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Man with a bike: Hoffman auctioneer hopes to send Garfield World War II vet to Normandy celebration

Jerome Hanson, right, is collecting donations to pose with this World War II-era Harley Davidson motorcycle. He hopes to raise money to help veterans including Jim Clermont, left, of Garfield, who was on the first destroyer at the Normandy invasion in World War II. (Contributed)1 / 2
World War II veteran Jim Clermont poses with a medal he received from the French government for his service. He was aboard the U.S.S. Herndon, the first destroyer at the invasion of Normandy in 1944. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)2 / 2

Jerome Hanson has never served in the military, but he has a World War II-era Harley motorcycle and a black-and-white backdrop of war-time Europe that includes the same model motorcycle.

Add the bike to the backdrop and you get a somewhat surreal 3-D image that suggests World War II coming to life.

Hanson brings his setup to various events, allowing people to take their picture with the bike and the backdrop for a freewill donation. The money he collects is going toward sending a Garfield-area veteran back to Normandy, France, for the 75th anniversary celebration of D-Day.

"I never needed to be a vet," Hanson said. "I grew up in an era of peacetime. I appreciate my freedoms and it's my way of trying to give something back."

That veteran, 94-year-old Jim Clermont, was on the lead destroyer, the U.S.S. Herndon, during the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Hanson, a Hoffman auctioneer, connected with him after an event at Apol's Harley Davidson. He knew he wanted to help veterans, but wasn't sure how. Then owner Robin Apol, who is friends with Clermont's daughter Debbie Connelly, suggested sending Clermont.

Revisiting WWII site

Clermont had already been back to Normandy once, for its 70th anniversary celebration, with his two daughters, thanks to donated airline miles. But it was a disorganized trip, he and Connelly said, and he didn't get a chance to see things he wanted to see, such as the beaches, the D-Day museum and the American cemetery.

He thought that trip was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, but this year a school in Herndon, Virginia — the town the destroyer was named for — contacted him. Its high school band had been invited to perform at the 75th celebration in June 2019. They were planning to wear the Navy dress blues original to that ship and carry pictures of the U.S.S. Herndon sailors inside their uniforms.

They wondered if, as one of only a handful of surviving crewmen from the U.S.S. Herndon, Clermont could come along.

Yes, he said, but this time he wanted to bring not just his daughters but his grandchildren, to pass on the legacy of those historic times. In all, he's hoping to bring seven others with him. The family has started a Go Fund Me page with a $40,000 goal, but it hasn't attracted many donations so far. Connelly believes people are reluctant to donate to something that seems like a family vacation.

"That's not the deal," she said. "It's an unbelievable, historic thing, to go with Dad."

The estimated cost for each family member is about $7,000. It's an expensive trip, they said, and they hope to raise enough at least for Clermont and to defray some other expenses. Even if they don't meet their fundraising goal, they are planning to go.

"Dad risked his life to do this," Connelly said. "Sending him back is a way of saying thank you."

Organizers are marking the event with military parades, fireworks, parachutists, giant picnics, concerts and military camp reenactments, according to a French tourism website.

On a recent afternoon, Clermont recalled how he'd trained for the mission, never knowing exactly what was afoot, doing the same task over and over so that in the heat of battle he would be able to perform.

His commander had volunteered the U.S.S. Herndon to go in first, and beforehand sailors were placing actual bets that their chances of surviving were 1 in 10.

Clermont was topside during the attack. His destroyer pulled sideways near the beaches, lined its guns up using the stars and a mechanical computer, and shelled German pillboxes along the coastline.

"We eliminated every target that we had assigned to us," he said.

For two days destroyers shelled German positions, while Allied soldiers landed on the beaches in a bloody confrontation that turned the tide of the war in the allies' favor. Thousands of Allied soldiers died. When the U.S.S. Herndon ran out of ammunition, it returned to England to reload.

Bike is the key

On a recent day, Clermont met Hanson and posed with him in front of the motorcycle and World War II backdrop.

Hanson bought the Harley Davidson from a neighbor who knew he was looking for one. He doesn't know its entire history, but was told that a minister from Minnesota had found it in a creek, restored it and later sold it.

"Supposedly he had one child, a son, with no interest in the motorcycle," Hanson said.

Hanson is hoping that his fundraiser will benefit others besides Clermont.

"Hopefully it grows into a monster," he said. "Hopefully we can do some good for someone."

Hanson checked into raising money for established nonprofits, but found their administrative costs too high. He hasn't formed his own nonprofit organization, but does hope to keep everything he raises local.