Veterans remember D-Day
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had to take a gamble and hope the weather would hold on June 6, 1944.
Land, air and sea forces of the Allied army worked together, as they stormed five beaches in Normandy, France, to take on the Germans.
According to the National World War II Museum, “The invasion force included 7,000 ships and landing craft manned by over 195,000 naval personnel from eight allied countries. Almost 133,000 troops from England, Canada and the United States landed on D-Day. Casualties from the three countries during the landing numbered 10,300.”
These veterans recall where they were on June 6, 1944.
KENNETH CORDRY, SEDALIA
“We were shipped to Chilton-Foliat, England, which became our home while we trained for the D-Day invasion with night jumps and maneuvers. We were restricted to our camp and not allowed to have any interaction with the townspeople for fear of leaking plans for the invasion.
The evening of June 5, 1944, we knew it was the real thing when we put on our equipment and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower walked through the ranks and talked to the troops. As light began to fade, we walked to our places and put on the more than 100 pounds of equipment. This was in addition to the main parachute and reserve chute. This was by far the heaviest load we ever jumped with. We were so loaded down, we had to have two assistants help us up the steps into the plane. It was around 11 p.m. when we took off and in the dark there was very little talking.
Approaching the coast of France, our plane began bucking and lurching as anti-aircraft fire started, mixed with machine gun tracer fire. The pilots were supposed to stay in formation and drop us in planned drop zones, but many broke formation and dropped troopers all over the peninsula. Our pilot dropped us relatively close to our drop zone, but much too low to the ground and at a speed that tore much of the equipment off our bodies when the parachute’s opening shock hit. I was only in the air for a few seconds, but was surprised by the sounds and motion of the tracer fire.
The landing was very hard, but I was unhurt. The first person I encountered was a man in my squad who said he’d been hit and couldn’t get out of his chute. I cut him out and after checking him over we decided he landed so hard with all the equipment on top of him that he thought he’d been hit. There was machine gunfire over our heads, so we headed in the opposite direction and by sheer luck walked onto a lane where we soon bumped into four or five other members of our company. We then headed for the beach, where we were to secure the causeway. It was to be secured for use by our seaborne troops coming in from the beach.
Just as it began to get light, we had our first casualty. A sniper in a farmhouse killed one of our men as he approached the house. We were sobered by the sight of many collapsed parachutes with boots protruding.
As we looked toward the beach, we could see hundreds of figures coming down the causeway. A small group of seven or eight approached us ahead of the others and we realized they were Germans. They didn’t see us until we stood up and demanded they surrender. They did.”
VIRGIL KOECHNER, TIPTON
D-Day, June 6, 1944. I remember that day well. The news was full about the invasion. I was only 14 years old. The reason I recall the date was because my older brother, Leo Koechner (1924-1993) was home from Army basic training. He had recently been drafted.
I went with him south of Tipton to see his sweetheart, Irene Wolf. Her father was there and I remember so well what he told Leo, “By the time you get over there, it will be all over.” How wrong he was. That was not how it turned out. Upon arriving in Europe, Leo was placed in the 9th Armored Division, Company A. This company had been through the Battle of the Bulge and out of 60 men there were only 15 left. The United States suffered more casualties at the Bulge than we did in all the battles of the Pacific.
The 9th Armored Division was given the assignment of capturing the Remagen Bridge.
The day after the Bridge of Remagen conflict was over, some German civilians came into the area where Paul White (1923-1987) of Lincoln was at an air strip supporting the troops. They reported there was a dead American soldier lying in the ditch some distance from there. The soldier was Glen Meyer, of Tipton. He had been placed in Company B. His parents requested that he be brought home. He is buried in St. Andrew’s Cemetery in Tipton. Company B lost half of its men. This was the same day that Leo was seriously injured.
Richard Meyer (1917-1992) from Tipton made the D-Day landing.
He told his son Harold, “When I stepped off the landing craft, the water was full of blood.” There were 10,000 casualties that day; 6,603 were Americans.
Richard was discharged after his brother’s death. He married Viola Morlock and had nine children.
HELEN BRAZOS, SEDALIA
“It was a cold day in February, when we deployed from Boston Harbor for the European Theater of Operation. They had trained us well in the snow and cold. There was little that could phase us, even with live fire over us. Before going aboard ship, they fed us well. I remember them handing me a plate with lobster and asking me how I wanted my steak. When I said I didn’t want both, the young man in front of me asked if he could have mine. It was a rough take-off that evening and later many were hanging over the rail returning their food to the fish.
We were 10 days en route and the sailors on the Italian troop ship said it was one of their roughest crossings. We were advised to stay inside or to tie a rope securely around our waist, as they were disinclined to fish anyone out of the waters. We landed in Llandudno, Wales, and soon after left by bus to Diss, England, home of the 365th Hospital and Air Base.
It was a busy time as the hospital received many casualties through the air base, mostly from enemy flak. Many of the nurses had been there before us and were dating officers from the 365th. They knew from their conversations that there was a big invasion brewing, but they did not know the date — at least they didn’t tell us.
On June 6, we were awakened very early in the morning and the sky was full of our planes. We knew then the day had arrived and the big invasion had begun. It was supposed to be a surprise to the Germans, but evidently not surprise enough, as they had made bunkers all up and down the mountain and killed many of our veterans when they first came ashore. It was a very sad time for us and the base, as they lost many men and planes.
Shortly after D-Day, we were provided a hospital train and it was taken on a cargo ship across the English Channel. It was a rough crossing and I remember seeing this huge train, which was chained in the hold of the ship, shifting back and forth.”
CLARENCE ROE, SALISBURY
Clarence Roe, of Salisbury, got on an old British freighter in Southampton, England, and sailed into the English Channel. On June 6, 1944, at 2:25 a.m., 32 battleships and destroyers were behind him.
“Sitting there, I could see Omaha Beach. They were shooting these big shells over our heads — that concussion from the shells took the leaves off the trees and took my ears too,” Roe said. They were shooting at the Germans on the hills, so the troops could invade the beaches.
The Germans were well-prepared though. Land mines were strung throughout the beaches and obstacles were scattered about. Ships would get caught on them and the men became easy targets. The Germans also built a huge sea wall at the foot of a 150-foot bluff, which had thick concrete walls with pillboxes. They were round and when shells would hit them, they’d bounce off. The Allied Forces had to throw rope ladders over the wall, sneak up and throw hand grenades to kill the Germans. Sometimes the Germans would spot them and cut the ropes killing everyone on them.
The firing continued for more than 24 hours. Roe’s crew could do nothing but sit and wait. After things settled down, he boarded a Higgins boat that took him ashore about 7 p.m. The dead American soldiers were being hauled away as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, the Germans left their soldiers. As the Americans walked through the dead bodies, some men looked for keepsakes. The Germans had the best pistol in the world, so everybody wanted one. The Germans used this to their advantage and placed fake guns in their belts with grenades attached. When servicemen tried to take the pistols, they were killed immediately.
“There wasn’t anything they (Germans) didn’t do,” Roe said.
Roe’s crew wasn’t too far from the beach, when they set up their first airfield that night at Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
BILL NIENHUESER, CONCORDIA
On June 6, 1944, Gen. Eisenhower gave the order to invade Europe. Sgt. Bill Nienhueser’s unit, 819th Aviation Engineer Battalion, was scheduled to land on Utah Beach.
“As we came into range of the enemy’s guns, German shell fire was being directed at us. Luckily many of the shells hit the water, creating large geysers of water spouting upwards,” said Nienhueser. The first assault force had only landed minutes earlier, at 6:30 a.m.
When the landing craft tank (LCT) stopped about 500 feet from shore, Nienhueser drove his Caterpillar with another man onboard into the 4-feet of water. The man was the backup driver, in case Nienhueser got shot.
A beach landing zone officer yelled out, There’s only going to be two types of men on this beach, those already dead and those about to die.”
Nienhueser carried an incendiary device, so if the Germans captured them, he could blow up the Caterpillar.
“One German artillery shell hit within 10 feet of me,” Nienhueser said. “By the grace of God, the shrapnel blew upwards, but the concussion knocked me down, but I was unhurt. The shrapnel started a fire on a truck and a quick-thinking infantryman ran up and put out the fire with a fire extinguisher.”
His unit’s mission was to grade landing strips on the beach before nightfall. He saw six gliders from the 101st Airborne Division land on the emergency strips and unload troops.
Nienhueser had great admiration for the paratroopers. He will never forget seeing an American paratrooper hanging in a tree, his throat cut by the Germans.
“It made me feel bitter about the Germans to do this inhumane thing, as it accomplished nothing but strengthening my resolve to fight harder than ever,” Nienhueser said.
He noticed that Americans bodies had been removed from the beach, but the dead Germans were stacked up. An infantryman from the first wave told him that out of a company of 250 soldiers, only 11 were still alive.
As the Allied Armies moved farther into France, Nienhueser and his aviation engineers moved forward to create new airfields.
KENNETH GROTT, SEDALIA
Kenneth Grott arrived in England around May 24, 1944. He was a member of the 561st Quartermaster Railhead Company. He worked in supply and they set up in southern Wales.
“We were issuing bulk food, cans and cases, to a lot of those divisions that were getting ready to go overseas,” he said.
They had been informed of a special menu that was supposed to be issued about two days before the invasion. He remembers the code words were “Queen’s Court.”
“When we got that code, we were supposed to change the menu and issue a better menu, like the last meal. So consequently, we knew that something was going to transpire pretty quick,” he said. “The only thing is we issued it once and then it didn’t materialize. They called the invasion off a time or two.”
He knew something big was about to happen when he woke up to a sky full of planes.
“We felt that we were pretty close to those troops that were going over,” he said.
He landed on Omaha Beach a couple weeks later. He noticed a few bodies were floating around the channel and that the pillboxes on top didn’t have any Germans in them.
“I remember looking up at those pillboxes and wondering how those guys ever made it up that hill. Of course, a lot of them didn’t,” he said.
He made his way to the top of the hill and spent the night. When the air raids took place, Grott remembers diving into the trenches the Germans had built. Unfortunately, there were some unwelcome guests — rats.
“We had one little guy with us, he was a little bit older than the rest of us. We heard him a-ranting and raving.... He was scared to death (of rats),” Grott said. “He was cussing his mother-in-law because she turned him into the draft board.”
The next day Grott and the other men guarded German prisoners at the cemetery in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France. The prisoners dug the graves, while the grave registration unit got the bodies ready for burial. They checked for personal effects, put one dog tag in an envelope and the other with the body. Then they put the bodies in a mattress bag and wrapped them up. Each man was put in an individual grave. At sunset a service that included a gun’s salute and taps occurred.
Some of the bodies coming in were pulled out of the water and others were paratroopers who were cut out of the trees.
Grott believes close to 100 men were buried that day.
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