Now that 70 years have passed, the local ranks of World War II veterans have thinned greatly and those who took part in the most decisive event of that conflict, D-Day, have all but disappeared.
The invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, proved to be the crucial turn of the Allies’ wheel against the Axis powers. Younger generations learn of this event through movies, books and documentaries. Older generations heard about it from their fathers and mothers who told the tale of that great day, now so misty in the past.
But we have our own records and today, on the eve of the noteworthy anniversary, reprint portions of Gazette-Journal stories from 1944 and recollections of subsequent years.
Woodrow James of Dutton said in 1984 that on D-Day he was crawling up the beach “as flat as I could” carrying a shovel and bag of maps on his back. The fire was heavy and constant, he said. “When I reached cover, the shovel on my back was cut in two and the bag of maps was shredded.”
The same year, Philip Louis Clements Jr. of Clay Bank said his landing craft took a direct hit from a German 88mm shell as it landed, killing most of the men at the front of the boat. He survived five battles during the offensive, being wounded two weeks after landing. “We were fighting 24 hours a day; we never stopped. Even when you slept, you had to have your buddy standing guard.”
In the 1984 interview, William F. Soles Jr. of Gwynn recalled, “It was 10 a.m. and I was driving an ammunition truck up Omaha Beach. We were in about six feet of water, me and my buddy, when the truck got stuck. Just about the time I got out, a shell hit the truck. It blew up. I never did see my buddy after that.”
For a 30-year D-Day interview in 1974, Eddie Kobylinski of Hudgins told of the front-line horrors experienced by his unit, the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which spearheaded the attack at Omaha Beach. The Rangers’ mission was to scale nine-story high cliffs and destroy German forces entrenched at the top.
At the age of 19, he saw many close friends killed or wounded. His battalion started with 525 men; after the landing, he said, only 125 were still fit for combat. “It was just plain hell. How anybody came back, I don’t know,” Kobylinski said.
In August 1944, the Gazette-Journal reprinted part of a letter sent by Cpl. Lysander Thornton to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joel Thornton of Achilles. Thornton was in the 104th Medical Battalion of the 29th Army Division, and landed just behind the invasion forces.
Here are his words, almost directly from the fighting:
“The first night, the actual lines were intangible and during the night we went up a little too far and while grabbing a couple of hours of sleep were awakened by firing; when it drew near we …took our way to the ditches and hedge rows back to the beach, leaving in too big a hurry to get our packs, only getting my medical equipment. …Later, after someone had brought my pack down, I saw the Catholic priest looking at a Bible and inquiring whose it was. On looking closer I recognized the picture of you, Papa, and I taken together, so I claimed it. What had caused the interest was a bullet which had lodged in the Bible.”
Echoes of a distant war, from that time and later, bring back only a faint taste of that epic invasion, its horror, and its vital importance to the freedom we enjoy today. World leaders are gathered this week on the shores of Normandy to commemorate the victory. A cloud of witnesses made up of Allied troops, killed or wounded there, and those who survived to tell the tale to future generations, will be present in spirit. They have our eternal gratitude.