Back in the summer of 2001, my Uncle Claude by marriage, passed away after a brief battle with cancer and Alzheimer’s. During the time afterwards that I spent with Aunt Jean helping her write thank you notes, I came across a short essay that he had written among the papers at her house.
The essay is not remarkable. It was probably written many years later, and only makes note of the details of his service as a 20-year-old boy in World War II in the most general of terms.
What is remarkable to me is that for all the many years that he lived beyond the nightmare that was Normandy Beach and the Battle of the Bulge, he never spoke of it. He was a hero and you would never know it, which in my mind makes it all the more so.
The only tell-tale sign of his service was the funny way he held his arm, crooked and bent up just a little, a remnant from a gunshot wound to the arm. He simply put the horror of the war away and went on with his life as was the way of those of his generation. But Alzheimer’s has a way of prying open dark places, and it was then that he sometimes began talking about the war. When he died in July of 2001 he took the war and the rest of the untold stories with him.
I have found myself thinking about this essay every year on Veteran’s and Memorial Day, but I never could find it again. This past year, Aunt Jean, now 96, moved into assisted living and as we were sorting through some of her things I was delighted to find it again and share it here:
I was born and grew up in Bailey, Texas. In 1941 when I graduated from high school I had dreams of becoming a major league baseball player. I had a strong arm and could throw a baseball a “country mile”. It was not long before my plans were made for me.
I received greetings from Uncle Sam requesting (rather instructing) me to go to the nearest recruiting station. To make a long story short, I was drafted into the U.S. Army.
My basic training was in Bastrop, Texas. The summer heat was so intense we had to make our 30-mile backpack trip through the night when it was a little cooler. Our drill Sergeant loved to take us through the small towns chanting to the top of our voice, “I had a good home but I left-right-left-right-left” awakening the residents.
In November of 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin determined that Operation Overload was necessary to hasten an end to the conflict. After several months of intense training, we knew we were training for something big, but we had no idea what.
Operation Overload was a code name for the invasion of Normandy. General Eisenhower was the allied commander and it was determined that on June 6, 1944 this operation would take place. If was first planned for June 5th, but severe weather, the worst in 40 years made it necessary to make it a day later. I was assigned to the 146th combat Engineer Squadron. It was our job to blow up the mines on the beach that the Germans had planted.
On June 6th, the operation consisted of 5000 ships and crafts set to land 175,000 men and 50,000 vehicles. An allied armada of 11,000 planes began the bombing of German positions and coastal towns. We, the Combat Engineers, were the first on the beach and after the landing craft took us near there, we waded the waters with our back packs. The drivers of the landing crafts did not waste any time turning their ships around and getting out of there. There is no doubt that many would like to have gone back with them.
American forces landed on the western, or right flank, of Normandy, code named Utah and Omaha Beaches. I landed on Omaha. The British and Canadian forces landed on the other three beaches. It was a day that can never be forgotten.
Several of my buddies that I trained with from the beginning were among the casualties and are buried in the cemetery in Normandy. I realize how lucky I am and I wish they could have survived also.
Paris was declared an open city so that it would not be destroyed. After several months of combat in France and Belgium we were already in the month of December 1944 and the snow was deep. On December 16th, The Battle of the Bulge was in full swing.
On December 26th, 1944 I was injured at St. Vith in Belgium. [shot in the arm] I was hospitalized in England for several weeks and came home on the Queen Mary in the hospital ward. I was a patient at the VA Hospital in Temple, Texas for about a year.
This is a condensed account of just a portion of what I remember.