My grandfather Robert Franklin Long was born in 1921, and packed a lot of life in his 73 years on the planet. He could not be more different than my other grandfather (Big Shoes to Fill), except they were both a part of the agriculture industry and both innovators each in their own ways. My mother, Emily Beth Meghji, was the fourth of four children, and married my father who carried on the tradition of agricultural science through his pioneering work in plant genetics. RFL, as my grandfather continues to be known, participated in every major European conflict during World War II, as part of the 4th Infantry Division of the US Army. In the lead up to D-Day, he was on a glider flying surveillance missions in preparation for “Operation Overlord,” the Allied operation that launched the successful invasion and ultimate liberation of German-occupied Western Europe during World War II.
His glider was shot down and crashed in rural France. Only RFL and the glider pilot survived, and the two mounted an escape through occupied France back to England to then take part in the Normandy invasion. He described their escape in a detailed document for the alumni of the 4th ID, which “sets the record straight” on many details that have been blurred in books and movies sharing accounts of what is arguably one of the most important and famous battles in history. The decision to undertake a cross-channel invasion in 1944 was made at the Trident Conference in Washington in May 1943, with General Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). The Normandy coast was chosen as the site of the invasion, and my grandfather was there when the Utah and Omaha Beaches were taken by American troops.
In 1990, RFL and I travelled first to Metz, France (I was living in Europe at the time), then on into rural France near the Belgian border. His brother, Jim, had been killed during WW2 and there was some confusion about where this exactly happened. Jim and his squad had been sacrificed by their CO so that he could escape from an advancing German force. The CO was court marshaled because of it, but RFL had never made it to the area.
We worked with local US Military personnel, combining their information with RFL’s research and notes, found near the hill where Jim Long had been killed. The Nazi’s dug a mass grave for US personnel near the site that had been killed. Trekking through this part of France is one of the strongest memories I have of my various travels with my grandfather. He and I were riding around in the back of an old Jeep with two enlisted Army specialists – one focused on the history, the other on the unexploded mines that still litter France. He was there to make sure we didn’t get hurt. The 3 hours driving around the woods were cold, damp, windy, and possibly one of the most important things I’ve ever been part of. We found the hill, tiptoeing around unexploded mines.
We also visited Uncle Jim’s tombstone in St. Avold, France, at the US Military cemetery there.
My grandfather was released from active duty in 1945, and awarded medals including the Purple Heart (for wounds suffered on D-Day, June 6, 1944), the Bronze Star Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the American Campaign Medal, European-Africa-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal with a Germany claps, and the Belgium Fourragere for meritorious service in the liberation of Belgium.
He continued to serve in the Officers Reserve Corps until he was honorably discharged in 1954, and went on to serve as a Farm Adviser in Illinois. In 1970, he became a director with the US AID corps, spending two years running programs at Njala University College in Sierra Leone, followed by two years consulting to the Minister of Agriculture in Tanzania, where my other grandfather lived.
He returned to academia and spent years teaching, and contributing as an active participant in non-profit organizations, including the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) – meaning my grandfather never really retired!
While we could never be sure, we believe RFL continued to serve the US in secret and/or unofficial capacities. One evening in Sierra Leone, sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s, RFL was at a bar with his wife, daughter (my mom) and a ‘coworker’ (an attractive younger man, ex-Army guy, who my mom had quite a crush on!) They were enjoying dinner when the manager came up to them and said there was a call for the coworker. He left to take the phone call, then came back agitated and said something quietly to RFL.
Dinner is suddenly over and they’re tearing across Freetown to go to the coworker’s apartment. After the car screeched to a halt, RFL and the coworker dashed up to the apartment with gun in hand, leaving the ladies in the car for the moment.
The apartment had been broken into, but whatever caused the ruckus was not serious, because everyone went back up in a minute and cleaned up.
We are the products of our genes and family histories and cultures. I’m quite sure I inherited my passion for technology from RFL. Using special technologies, including electronic and visual misinformation, the US and its allies misled the Germans as to the date and locations of the main landings at Normandy. Hitler placed German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in charge of developing fortifications all along the Atlantic Wall in anticipation of an invasion, but that work was misguided, and the rest is literally – history. The father of computing, Alan Turing, worked on Enigma, and remains one of the pioneers in technology I most deeply respect.
I also inherited my passion for service from both sides of my family and from both of my parents. Given the science, technology and tools we have today, I am positive that we will be able to fight new kinds of wars with new kinds of weapons, including in the perilous world of cybersecurity. The world is always changing, but our core beliefs, our desire to help others, our common wishes that our families and friends and communities should live happy and healthy, peaceful lives – will never change.
Looking at my two grandfathers, they could not (at first blush) be more different. But once you dig in, you see the common passion for making the world a better, place, quietly leading in their communities, building strong families and, most of all, protecting the world from our own greater evils. Big shoes to fill, but ones I’m happy to put on.
One final note: RFL and I happen to wear exactly the same shoe size, and to this day I wear his formal shoes on the most special occasions.