A humble hero and Omaha Beach

Greg Asimakoupoulos and Huston Riley at Tullys in 2009.  - Contributed photo
Greg Asimakoupoulos and Huston Riley at Tullys in 2009.
— image credit: Contributed photo

This Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day when nearly 5,000 allied troops perished in an historic invasion that soaked the beaches of Normandy in human blood.

One of the fortunate who survived was Huston Riley from Mercer Island. The twenty-two year old had no way of knowing Life magazine photographer Robert Capa had captured his courageous arrival on Omaha Beach until years later. Hu was surprised to see himself pictured in Capa’s iconic photo that became the image forever associated with that unprecedented pursuit of freedom.

Although Hu died nearly three years ago, this historic anniversary of D-Day recalls my all-too-brief friendship with a local hero.

I first met Hu shortly after moving to Mercer Island. When I saw a televised interview Tom Brokaw conducted with Hu from the back porch of his home on North Mercer Way, I called him.

To my amazement, this eighty-something patriot welcomed my invitation to get acquainted.  My first impression of Hu was how short he was. It was a good reminder for me that those to whom we look up are measured by qualities other than height.

As we visited, I realized how unimpressed Hu was with the attention he had received over the years. Like other veterans from “the greatest generation,” Hu considered his military service simply his patriotic duty.  I gave him a copy of a poem I had written about his experience on “the longest day.” He was deeply moved. In return he signed copies of the Capa photo for my three daughters.

A couple years later I learned that Hu was once again fighting on the frontlines of another battle. This time the enemy was cancer. As it was six decades earlier, his courage was evident. We prayed together in a room at Virginia Mason Hospital as he dug in for a lengthy assault.

The last time I spoke to Hu was on June 6, 2011. I had no idea it would be our last visit. I thanked him for his service to our country. I told him I would continue to pray for him. As always, he expressed his gratitude with humility. Hu died less than four months later.

On this anniversary of a day in which a multitude of American troops paid the ultimate sacrifice, my heart pulsates with pride and thanksgiving for men and women like Huston Riley whose example must never be forgotten.


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