldon's kitchen.
"Boidy," as Geldon's friends called him, hammed it up with the GIs. Young and confident, they posed playfully in photos despite the impending danger.
"Everybody loved him," said Helen Dozer. "He was happy-go-lucky, very good-natured and very handsome."
The order to file into LCA No. 418 came at 4 a.m. June 6, 1944, according to John Lamana's research. It took a half-hour for the Rangers to climb aboard two landing craft.
The Rangers were in the first wave of the invasion, the largest in history. It was Company C's first mission.
Destination: Dog Green and Charlie, sectors of Omaha Beach.
Objective: Provide support to the 116th Infantry Regiment at Pointe de la Percee, where the Germans had gun emplacements and radar.
In a letter to Lamana, Geldon's company commander, Capt. Ralph Goranson, recalled the troops singing "Happy Anniversary."
"Your uncle was a top ranger," wrote Goranson, who lives in Florida. "All 65 in Company C were the best."
"Company C was the first to accomplish its initial objective," Goranson claims. He is backed by Stephen Ambrose's "D-Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II," which quotes Gen. Omar Bradley saying, "Company C, 2nd Rangers was the first unit to achieve its objective on D-Day."
There is confusion, though, over how Geldon died.
On touchdown, Goranson claims, LCA No. 418 was destroyed with Geldon in it.
However, Ambrose quotes Sgt. Donald Scribner saying, "I saw Walter Geldon lying on the beach with his hand raised up, asking for help."
In "Rudder's Rangers," Ronald L. Lane writes, "Among the bodies lying on the beach was Geldon's. Perhaps he died with the anniversary song ringing in his ears."
Lamana figures Company C hit the beach about 6:30 a.m., which is 12:30 p.m. in Bethlehem. Sunday's service was held at 12:30 p.m. -- exactly 60 years after Sgt. Geldon's death.
Passing the torch
Call it coincidence or mother's intuition, but when Walter Geldon went overseas, his mother bought a cemetery plot on a hilltop overlooking Bethlehem Steel.
Walter was buried in France, one of thousands beneath endless rows of white crosses. Later, the family brought the body home to the plot in Ss. Cyril & Methodius.
In procession, Geldon's flag-draped coffin was carried through south Bethlehem to services at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, the family's parish.
As is customary, the government gave the family the flag. It has been encased in a glass case for nearly six decades.
After Sunday's service, the Geldon siblings gave the flag to John Lamana -- Walter's great-nephew.
"We gave the flag to John," said John Geldon, Walter's brother and Lamana's grandfather, "so he can keep the tradition going when we're gone."
Lamana credits his grandfather's stories about Walter Geldon with sparking a life-long interest in World War II. For three decades, he's pieced together his great-uncle's story. Lamana single- handedly organized the D-Day commemorative service.
His daughter, Taylor, 7, handed out tiny American flags and carnations to those attending the service.
"This has been a passion for as long as I know him," June Lamana said of her husband. "He has such a big heart."
Lamana spent weeks planning every detail of the service. He ordered the flowers, had the Ranger wreath specially made and watched television documentaries of D-Day with anticipation.
Seeing the tears in the eyes of his grandparents, great-uncles and great-aunt took a toll on Lamana as well.
After the service, he confessed, "I'm emotionally drained."Copyright © 2015, CT Now