Musical performance at Normandy a chance to reflect on veteran parents
Judith Shellenberger’s father shuddered to think of that day.
The World War II battle that began on the beaches of Normandy, France, to strip the Nazi regime of its control over that country claimed more than 2,000 American lives
during the first day of combat: June 6, 1944. D-Day.
Today, exactly 70 years later, Shellenberger – a former music teacher in the Williamsport Area School District and current business manager of the Repasz Band – will play the French horn at a D-Day memorial concert at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. She will honor her father’s service and the valor of the allied soldiers who fought, lived and died during one of the most decisive and bloody offensives of the war.
“It’s one way I can repay the veterans,” Shellenberger, of Williamsport, recently told the Sun-Gazette.
Her father, Lyman Baker, served in the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division – The Big Red One – and landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy 70 years ago to face carnage and eventual victory.
Shellenberger said her father rarely spoke about the seaborne invasion during his life.
Baker’s reticence he was a quiet, generous man was punctured only on the day he left for the war, the one time his daughter, Dorothy, ever saw him cry, according to John Baker, Lyman’s son. Baker was drafted on Aug. 2, 1942.
“We tried to get him to talk about it,” Shellenberger said. “He said it was so horrific. I don’t know how he ever survived.”
Born on July 13, 1916, Baker grew up in Flemington, a town outside of Lock Haven. Shellenberger said he was a great lover of baseball. He loved it so much that during wartime in Sicily, he and a few others played a game as warplanes engaged in dogfights overhead.
“He said it was a spectacular sight, but extremely dangerous for the baseball players on the ground,” John Baker said. “Stray bullets and shrapnel rained down on them as they played the game.”
Right around the time the Major League Baseball strike ended in 1995, Lyman Baker died. The family placed a newspaper announcing the strike’s end in his casket.
A decorated soldier, Baker also fought in the Battle of the Bulge and in North Africa, where he contracted malaria.
“He was a real hero,” Shellenberger said as she recalled the bottle of quinine that her father always kept in their refrigerator to treat his ailment.
It was the closest thing to an injury Baker suffered during his extensive time in combat, according to Shellenberger, whose mother, Shirley Irvin, also served during World War II.
Stationed at Treasure Island in California, Irvin was a code breaker for the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, a division of the Navy that was established in 1942. She learned morse code during her time there and taught her children the language later in life.
Irvin and Baker met before the war began and they were married shortly after it ended. For their honeymoon, they traveled to Gettysburg. They had three children: Judith, John and Jane.
Shellenberger said her parents always taught her and her siblings to be patriotic. They also instilled in her a passion for music.
“Both of my parents loved music,” she said. “My mother enjoyed playing the piano and I grew up sitting beside her on the piano bench singing some of her favorite songs. I still have the original sheet music to some of her favorites.”
Shellenberger joked that her father used to say “he couldn’t play anything but the stereo.”
“They came to every concert I was ever in,” she said of her parents.
In 1964, Shellenberger joined the Williamsport Repasz band as a French horn player. She has been a member ever since.
Of the memorial concert in Normandy, Shellenberger said she doesn’t expect a dry eye: “I get teary just thinking about it.”
The concert’s conductor, Col. Arnald D. Gabriel, served in World War II as well, as a combat machine gunner with the Army’s 29th Infantry Division one of the first to storm the Normandy beaches.
He and Shellenberger are good friends. Gabriel has been a guest conductor for the Repasz band and for the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra over the years.
Shellenberger said he is the most decorated military musician. He also served in the United States Air Force and retired in 1985 after a 36-year military career. The conductor emeritus of the United States Air Force Band, Gabriel has performed in every state in the country and in 50 countries around the world.
“Everything he conducts is from memory,” she said. “He’s an amazing, remarkable person.”
One the pieces being performed today is from the film “The Longest Day,” a dramatization of the Normandy landings.
Lyman Baker enjoyed taking his son to see WWII movies when he was young. “The Longest Day” was one of those films.