Article #7 - Chuck Hurlbut - D-Day Veteran Omaha Beach
Ithaca, N.Y., Sept. 26, 1998
I was born in New York City. I lived there until I was seven. Then my mother died. My dad got laid off and he couldn't find work, so he thought he would come back to upstate New York where he was from. But the Depression was everyplace. He had two very demanding kids, and he was frustrated. So his parents suggested that we go out and live with them.
They had a farm not far from Auburn, New York, and that's where I lived until I graduated from high school. But I knew I could never be a farmer. It was beautiful and I loved the greenery, but something told me that was not my thing.
When I graduated from high school, I made the big decision that I had to go find something else. So I left the farm, with a lot of sadness, but they condoned it. My grandparents wished me well.
I went to Auburn and got a job. I was only 16. I played the clarinet and joined the Auburn community band. I was on a bowling team and a softball team. I met a few girls. Everything was going great. Then all of a sudden Pearl Harbor hit.
Ever since high school I had heard about Hitler and all this stuff in Europe, but I never realized how deeply it was going to affect me. Hitler and Europe, that was their war, don't get involved. Pearl Harbor turned everyone around. I don't think there'll ever be a time again when this country is so unified.
I never wanted to be a soldier; that was the farthest thing from my mind. But when something like Pearl Harbor happens, you get a feeling. "I'm supposed to do something." I couldn't wait to become 18 so I could be drafted. I wanted to do my part. So when I hit 18, within days I was down at the draft board, and registered. In three months I was called, went for my physical, and passed. Then I got the announcement: "You are to report to the Greyhound bus station in Auburn on such and such a date."
I went down there, and here's 60 or 70 guys, all in this draft group. It was the largest draft contingent ever to come out of Auburn. And the mothers and fathers and sweethearts, brothers and sisters were there. It was quite a congregation.
Finally they put us on a bus and sent us to Fort Niagara. And most of us guys knew each other. We had gone to school together, worked together, dated the same girls; there was a real strong camaraderie. And we said, "This can't last. You're gonna go here, I'm gonna go there. We're all going to be split up."
When the announcement came, about 90 percent of us stayed together. We couldn't believe it. We were going to be combat engineers. We couldn't care less. The idea we're all together was the big point. We don't care what we're going to be.
They put us on a train and sent us to Camp White, Oregon, where they activated the 299 th Engineer Combat Battalion. We are the original members of the 299 th . And we went through basic training.
The first few weeks were basic military skills: close order drills, marches, hikes, how to clean a rifle, what is a machine gun. And then you were introduced to the specialties of an engineer: bridge building, mine detection. Engineers are always thought of as building these enormous bridges. The combat engineers do the same thing on a minor scale in a quicker fashion, under fire. We learned how to throw a treadway or a pathway across a river. How to ford a river. How to blow up a bridge. How to build a Bailey bridge. We became pretty good at it.
After basic training, they sent us out on maneuvers to the desert. I never knew such a desert existed in eastern Oregon. It had scorpions, rattlesnakes, jackrabbits. Burning hot all day, then you freeze to death all night. And you're on maneuvers, it's like combat conditions, so you can't have a fire. It was pretty rough, but we survived that. Then they took us to Fort Lewis, Washington, which is one of the Army's oldest camps and one of the most beautiful. It was so good to have a hot shower, a change of clothes and a bed.
We were issued furloughs, so I got on the train, all the way back to New York State. It took about four days. But it was worth it. A funny thing – when I was home, everywhere I'd go, I couldn't buy a drink. It was always on the house.
I returned to Fort Lewis, and now we had a hectic schedule. They were getting us all ready. And we thought we were going to Japan. All through it, I always wanted to go to Europe. I said I'm probably going to combat someplace, and if I had my say, I'd rather go to Europe. I couldn't see going to the Pacific. The jungle. The malaria. The savagery of the Japanese. So of the two I preferred Europe. I thought at least they've got houses. At least they look like me. I think I'll get a better deal in Europe. I think they'll obey the Geneva Convention. These lunatics in the Pacific, kamikazes, savages, they don't obey anything. My preference was to go to Europe. And it looks like we're all set to go to Japan.
Then all of a sudden, we're off to Florida. We had been selected to take amphibious training. Underwater demolition. Very few units were chosen; we felt pretty good, because hey, we were chosen out of all of those units to go for this training.
We went to Fort Pierce, which is a Naval training station for underwater demolition, assault boats, they were the leaders of this particular stuff. Army units would be assigned to them, but it's a Navy base. We're the only Army unit on it. And we get the feeling that they resent us. No Army man can do what they can do. A sailor vs. soldier type of thing. But they told us what we had to do, all the drills, and we did pretty good. Before long we were doing what they did, and in a lot of cases we were surpassing them. Their animosity lessened and they accepted us.
We went out in the ocean and came in on rubber rafts, learned demolition, hand to hand combat, the whole business. A lot of the big brass – this was in December 1943 – came down to watch us, and we put on a big show. I guess right then they decided, "We can use this unit in an invasion."
And we realized that we're no longer just a combat engineer unit, we're a specialized group now. We're specialists in invasion techniques, beach assault techniques. And some of the guys thought, "Hey, piece of cake, we're so good."
But a lot of guys thought, "Wherever we go, it's going to be a suicide mission."
I was in the group that thought "piece of cake." I know all this stuff, and we're so good. I had just turned 18, and when you're 18, nothing bothers you. You're gung-ho. I'm on top of the world. That was a big attitude, but a lot of the guys were more serious than I was. They had these feelings. A lot of guys went AWOL. I think it was because of what they saw coming. But they were picked up and returned, and our commanding officer made damn sure that they were part of the invasion.
We knew we were going to hit a beachhead someplace. We didn't know where.
We went up to Camp Pickett, Virginia. We took some more infantry tests. And that's where I saw my first prisoners of war. All KP was done by German POWs. And I never saw a happier group of guys. They had it made. As you went through the line, they always had a big smile. They would ask, "Do you want more?"
We saw a lot – thousands and thousands more – later on, but of them all I never saw a happier group than that group at Camp Pickett.
We weren't there very long. Then we went up to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and by then we knew things were getting serious. We were getting ready to leave. They gave us some more drills, and a lot of paperwork, who's your beneficiary and all this gobbledygook.
We'd kid about the insurance. "Well, at least somebody's gonna get ten thousand."
At Camp Kilmer, we were quarantined; we couldn't go anywhere. Very restricted. From Camp Kilmer we go into New York, on the Hudson River, on the piers, and here's this big ugly boat waiting. We get on the dock, we all line up, and we go up the gangplank. Each of us has a great big barracks bag. Just prior to that, the Red Cross was there, and they gave us all a little sewing kit. Free. It's the last thing I ever got free from the Red Cross. From then on everything they charged for. They gave me a free sewing kit, a needle, a thimble, and a little ball of thread. Then we went up the gangplank, and there was a band there that played. The S.S. Exchequer was the name of the boat.
When we leave, the band's playing, the Red Cross girls are waving goodbye, we trudge up the gangplank, get on this boat. We stayed at the pier overnight, and in the morning we took off. We saw the Statue of Liberty. We go out a ways, then we meet a lot of other ships converging to make a convoy.
On the ship it seemed like one continuous chow line. You never had a great appetite; the seasickness and nausea affected everybody. But you'd go down in the galley – the fumes were unbelievable. You'd get some breakfast; then you'd go back up on deck. By the time you got on deck it was time to get back on line for lunch. Lunch was usually an apple, a sandwich, something cold. Then it was time for evening chow. It was one continuous chow line. But there were times you could read books, play cards, poker. Some of the guys had crap games going. And we had a limited amount of calisthenics. The officers would get us together and we'd do plane identification. The greatest part of the day was watching the gun crews practice for antiaircraft. Our boat would go off, and this boat would go off, then that boat. Jesus, the noise. And the Navy gun crews were good. They were so synchronized and coordinated, it was something to watch.
About halfway over, we get a submarine alert. That's scary. You're out in the middle of the Atlantic. Everybody puts on a life jacket. You all get up on deck, and it's dark as hell. There was no moon that night. And you just wait. But pretty soon we heard that some of our destroyers found the sub and depth bombed it. That felt pretty good. But during that submarine alert one of our guys had an appendicitis attack, and had to be treated immediately. So during all that the doctor is down there operating on this guy. But he was tough. He was from Auburn, New York. He made it. That was quite a night.
Then Easter Sunday came, and the chaplains got together and put on an interfaith service up on deck. The Navy guys, the Army guys, they all were together. It was a simple service. But the setting: The ocean. The ships. A beautiful day. It's the most memorable, meaningful religious service I've ever attended.
When we got to the Irish Sea the convoy broke up, and we proceeded toward the Bristol Channel in northern Wales. British planes came out to greet us. They escorted us up to Cardiff, which is where we disembarked. It felt so good just to walk on land again, after ten days.
We had to go from the dock to a railroad station. We're marching through the city, and all along the way there's English people, they've got little flags and they're waving them, "Hi, Americans!" If you had chewing gum you'd throw it.
And I thought, gee, this is our first public appearance. We never had a parade before. That made you feel pretty good.
Then we get on the train and we head to Ilfracombe, which is on the western shore. It was the first time we ever saw quonset huts, and the first thing you noticed was charcoal. It permeated the air because all their little stoves were fed by charcoal, and it almost knocked you out. But we had hot showers, nice beds, all warm, a safe place to be.
At Ilfracombe we went right back into training. Within a day or two we were back in the English Channel, repeating our Fort Pierce exercises. We would practice our assault landing in rubber boats. Just practice, practice, practice.
Then we were sent south, to Dorchester, to a camp called D-2. We knew there was going to be an invasion but we didn't know where or when. They assembled us all, and a lot of big wheel officers were up front, and they told us about the invasion. "We've waited so long. we wanted to make sure everything was right. We had to have the equipment. We had to have the logistics. We had to have the plans. Most of all, we had to have the men trained to do this job. We now feel we have achieved that. We're ready to go. And we want you to know that the 299 th has been selected to be one of the forces to be in the invasion."
In fact, they told us we were going to be right in the front row.
There were a lot of mixed reactions. We knew we were scheduled to hit a beachhead, so it was no big surprise. It was a great relief to know at least it's coming soon. We still didn't know when or where.
We went back to Camp D-2, and we were restricted. No passes. Nobody left the camp. But they treated us like royalty. Continuous movies, first-rate movies. Unbelievable food. Ice cream. Candy. Cigarettes. Whatever you wanted was there. We were treated like they were fattening us up for the kill. We knew why we were getting all this special treatment; hey, it's the least we could do for you. You're going on a suicide mission. And a lot of guys thought it was suicide. A lot of guys had deep anxiety feelings, because they knew what a beach assault could be. I felt that way too. But I went around trying to cheer up my depressed comrades. I said, "Hey, it's not that bad. Come on!"
Some of them would get dejected; they wouldn't sleep. You could tell by looking at them, that they had a hopeless feeling. I went around trying to show some bravado, but I think what I was doing was relieving my own anxieties. I was just as scared and anxious as they were.
Soon we leave that camp and go down to Weymouth. On the way down, there were acres and acres of every piece of military equipment you could describe: tanks, gasoline cans, guns. Everything was stockpiled all over, mile after mile. And we thought, do you realize that 98 percent of this came from the United States, came across the Atlantic Ocean? It was unbelievable.
We got into Weymouth and it was a madhouse. The port was full of boats going this way and that way, big boats, little boats, every kind of boat. And the whole village was packed. It was one big traffic jam. There were guys trying to march to their boats, there were tanks, there were trucks all lined up waiting to get on a certain boat. The boat had to come in, be assigned, and you had to be directed. MPs all over the place. It was total confusion. But it was organized confusion. Somehow they sorted it all out and they got to the right place. And we ended up on an old English channel steamer, the Princess Maude. We laughed and laughed at the name, the Princess Maude, this was our boat. It was a small boat. By the time we got on it, with all of our gear, there was no place to move. There was no room for calisthenics. You just found a space and sat down and read a book. You hated to go to your sleeping quarters because they were so cramped and dingy, and the boat kept rocking. It's in the harbor now and it's rocking, rocking, rocking. And all the guys who got seasick coming over, it all came back.
We were told in our final briefing that D-Day would be June 5 th . So we're all geared up for it. We've got our attitude all set. Then we get to Weymouth and we're on our boat and we're ready to go. And all of a sudden they announce it's been delayed 24 hours because of a storm. That means we've got to spend another day on this rocking, crazy boat. And the guys are getting sicker and sicker.
The English crew had a galley, and one of our guys, I don't know how he did it but he convinced the bakery people to give him some loaves of bread. We were there two nights. Each night he'd come into our quarters with two or three big loaves of bread. No butter. But the hot, baked bread, it's just like cake. That was the high point of those particular days. At midnight we'd get a big chew of bread. Nobody ever asked him how he did it. And nobody ever found out because he was killed on D-Day.
Back at Camp D-2 we were shown models of the beach area. And the planes would take photographs, develop and rush them right to the invasion fleet, so we saw photographs of the whole beach that were only hours old. And it looked pretty bad, what we had to do. Our battalion had eight assault teams, and we were to cut pathways through the obstacles, the tetrahedrons, the hedgehogs, the Belgian gates, the poles, that were all along the beach.
Our mission was to clear paths through those so the rest of the troops could get in. And we felt pretty confident, because that's what we had trained for.
We leave Weymouth, and we get way out in the English Channel, and all of a sudden thousands of ships are all around us. We're at what they call Piccadilly Circus; that was the big congregation point. I can't describe the numbers, the sizes, the shapes – every type of boat was out there milling about. And finally they were directed to go their various ways.
We arrived at a rendezvous point probably 10 or 12 miles off of Omaha Beach, around 12 o'clock at night, and we stopped.
All the way over it was very choppy, and the guys who were sick were getting sicker; guys who hadn't been sick were now getting sick. The officers said, "Get some sleep." You couldn't sleep. You'd go to your bunk and all you could think about was what was going to happen tomorrow.
The British crew gave us a hell of a good breakfast. Whatever you wanted they would do. Eggs sunnyside up, down, omelets. Tons of coffee. A bunch of us went into a little room off to the side; we were sitting there talking about everything when two or three officers walked by, and they looked in. "Can we join you?" These were officers. We're all enlisted men. The officers joined us, and you would never know they were officers. We talked about movies. Automobiles. Sweethearts. Kids at home. Anything but war. We spent a good hour just bullshitting there, back and forth. And I left there with the feeling that those guys have got to lead us tomorrow, and they needed this little session as much as we did. It relieved a lot of tension on their part.
Then, of course, we were supposed to go to sleep, but you couldn't. We went up on deck and tried to look around but it was so dark and choppy, and there were thousands of boats all around us. We could see the big battleships off on the horizon. And I heard somebody playing a guitar out there someplace; it came across the water so clear. We tried to go to our bunks and sleep a little bit. You couldn't sleep. We lay there and we thought of home. And we heard the airplanes going over to drop the guys in the 82 nd and 101 st Airborne divisions. Go get them! We wished them well.
At two or three in the morning, they got us up and around. And we went to breakfast. This is where they made whatever you wanted. I ate two orders of custard pudding. I ate very well. But a lot of guys didn't show up. I've always thought, maybe they felt this was the Last Supper, and they didn't want to be part of it.
Then it's time to get ready. The first thing you do is hit the head. It's called a head on a ship, the bathroom. And guys start shaving, combing their hair. One guy's putting on cologne. You'd think we were going on a weekend pass. I and a lot of my buddies had goatees, so we spent several minutes making sure that that was just right. Shaving. Washing under our arms.
Then you put your stuff on. We all had new olive-drabs. I think we had long johns. We had a field jacket. And then they gave us these impregnated coveralls. They were so stiff and unwieldy they could almost stand up by themselves. They had been specially treated with some solution that would withstand gas. You put those on. And on top of that, you had your belt, your gas mask, a bandolier of bullets. And your cartridge belt had a bayonet, a canteen, a first aid packet, and more bullets. Your helmet. I made sure the chinstrap was down. And your rifle. And your backpack, which had your mess kit, your shovel, and your incidentals.
There's 50 or 60 pounds of stuff. And you're supposed to go in there and be agile.
I'm sitting there thinking; I've got a few minutes. I pull out some photographs of my family, and I'm looking at them. And I've got Eisenhower's letter that he sent out to all the kids, I read that again. I'm looking at this stuff and my buddy comes up behind me. He was a good buddy. We'd been through a lot together. He opens his jacket. And he had on the ugliest, gaudiest, most outlandish necktie I ever saw in my life. I guess a friend back home had sent it to him, and he was going to wear it on D-Day. What the hell, they couldn't stop him now. We laughed about that, and we thought about all the things we went through, and what we're gonna go through together. We talked about what we were going to do when we hit Paris.
Then we get an order to get on deck. So we throw our arms around each other. You can't walk with all this stuff, so we waddle up to the deck. We get up there, and all the guys are assembled, we're going over the side.
And we're saying things like, "Make sure you tell my mother this," or "If I don't see you again.…"
Then we go over the railing and we go down the cargo net. The water's real choppy. And the LCVP, our assault craft, which we're getting into, is having a hell of a time staying close to the ship, because the net goes from the ship down into that boat. I'm halfway down, and the goddamn net goes up, I'm laying spreadeagled, and I'm looking at all this angry water down below. But I make it down. Everybody makes it down okay, and we get into our assault craft.
Right in the middle of the craft is a rubber raft full of explosives. And the guys line up around the raft.
I'm pretty sure the coxswain and his assistant were Coast Guard guys. We take off and go to another rendezvous point, and he circles and circles, waiting for other craft so they can all go at once. And all the time boats are zipping in and out.
Pretty soon they had a bunch of boats lined up. And timing was crucial, so they had to wait. We're about 12 miles out, and these are not fast boats, so I guess it took about two hours from this point to reach the beach. We had to hit at 6:33. So I'm guessing it's about 4 o'clock in the morning.
All of a sudden, "Vroom! Vroom!" We take off in a big line. On either side of us are similar boats to mine. We try to look and see, because we know our buddies are in these boats. You just can't make them out. You holler at each other, but you can't hear anything. And it's a very choppy sea. These LCVPs are not huge boats. But the speed of the boat seemed to lessen the rockiness of it. The waves just washed all over; within ten minutes, the water's just below your knees, the boat is full of water. Guys have started to vomit. That's floating all over the water inside the boat. And on the way in, you realize that half of these guys have already been sick back at Weymouth, this is not helping their condition. Here they are about to meet the biggest challenge of their life and physically they're just not up to par for what they've got to do. But somehow I felt pretty good through it, I was all right. And my buddy, Tom Legacy from Niagara Falls, was up ahead of me. He turned around, he flashed the necktie again, and I gave him a thumbs-up.
As we started going toward the beach, all the battleships opened up with their big guns. You never heard noise like that in your life. Prior to that, we had heard the bombers. They're supposed to bomb the beach. And as we get closer we can see the fighter planes strafing the beach. Then we pass a rocket ship, a big flat affair loaded with rockets, "Phshoo! Phshoo! Phshoo! Phshoo! Phshoo!" And as you go in, you see the rockets, the Naval guns, the planes. How could anything live through what they're getting? It's going to be a piece of cake. There'll be nothing alive there. That made you feel pretty good. And we'd been promised way back in England, there'll be so many craters on this beach, and all you've got to do is jump into a crater, you'll be protected.
We also passed an LCMP, the one that carries tanks, loaded with tanks. These were the tanks with the big canvas collar around them. They were a British idea. When they hit the water, these canvas things would allow them to float until they could reach land. And this thing started letting these tanks off. One went off. "Blooop!" Straight down. You'd think they'd know something was wrong. Second one. "Blooop!" Three or four went down like that. And we're right alongside of it. All of a sudden the guys come bobbing up, fighting for breath and air, they're like corks in the water. You'd think we could stop and pick them up. Nope. We had a mission. They're yelling and screaming. We had to go right by them. I hope they were rescued. I thought, "I guess this is war. There's no time for compassion. We've got a mission, and nothing can interfere." Boy, that hurt.
Now we're getting close to the beach. The officer up front is going crazy. He's looking at his map, then looking out, looking at his map, he's swearing like hell, and we could hear the rumors come back, "We're in the wrong place." This was true of almost every craft in the whole operation. They didn't estimate how strong a tidal current there was, and everybody went left of where they were supposed to land, and there were none of the landmarks that they expected to see. We were supposed to land on Easy Red, and I think we landed on Fox, which was the next sector over.
Everything's nice and quiet, then all of a sudden, ping, ping, ping, ping, brrrrrr, we could hear the machine guns hitting the ramp. We dropped the ramp. To my knowledge, we all got off the craft okay. But thereafter it was devastation. Guys started dropping and screaming all around you.
The first thing I did after getting off the boat was to take my rifle and aim it at a pillbox. "Pow!" I still don't know why I did that. It was an impulse.
That's the only shot I fired all day.
Then I grabbed the tow rope for the rubber raft full of explosives, which was right behind me. I threw the rope over my shoulder and I started pulling.
All of a sudden I feel it get heavier. I look around, and there's three bodies that were thrown in. Two are face down; I don't who they were. One is face up. I knew who he was.
I kept pulling. And all of a sudden, BOOM! A mortar came over and it hit the raft, and it blew all our explosives. I was knocked head over heels, and I blacked out. When I came to, I was on my hands and knees, I was spitting blood, and I had the worst headache you can imagine.
It took me a few moments to realize what happened. I sat back down, and I pulled my rope in, and all I got was a big piece of tattered rubber. That was the raft. The three guys, gone.
The one who had been face up was Charles Burt. I forget where he was from; somewhere in New York State. I'm pretty sure I know who the other two were, but I 'll never be able to prove it. But in my heart I think I know who they were. I think they were my good buddies from Auburn, Johnny Spinelli and Vince DeAngelis. They were never found. They're on the Wall of the Missing. And it ties in to this, their whole bodies would have been destroyed. That's my gut feeling.
I saw a bunch of my guys down a ways, so I hollered to them. One of them was an officer. He said, "We've lost our explosives. We don't have any men. It's every man for himself. Try to get to shore the best you can."
I tried to stay with them but we were soon separated, and I was all by myself. And I start running from one obstacle to another. On the way I come across this guy laying and moaning in the water. The full tide isn't in yet; he's just being washed with the waves. I look at him. Jesus Christ, it's one of my pals, Joe Nokovic of Buffalo. On one of his legs I could see the raw bone through the flesh.
If I left him there he was gonna drown. I'm a little guy, and he was a pretty big guy. I knew I could never lift him and carry him in. So I got down behind him, I got my hands under his armpits, and I planted my feet in the sand and pushed with my feet and pulled him with my arms. It was slow, torturous, but we were making progress, very slowly, and I was exhausted. That was a hell of a lot of work. And I hoped and prayed that some German up there, some sniper or machine gunner would see us and take pity, here's a guy trying to save another, maybe he'll let us go. And it worked, because nobody shot at us.
But all of a sudden, here comes a tank. From where, I don't know. A small tank. The guy up in the turret, he looks down, I didn't even have to say anything. He saw my predicament. He dropped down. He said, "You're in trouble, buddy." He grabbed an arm and I grabbed an arm, and we dragged him up to the dune. And then the tanker said "Good luck," and he rushed back to the tank. I don't know his name. I don't even know what tank outfit he was in.
Now I was at the dune line. I looked around. I said this guy needs a medic. We all had a sulfa pack. I gave him what I could, and I didn't know where to put it. I just dumped the sulfa all over the place. I finally was able to attract a medic. The medic looked at him and gave him an injection of morphine. He said, "There's not much I can do, but leave him here, because we're going to have an aid station and we're going to send these guys out to the ship very soon."
The wounded man survived, although I heard he lost the leg. Evidently the medic was able to get him to a ship.
But I've made the dune now. I'm in one piece. And then you sit there and you look at all the chaos and the devastation. Guys floating in the surf, dead, wounded. The wounded screaming. And you're sitting in the dune and you're looking back at it, out into the water, and there are ships burning, smoking. This must be the day of doom. Armageddon. If this is war, I don't like it. All the beautiful plans we had made and practiced, all for naught. All confused, chaos.
I was numb. This was not the way it was supposed to be, and you had no way of coping with it. You had no leaders. Just pure chaos. And then you see all these dead guys, buddies. That's hard to cope with, the first time, to see death. And when you're a close personal friend, it hurts. You thought you were tough, brave and gung-ho. It gets you.
I said to myself, "I'm all alone now," where I brought Joe up to the dune. We may have been the first ones to have reached that far; there was nobody around. I had a hell of a time getting a medic for him; they were all out in the distance.
A lot of guys would be okay, then they'd see a wounded buddy, they'd run down in the tide and they'd get hit. So once I got the medic and I felt Joe was taken care of, I said this is no good, I've got to try to find some of my people. We've got to get organized here. I'm sure we're going to go back out and remove those obstacles when the tide goes out.
While I'm sitting there, about 60 yards away comes a guy staggering along the beach, staggering, foundering. His backpack is tattered; his clothes are in shreds. One arm is dangling. He turns and half his head is blown away. And something told me I know that guy, something about his stature, his walk. And he turned toward me and looked at me, and through all that gore and all that tattered clothing, I saw the tie.
I don't think he knew who I was. I wanted to cry out to him; I couldn't. I didn't have any voice. I was frozen. I couldn't move. He just staggered away.
Aw, Jesus. I never wanted to be a soldier. It was the last thing in my life I would have wanted to be. But Pearl Harbor changed my opinion. It was a lot of fun, these exercises, these hikes. Hey, a great bunch of guys, having fun. I didn't know what being a soldier was until that day.
I looked down to the east, and there was a Red Cross flag, and there seemed to be a lot of people moving around. So I said, "I'll try for there. Maybe I'll find some people."
There was a tank not too far away. I ran and made it to the tank. It's all burned out, smoke coming out of it. I hope those guys weren't inside. I stayed by the tank awhile, had a cigarette. And it gave me another chance to look out at all this confusion, chaos, devastation. I said, okay, now I'm going to try … as you went east, the sand dune got less and less, and ran out to nothing. There was a big open stretch I had to get across. So I weave, duck. There's a shingle on the beach, which is where, through the centuries, all the pebbles and stones that have been washed up have gathered. It's only high enough that you can lay down behind it. So I stuck with the shingle. I'd run, then I'd drop down, run a little more.
Finally I reached the aid station, which was behind some pretty good cliffs at the far east end of the beach. And hundreds of guys were there. Confused, disarrayed, disorganized. They'd lost their leaders. They were wounded. Down in the flat area were stretchers, stretchers, stretchers. Wounded guys that had been collected so far. The medics were trying their best, and a lot of the GI s were helping them. There was a hospital ship not far out. They were carrying the stretchers piggyback, under their arms, any way to get them out. I went in among these stretchers. It seemed like every third guy was one of my buddies. Now I know why I hadn't found any of my pals back there; they're all here. And every one took my hand – some of them didn't know what they were doing but some of them did – "You tell my wife," "You tell my mother."
As far as I know all of those guys made it back to England. The guys that we lost were killed instantly. These guys that were wounded, they suffered, but I think they made it.
Now I started looking for a rifle. The thought in my mind was, "I'm going to catch hell. I lost my rifle." Army discipline. And I thought, every rifle has a serial number, yours is assigned, how am I going to fudge that? I didn't worry. I'll just get a rifle. So I found one. There were hundreds of them, laying all over. I found one that looked pretty good. It was all full of sand. So I spent a few minutes disassembling and cleaning it. Then I spotted some of my buddies, and I went over and got together with them. We all agreed that things had gone crazy. But we were engineers, and sure enough, we're gonna have to go out there in the afternoon and do the job that we'd failed to do in the morning, so we stuck around. And that's what we did. Later that afternoon some engineer officers came by and said, "Any engineers here?" By that time they had a couple of bulldozers. We would remove some mines, but the bulldozers did most of the job. And we'd blow up the obstacles. We'd build a fire in the hole, we'd send up a flare to let the troops know. We cleared a big stretch of the beach.
There were still snipers firing at the beach. Machine guns. Mortars. Because this area had the Red Cross flag, it didn't receive a lot of shelling. They were acknowledging that it's a medical station. But once in a while one would come in.
We think that what really saved us – one of my buddies wrote an article on this – was that the destroyers came in so close, we wondered how they weren't stranded on the sand. They made several passes with their guns blazing at the pillboxes that were raising hell. A tank on shore would fire at a pillbox, and that would give the ship its coordinates, and he could fire. And the guns on the boat, they knocked out those critical pillboxes that were devastating the beach. My friend – and I agree with him – wrote that if it wasn't for the destroyers, we may never have made it. They played such a vital part eliminating that resistance. Because at 11 o'clock, we heard later that General Bradley's out on the command ship, they were going to call off the invasion on Omaha Beach and go down to Utah Beach where things were going much better. They were going to leave us like Dunkirk. And I envisioned a hundred Panzer tanks coming over the bluffs with a thousand screaming SS troopers right behind them, and we're annihilated. Where could we go, into the water?
But all of a sudden, a guy here, a guy there, a sergeant here, "Come on guys, let's go get them." They started up. They got these snipers along the way. They blew out a pillbox. About 1 o'clock, 1:30, up on a hill, way up on the horizon, I saw some Yankees, waving, "Come on up! Come on up!" And whoever those guys were, they were the heroes. They lacked the leadership but they had that initiative, the soldier quality, that said, "We're not gonna die here. Let's go get these guys!"
And then things got better. But there was a traffic jam on the beach. The tide was coming in, and that restricted the beach area. At one time they stopped all the landings until we could clear space for them. Nothing was moving. Everything was restricted right to the beach area. We weren't moving up the bluffs like we were supposed to. They didn't make it until these little squads here and there got together, this group and that group. And then we were able to get some tanks in. We filled in the ditches and the tank traps. Then we just overwhelmed them with equipment. But thank God Hitler was asleep. All their stuff was way up at Calais. He thought this was a ploy. Thank God for that.
In the afternoon, we went back out and we blew the obstacles. There were two or three of us from the same outfit; we said, "We've got to get with our own people. Let's start looking for them." we started down the beach, and we ran into a couple of our buddies. One of them said the whole outfit was assembling up on the bluff. So we made our way through the barbed wire; never thought about mines. And soon there was a pretty big group of our guys assembling up there with some officers. They told us, "We've taken a pretty bad beating. We'll talk about it in the morning. Tonight just try to dig in up here. Stay close." So we went and dug a foxhole or you found a ravine, whatever you could, and tried to grit the night out. You'd lay down, but you couldn't sleep, because the infantry was still moving up. Tanks were moving up. There was a lot of commotion. Down on the beach, they were still unloading stuff. You were so excited and revved up that you couldn't sleep.
Later that evening, a couple of German planes came over. I don't think they strafed; they were reconnaissance more or less. Well, out in the harbor there were ten thousand boats, and every one of them opened up. It looked like the Fourth of July. I don't think they got either one of them, but it was a lot of noise. And a lot of guys took their rifle, I saw officers with .45s trying to shoot a plane down! And during the evening somebody hollered, "Gas!" Well, that shook everybody up. I still had my gas mask, but I heard guys crying, "I don't have a gas mask!" A lot of them went down to the beach; they thought if they got in the water that would save them. It was crazy. And it was a false alarm. If we ever found the SOB who shouted that, he wouldn't be around today. It was bad for 15 or 20 minutes. Finally, the infantry's coming up this trail not far away from us, they're looking at us with all our gas masks, and they're laughing. And you felt like a goddamn fool. You learned an awful lot in those hours. You changed a lot of your opinions, attitudes, and you realized that hey, this is not a game. A lot of the craziness, the gung-ho attitude disappeared. It hit you that so many of your buddies were no longer with you.
The next morning we were assembled and the colonel told us how many men we'd lost, and we realized how much we had paid. Then we were given cleaning details. We were sent down to the beach to help clear up the debris; certain groups were sent to clear up mines. The place was full of mines, so certain sections were sent to clear roadways through these minefields. Thankfully I didn't get that. That's the worst detail in the world, mines.
None of our men were killed clearing mines, but three or four were wounded. One guy lost his fingers. That's what mines do. They might not kill you, but they maim you. Horrible. They're trying to outlaw them now. And the Germans were experts at mines. They came up with a plastic mine. We had mine detectors to detect metal. Now they're plastic; the mine detector's no good. And they had trick wires. This'll be a dead mine. If you detonate this, you set off that. And boobytraps. Because GIs seem to want to get souvenirs – loot – that's an American instinct, and they forget to be cautious. We lost a lot of guys because of that. They'll boobytrap their own dead. You want his helmet? It could be boobytrapped.
And they were so good at it. They had a mine called the bouncing Betty, you would step on it and it would jump up and get you right in the groin.
One day I'm going along, and there's a shoe. I kicked it out of the way. There's a foot in it.
I can't tell you what war is. You wouldn't believe how men; we're supposed to be human beings, civilized. On the beach, it was unbelievable. You'd see bodies crushed by tanks. The tanker can't see, and he's literally running right over guys. I hope they were dead when he did it. You walk along, there's two big tank tracks, and the guy's embedded right in the sand. Maybe the guy was wounded, he couldn't move. I don't blame the tank. They're up there, they can't see, they've got to maneuver, but that happened so many times. That's a pretty gruesome sight the next day.
I've seen guys with arms full of arms, arms filled with legs, carrying them off to a collection point. And I understand they made one great big trench and just dumped everything in there. Then a year or so later, after the war, they reclaimed and went through it, and they're all up in the cemetery.
And it always remains in your mind; any veteran who has seen combat wonders, wonders, why me? Why was he killed, why did I survive? It's a question you can't answer. But it bothers you. Why did they shoot him and I was spared? I've tried to appreciate it that I made it okay, and I've tried to say, well, I'll do my best to memorialize those guys.
Maybe that's why I was spared.
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