During their 50-plus years as neighbors in north Modesto, Bob Thompson developed an undying respect for Charles Fenley, who lives directly across the street.
“I was never a fan of Tom Brokaw,” Thompson, a retired high school history teacher, told me. “But when he wrote ‘The Greatest Generation,’ I became a fan. As I look around Modesto for the greatest generation, he’s right there.”
He nodded toward Fenley, sitting in an easy chair a few feet away.
But the book that really cemented their friendship wasn’t Brokaw’s 1998 bestseller. It was one Thompson bought from the United States Naval Institute four years earlier, titled “Assault on Normandy: First-Person Accounts From the Sea Services.”
“I was looking for something to give Charlie,” Thompson said. “He’d done some electrical work for me and wouldn’t take anything for it. So I bought him the book and brought it over to him.”
A few minutes later, Fenley came running across the street to Thompson’s house, all excited.
“There’s a picture of my boat in there!” Fenley said, showing Thompson the photo of Landing Craft Tank 528, his second boat at Normandy after his original, LCT 522, suffered hull damage.
“Then, about 15 minutes later, he came over again,” Thompson said. “He said, ‘There’s a picture of me and the crew in the book!’ ”
What are the chances of that? But then, what were the chances of Fenley’s boat landing on Utah Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944 – D-Day – to find minimal German resistance when the battles raged along the Normandy coast and claimed 2,499 American lives among the 4,413 Allied deaths, the majority at Omaha Beach?
A native of Stockton, Fenley once delivered the Stockton Record newspaper, loved to sing and was known around Stockton as “The Singing Paperboy.” He went to high school only for a year before quitting to work in construction. After the U.S. entered World War II both in the Pacific and Europe, he enlisted in the Navy in 1942 as an 18-year-old. He trained as a gunner and electrician. They sent him from New York to Plymouth, England aboard the Queen Mary in 1943, where he joined the LCTs.
Bad weather pushed the D-Day invasion back a day, and when it began his LCT was among those assigned to land at Utah Beach. The Allied forces pounded the German defenses. The Americans lost 197 men out of the 21,000 soldiers who stormed Utah Beach. Fenley’s LCT 522 didn’t get ashore until after 10:30 a.m..
“By the time we hit the beach, we owned it,” Fenley said. “We caught no German fire. We really lucked out. I stayed on that beach for almost a year.”
The LCTs absolutely were vital to the war effort. At Normandy, they shuttled soldiers, supplies and ammo across the English channel to France, and then carried wounded Americans back to England on the return trips.
“One day on the beach, I ran into an MP (military policeman) from Stockton,” Fenley said. “We’re talking, and all of a sudden he jumps to attention. There was a general standing in a Jeep, and he wore a pearl-handled pistol. It was General Patton.”
Shortly after Germany surrendered in May 1945, he found himself on a transport ship headed back to New York and, eventually, to Stockton. There, he met and married Annabelle Fassat in 1946.
“She put up with me for 70 years,” Fenley said. She died a year ago.
In that time he went on to start the 5-Minute Car Wash chain that included three car washes in Modesto and a fourth in Bakersfield. He often hired employees with disabilities, and later giving those with prison records a chance to restart their lives on the outside.
His son, Michael, now runs the business.
Charles’ eyes are no longer as sharp as his mind, and neighbor Thompson comes over to visit with him daily often to read aloud, a chapter a day, to his 92-year-old friend.
“It’s been a privilege to live across the street from this guy for the last 51, 52 years,” Thompson said. “I’m so grateful for what he did during the war years. The whole war depended on the LCTs.”
Which is why, in 1994, Thompson bought the book and gave it to Fenley only to find out Fenley actually is in it.
“I hadn’t read the book before I gave it to him,” Thompson said. “It gave me great pleasure and it brought me to tears.”
A chapter a day, indeed. And the book he is reading to Fenley now?
“Assault on Normandy: First-Person Accounts From the Sea Services.”
So timely, so fitting.