Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado
The Orange County Register (Reprinted by Permission)
PART ONE: D-DAY • JUNE 6, 1944
A MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT RECALLS
STORMING OMAHA BEACH WITH HIS 12 MEN.
JUNE 6, 1944 - OMAHA BEACH • I had a picture of my mother in my backpack. And a Bible. I also had a silk map sewn in my uniform and a little old tin compass. My orders were to lead a 12-man reconnaissance patrol to the town of Trevieres about five miles in.
But first I had to get across Omaha Beach.
We'd pulled out of England the night before and sailed all night in rough seas in these ships that held about 200 men each. I was in one, about six miles offshore. My brother Roland was in another. Waiting for orders. Up until then, we'd always fought together. We landed together in Africa. And Sicily. We fought side by side. Not this time. Too dangerous, we were told, and I was moved to another company.
We were all supposed to be part of the second wave. But the first wave was pinned down. They needed extra men. A small landing craft came back from the beach and loaded me and my 12-man squad. We hit the beach alone, without the rest of our unit. We landed before the second wave. I call us the intermittent wave. Nobody talks about us.
The only good luck I had was my prayers.
If Roland and I were going to meet up, we'd have to take Omaha Beach first.
THE HIGGENS BOAT
We had to drop down a rope ladder to get from our boat into the Higgins Boat, the small landing craft. It was rough. The water would rise about 4 feet, then drop. If you jumped off the rope ladder wrong, you'd get crushed between the boats. If you fell too far, you could break a leg.
We got in and hunkered down. Rifle rounds were coming overhead, shells hitting different places. We heard clanks - the slap of water and the slap of bullets hitting the boat. There wasn't much to say. It was eerie going through the water.
Closer to shore, we could see our battleships firing their big guns. It was awesome. We heard all this bombing going on, and we thought there shouldn't be anything left there for us. We weren't prepared for what we'd see on the beach.
We snagged on a sandbar about 100 yards out. I said, 'Is this as far as we're going? Cause there's a lot of water out in front.' The coxswain who drove the boat said, 'Yeah,' and dropped the ramp. The water was clear up to my neck. It was over some guys' heads. We had to pull them along until they could get their feet on the sand. There were bullets flying and artillery shells landing in the water. We had to hold our M-1 rifles up over our heads.
My adrenaline was going so fast. I just wanted to get the heck out of there. When you go into combat, you know you've got to fight. You can't go the other way - back into the water. The guys that landed us weren't coming back, and I can't swim! We were there to stay, so we had to get some ground under us.
The beach was devastating. Chaos. Men lying in the water, some hugging the obstacles. Boats hit by mines, blown up, sunk or beached. They'd got a few vehicles onto the beach but they were already hit and guys huddled around them. People lay on the beach not going anywhere, some dead, some wounded, some in shock.
We started to pass these obstacles sticking out of the water with guys hanging on to them, wounded or too scared to move. On the beach were all these bodies lying to our left and right, guys who'd lost legs or were injured or dead. There was no shelter. Just noise and confusion. Bullets were flying around. First thing, everyone lay down. I said, 'No, no. You can't lie down. Keep going. You've got to get out of here."
This was my third beach invasion. I'd learned that the best way to get off the beach is to keep going forward. The first person I saw killed by a bullet was when I landed in Africa. It made me realize that could've been anybody, including me. When they're shooting at you and you hear the bullets, you don't have to worry. It's the one you don't hear that takes your life.
The hardest thing is to take your squad across a field or beach and know they're headed for certain death. It's up there waiting for you, and you almost get sick to your stomach, like you have a bad case of ulcers. But as soon as that first bullet is fired, why all that feeling goes away. That's the thing about it. The first bullet is fired and you hear it, and it didn't hit you, and you have a sense of relief, a sense of what to do. It gets your adrenaline going and gets you into action.
THE BEACH MASTER
I started up the beach and this guy runs across, a Navy beach master. It seemed unreal. He was directing guys coming in off the boats. 'Follow that path,' he said. 'And don't veer left or right.' It was not a natural path. It was a path cleared by men stepping on mines. There were bodies here and there. You could see where other guys had gone. We were moving pretty fast, trying to duck bullets and artillery. We weren't running. We didn't want to step on any mines. We were watching where we were going.
Men were pinned down on the beach and against a seawall to the right. But I had blinders on. The only thing that concerned me was what was going on right in front of me.
There were just the 12 of us. We weren't attached to anybody. My regiment was still five miles off shore, waiting to come in with the second wave. So we were on our own. I believe that's what helped us. We had no one telling us what to do. We just did what we had to do.
Was I scared? I never went into combat when I wasn't scared. It's a fool that thinks he's not scared in combat. He'll get himself shot. But it doesn't matter how good a soldier you are; if a bullet is meant for you, it's going to get you. There's nothing you can do about it.
About 100 yards up the beach there were three rows of rolled concertina wire. The first two rows had been blown. The last row hadn't.
We got to the last row of wire, and there were two bangalore torpedo men pinned down behind a sand berm. A bangalore torpedo is a pole stuffed with explosives and a snap fuse. They'd pull a trigger, and when the pole blows up, it blows the wire right apart.
I don't know what happened to the guys who were supposed to be in front of us. Nobody was in front of us. We were all pinned down behind this berm or shingle of sand. We wanted them to blow the wire, but they couldn't move. The Germans had them targeted.
I said, 'We'll fire up at the trenches, if you blow the wire for us.'
So we laid down fire, and the two guys got up to blow the wire. Bullets were firing everywhere. They had to stand up to get the torpedo under the wire. One guy got killed as soon as he moved. But the other guy got it under and set it off. He might've got hit too. I don't know. But as soon as the wire was blown, we got out of there. We were there maybe 30 seconds. We ran up the hill. Apparently there were no mines because we didn't step on any. I rushed my men up to the German trenches.
We saw guys carrying pole-charges up to this concrete gun casement called a pillbox. A pole charge has TNT on it. You light it on back, stick it into a hole in the pillbox and set off the charge to knock out the pillbox. But they didn't make it. Three got shot.
There was a munitions man with a pole-charge trying to get it into the breach of a pillbox. We saw him get killed on the way up. We went up around behind and got into the trenches. From there we could see the beach. Man, it was a mess. We were like ducks coming in for them to shoot.
It was a miracle we'd made it across that beach. Remarkable because the first wave suffered 50 percent casualties in some places, and the second wave suffered 30 percent casualties. Those pillboxes offered near-perfect protection and a near-perfect view of the beach. We had platoons completely wiped out. Squads completely wiped out. To get 12 men completely across that day was amazing.
Would Roland make it? Or the rest of my regiment? I had no time to think about it now. We were standing in the German trenches. Finally. And we didn't know what the heck was up ahead.
Except the entire defending German army.
JUNE 7TH 1944 - OMAHA BEACH • When I was moved to L Company before D-Day, they gave me the 3rd Squad of the 3rd Platoon – usually the worst squad in any company in appearance and performance. One guy was an accordionist. One guy was a guitarist and singer, and another was a violinist. They used to go around to hospitals to entertain. They were good in their music, but weren't so good at being soldiers. They never passed an inspection.
Now we were on top of Omaha Beach.
I don't know if we were the first to get a pillbox – which the Germans were using to shoot everyone on the beach – but I know that when we got into the trenches, the Germans started retreating. We followed them around the back of a pillbox and captured it from the rear. They had an escape hatch, so as we came barreling in, they went barreling out.
We captured four Germans and sent them under guard back to the beach. The rest we shot or they got away. We used grenades when we thought there was a pocket of them, but we mostly used rifles.
I never felt like I was killing a man. I just felt like I was killing the enemy. That was our job. I told my men that was our job. We didn't think about it as killing people or we never could've done our jobs. We were trained to kill the enemy, and if we didn't kill them, they would've killed us, and we wouldn't be here to talk about it.
"We'd gone about a mile when we came across this briefcase. We saw blood on it. I figured one of the Germans got shot and dropped it."
All day we were in constant firefights. Other troops from the first wave came up to join us, so we kinda mingled with them, working our way inland, but we couldn't go far. We got bogged down and spent the night on the side of a hedgerow – shrubs and trees grown so close together they form a thick wall of foliage.
It was just the 12 of us in my squad. That night there was frost on our raincoats covering us.
JUNE 7, 1944 - NEAR COLLEVILLE
We moved out again this morning. We were holding the line against possible German counterattacks all day. We'd been told the second wave had all landed, so we hung back waiting for the rest of our company. Toward evening they started coming up.
I ran into the platoon sergeant for K Company, and I asked him, 'Do you know where my brother is?' He told me Roland was missing in action since the landing. That's all he said.
I had a sickening feeling in my stomach. Of course, we had a lot of guys unaccounted for. I knew it meant he was either killed or severely wounded and they'd taken him back to a ship. That's what I was hoping, that he was on a ship and they just didn't have a record of it.
I wanted desperately to go back to the beach and search for him, but I could see all the men and equipment streaming in over the beach. More than 30,000 men had landed by then. It was chaotic with boats unloading, bringing in troops and tanks and artillery. That's all you could see. Trying to find Roland would be impossible. And I couldn't leave my men for that long. I knew my brother would want me to carry on no matter what happened to him.
I had my Bible with me. I read it. I had to put my faith in God. I prayed for my brother and all the men who were missing, wounded or killed in action.
THE BLOODY BRIEFCASE
By nightfall, we'd rejoined our company and set up a perimeter. During the night we heard a shot. Some German patrols ran past our outpost, and kept running through, right over the top of us.
My company commander ordered a patrol to follow them. I got the job. I took four men with me. We walked down this dirt road. It was so dark, you couldn't see your hand in front of you. There were thick hedges on both sides of the road. It was the most bone-chilling adventure I'd ever taken. A short way down, the Germans heard us and started running. We followed cautiously, stopping to listen now and then.
We could hear them, but couldn't see anything. We were supposed to find out where they were going, but I don't think they knew where they were going. I think they were just trying to escape.
We'd gone about a mile when we came across this briefcase. We picked it up. We had a flashlight and shined it down, huddling around it to make sure no one could see the light. We saw blood on it. I figured one of the Germans got shot and dropped it.
We didn't know where we were, so I told the guys: 'Let's go back the way we came.' And we did.
We were petrified heading back because if we made a wrong move, we could've been shot by our own troops. They were spooked too. But we got back safely.
I took the briefcase to our company commander. He didn't show me what was inside, but we found out later. It kind of led up to why I got the Medal of Honor. That night, I just saw them open it up. Then I was excused because I was only a squad leader.
JUNE 8, 1944 • Our mission on the 8th was to find out if any Germans were in Trevieres. We found out. But before we even got there, a platoon on our right got pinned down in an open field. I saw the Germans raking the field with machine-gun fire.
One poor GI couldn't get his rear down low enough and the Germans were shooting right through it. Every so often, you could see the bullets hitting him.
Our platoon flanked the Germans to make them retreat. We later learned the guy took six or seven rounds in the buttocks. The medics said he was embarrassed but OK. It taught me we never wanted to be caught in the middle of a field, but that's exactly what would happen to us in two days.
I was still thinking about my brother Roland, who'd been missing since the beach assault. I always thought of him.
He was four years older than me. We grew up on a farm near Abilene, Kansas. In school, he kinda looked after me. We used to go hunting together. In the winter, we'd set traps. I tried to beat him in wrestling, but he always took me. He never got mad, and he never hurt me.
He had red hair, blue eyes, a ruddy complexion and perfect teeth. He was always my hero. In 1940, before the U.S. even got into the war, he said he was going to enlist, and I said, 'I'm going to join with you.' And I did. Maybe I wanted to get away from farming – lifting bales of hay or threshing wheat.
Roland was 23. I was 19, so my parents had to sign for me. My mother said she would sign on one condition. She made me promise to be a good Christian soldier. That's why every time I thought about doing something wrong or ornery, I couldn't do it – honoring my mother, you know. I didn't smoke or drink. I lived my life that way. I think that's why I am still alive.
Roland and I asked to be put in the same company. We were. He was a scout and I was a mortar man in the 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division.
MIGHTY FINE TROOPS
On Nov. 8, 1942, we landed in French Morocco, just north of Casablanca. I was so seasick on the assault boat. There were shells coming over our heads, and I thought, 'Man, if one of these hit my head, I'd be out of my misery.' As soon as we landed, we had other worries.
Germany controlled French Morocco and had forced the French to shoot at us when we were landing. Luckily, they fired over our heads.
That night, German subs sank three of our ships. We had to go out later and search for bodies washed ashore. Man, it was a gruesome job, seeing the bodies all swollen up. I remember the fingernails would be all white. It was just gruesome.
We were in Africa six months. I worried about Roland because, as a scout, he was always a half-mile in front of us. But I'd see him at night.
In January 1943, our company was picked to be the honor guard for President Roosevelt when he met English Prime Minister Winston Churchill and French President Charles de Gaulle at the Casablanca Conference. We lined both sides of the villa where they met. When Roosevelt came down the street, he said, 'These are mighty fine looking troops. They'd make good replacements for the 1st Infantry Division.'
Sure enough, we were soon transferred to the 1st. We got in a great big fight in Tunisia – one of the biggest tank battles in Africa. These assault troops kept rushing up the hill trying to break our line, but they couldn't get around us. Our new company – Company K of the 18th Infantry Regiment (3rd Battalion) – got a presidential citation.
NEXT STOP, SICILY
When the fighting in Africa ended, we got on ships and took a ride up the Mediterranean. When we got close to Sicily, they told us, 'This is it.' We climbed down rope ladders into Higgins Boats and landed in Gela, Sicily, on July 10, 1943.
We landed on these rocks and climbed into the city. There, we met resistance and lots of mines and booby traps. It was not easy. We went house to house. We didn't know when we were going to open a door and get blown to pieces.
In Sicily, Roland joined my mortar section. It was intense fighting. We fought all the way till we ran out of Germans.
We were crossing this field in August when a barrage of mortars fell on us. We hit the dirt. When they stopped we found my brother covered in debris. He had multiple wounds in his back - shell fragments and shrapnel. He had to be med-evac'd back to Africa. I couldn't talk to him too much. I had to let the medics take over. There was nothing I could do.
In October, we returned to Dorchester, England. We knew we were training for the invasion of France, but we didn't know where or when.
Roland rejoined us in November. He was in my mortar section again. We trained together until March 1944, when our company commander called Roland and me in and told us three things: One, we should increase our GI life insurance.
Two, D-Day casualties could reach 50 percent.
And three, we would be separated this time. They transferred me to Company L and promoted me to staff sergeant in charge of a rifle squad. I was 22.
On June 4th, we had a battalion conference telling us what was going to happen.
Roland and I were in different companies, but sitting in the same group area. When it was time to load into our ships, we waved goodbye.
HITTING THE GERMANS
Now, I was on my own – for the first time. I was fighting to win the war. But I couldn't forget Roland, either, as my squad neared its target: Trevieres, France. We weren't supposed to engage in combat, just find out what was there. But you never know what to expect when you're out in front of the front line, scouting. As we came out of this little ravine, I stuck my head up to look around.
Remember the briefcase we found the night before? Well, it was filled with maps showing the Germans' second and third lines of defense. We were now hitting those positions head-on. And they were hitting back.
I know. Because when I stuck my head up, the next sound I heard was a bullet.
Hitting my helmet.
JUNE 8TH 1944 - TREVIERES • I've always said it's not the bullet you hear that gets you. So it's a good thing I heard this one. It rung my helmet - grazed it really. And it gave us the information we were looking for: It confirmed the Germans were in Trevieres.
My squad was told not to engage in combat, so we pulled back, and rejoined our company. That night we cleaned and oiled our weapons, and bedded down beside a hedgerow. We heard a noise on the other side. One guy fired off into the dark until something hit the ground. The next morning we found out who was stalking us: a cow lay dead in the field. It would be the first of many dead bodies to hit the ground that day.
JUNE 9, 1944 - GOVILLE • When you're on the attack, you don't put all your men out there to be shot. First you find the Germans. So they send one squad in front, in single-file, staggered formation.
That was my squad. I hadn't lost one man yet. The 12 of us had made it across Omaha Beach. We'd scouted Trevieres. And we'd found the briefcase holding the German second and third lines of defense. Now we were leading the attack on those positions.
It's not for me to say if we were leading the entire American charge. All I know is there wasn't anybody in front of us but Germans.
We were there to draw fire. Another squad was doing the same in a field nearby with the rest of our company behind.
We moved with the first light. It was overcast but not rainy. We were in an area called the Hedgerows - large fields separated by rows of hedges, shrubbery and trees dating back to the 1500s. The shrubbery is 10 to 15 feet thick, often with a path or dirt road running through it - good defense for the Germans.
The squad in the next field drew machine-gun fire first, so we rushed into the hedgerows between us. I started moving to the sound of the gunfire.
I'm up in the hedgerow, raised about five feet, and I see below me four German scouts. Their heads were probably as high as my ankles. They didn't know I was up there at first. I saw them look up at me and point their rifles. I fired first. I shot all four before they could think. It happened so fast.
My squad came up and I told them to fix their bayonets. We could be in for some close fighting.
FIGHTING TO LIVE
I went up further and saw a German machine-gun nest. These were usually a forward position manned by a gunner, an ammunition carrier and an assistant. They were down off the hedgerow, firing across the field at our guys so I knocked them out.
One German was still moving. The guys said, 'Stick him, sergeant.' I said, 'If I've got bullets I'm not going to bayonet anybody.' I just didn't want to do it, that's all. I didn't think it was the proper thing to do. I shot him again, just to make sure. Then we heard another machine gun up ahead. We were still on the attack.
They put these machine guns in the corners of the fields. We happened to be up in the hedgerow to the right flank of them. I led my squad another 100 yards or so, the length of the field, and saw another machine-gun nest in the same position. I shot all three.
That was my job. Besides that, my men hadn't been in combat before, and I was just leading them. That's the surest way of getting a response from them. Remember, my guys were musicians - guitarists, singers, accordion players. But they were becoming a good fighting group.
There's always fear when you're in combat, especially in those hedgerow fields. You never knew how many guns were pointed at you. But your body has these defense mechanisms to keep you from getting killed. It goes into automatic and you just do what you have to do. People always ask me if I was afraid of dying. I say, 'No. I was fighting to live. If we didn't fight to live, none of us would be coming back.'
Our next fight was up ahead, over this mound. I ran up. To my surprise, there were two big mortars - these tubes on tripods that launched explosives- about 10 yards apart, and about 12 men. If I had known that many guys were there, I probably would have crawled up that mound instead of running. But now there was nothing left to do.
I ran down at them shouting and firing, bayonet first.
A MAN OF HONOR
JUNE 9, 1944 - GOVILLE • I was on top of the Germans before they saw me. My God, their eyes got big when they saw that bayonet. It had this psychological effect. They didn’t want any part of it. They just started running.
I ran down this mound at them. If they had surrendered, I would’ve let them surrender. But they didn’t want to be captured. I told my men, ‘If they’re running, we don’t want to fight them again.’ So we shot them.
I didn’t have to use my bayonet, but if it hadn’t been for the bayonet, they wouldn’t have run so fast. There were 10 in the group. Ten got killed. Most of the fighting was within 15 feet.
After that, we kept going up the hedgerow and got one more machine-gun nest. Some of the guys said I killed 18 Germans that day. I don’t know. I didn’t count. The Medal of Honor citation says I got quite a few.
JUNE 10 – GOVILLE
The story doesn’t change an awful lot on the 10th. It was just another June day in Normandy. Overcast.
My squad was leading the attack. We were just taking off, maybe 8 a.m., and crossed a hedgerow into a field. We were almost up to the next hedgerow when we started taking fire from all over – right, left and front.
Our company commander, in the field behind us, passed the word up: ‘You’re surrounded by Germans. You’ve got to get out.’ My squad was scattered over the length of this field, about 150 yards. I was leading the squad with two scouts.
I knew if we started to withdraw, we’d all get picked off. So I stood up and started firing in a semicircle. Joe Hare, my Browning automatic rifleman, did too. It’s called a rear-guard action. You always leave a couple guys in the rear to cover while the rest of the company withdraws.
I’m shooting here. Joe’s shooting there. We’re standing side by side almost. It’s a good thing he had an automatic rifle. He was shooting to the right. I was shooting to the left. The field went gradually up so we were on a little mound.
I turned to go first. I was almost back to this gate in the hedgerow when I got hit. It spun me around. As I was falling down, I pulled the trigger by instinct and hit this German in the hedgerow. I was just lucky.
Joe also got hit coming back, about 20 yards behind me. I saw him lying out in the field. I ran up and got hold of him. He was hit in one arm and a leg. I got him across my shoulder and carried him back about 50 yards or so. Then I ran back and got his rifle. That was the only automatic rifle our squad had. It was important.
I wasn’t thinking about putting my life on the line. I was thinking about getting that rifle. That was part of my job, to have as much firepower as I could for my squad. If I’d been thinking about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
‘YOU SHOULD BE DEAD!’
When I got back to the fence, an Army ambulance had pulled up from the rear to load our casualties. One of my guys – Eddie Sobrack, my accordion player – got killed. That was the first time I lost anybody in my squad.
Our company commander was attending Joe, who had to be med-evac’d out. I told my company commander I was hit in the back. He turned me around. There was a bullet hole straight through the middle of my trench shovel. He said, ‘My God, you should be dead! You’ve been shot clear through.’ I said, ‘No sir.’
When we looked inside the pack, we could see how the bullet glanced off my right ribcage, entered the pack, and hit a bar of soap, deflecting the bullet out the back of my pack. It went through the edge of my mother’s picture. When I saw that, I remembered her admonishments to be a good Christian soldier. I still have that picture.
I refused to be med-evac’d out. I had ’em patch up my wound. I have great bones, ha! It wasn’t real painful. I had two big old scabs back there. I wore a patch. And I didn’t have to wear a pack! I carried an extra bandolier of ammo and my gun belt. It was kind of neat not to have to carry my pack.
A LONG WAR
You know, I was given the Medal of Honor for what I did on June 9th and 10th, but I was in combat for three years. I fought till the end of the war in Europe and got wounded three more times.
For me, the saddest day of the war was July 14. That’s when I was told my brother had been killed on D-Day. My company was staying in an old farmhouse about 14 miles inland. We had the week off. We didn’t have to do much except run a few patrols.
Roland’s company commander, Capt. Russell, came up to me outside and told me. I saluted him, turned around and walked away. It knocked me off my feet. I never cried so much in my life. I found this old mattress and lay down. I probably cried for 30 minutes. My mother always told me, ‘Don’t be afraid of crying. It lets the tension out.’ She was a smart person.
Roland got killed coming down the ramp of a landing craft called an LCI. That’s what K Company came in on. They held 200 men and have ramps on both sides. Writers say it was a mortar that hit his ramp. But my platoon sergeant said it was a German 88 – firing a devastating artillery shell used against tanks.
I grieved, and then I went back to deal with my squad. There used to be a song called ‘One Day at a Time,’ about exactly what our life was like there. In other words, we took life hour-by-hour, which ended up day-by-day, and week after week. You just had to take everything as it came to you and not dwell on it too much, otherwise you probably would’ve got scared and run the other way.
NO TIME TO REST
Right after that, we got a break and got to clean our clothes and use a portable shower for the first time since we landed. We were supposed to rest a week, but after two days, they called us to join the 3rd Army at St-Lo. That’s when we broke out of Normandy and pushed deeper into France.
After that, we marched east to the Falaise Gap, where we trapped thousands of Germans in mid-August. But on a forced march one night, we got bombed. About eight men died, and 20 or 25 got wounded.
We’d just taken a break, lying down in the road, when we heard planes coming over. We didn’t know they were dropping bombs. All of a sudden I was bounced up in the air, and when I came down I knew I was wounded because blood was rushing down my leg. I had a bomb fragment inside my left thigh. They sent me off to a military hospital in Cherbourg.
The bomb fragment was the size of my thumbnail and had gone in about 9 inches. When the doctor pulled it out, I thought he was pulling my gut out. It tugged everything else. It felt like my belly button was attached. He finally got it out and said, ‘This is the first operation I’ve ever done, and I’d like to keep this as a souvenir.’ I said, ‘You can have it because I hope you never operate on me again!’
I got wounded a third time at Huertgen Forest on the Belgian-German border. One morning, I got up to go to the bathroom. I was in a sitting position in a trench and thought, ‘This is not a good place to be.’ I got out and got into another trench not far away when a mortar landed right where I’d been! But then another one came in and I was wounded in the right shin, right leg and both shoulders. A big piece of shrapnel was sticking out of my right leg about 2 inches. I still have a piece in my right arm.
They sent me to the American Hospital in Paris for about three weeks. I didn’t get out until November.
FLIGHT TO PARIS
I was going back to my unit in Belgium. I’m on a train, reading the Stars and Stripes, and I read that I’m getting the Medal of Honor. That was the first I knew of it.
I knew they had questioned my unit after we moved inland. They interviewed all the men in my squad. My company commander and platoon leader also wrote something. Each one gave a statement.
I got off the train and walked up to the command post. The battalion commander said, ‘Sergeant, what are you doing here?’
I said, ‘I’m reporting back to duty.’
He said, ‘You’re supposed to be back in the States getting a Medal of Honor from the president.’
I said, ‘Well, sir, I was just reading about it in the Stars and Stripes. I didn’t know I was getting it!’
At the press conference, reporters kept asking me, ‘How does it feel to kill Germans?’ I said, ‘I wasn’t killing Germans. I was killing the enemy.’ Then they asked, ‘Do you hate Germans?’ I said, ‘No. I don’t hate anybody.’
Two days later, they gave me a battlefield commission and promoted me to second lieutenant. That night, they put me up in a beautiful private home. I was only asleep two hours when I was awakened. The officer told me they had to get me out of there because they had captured some Germans in American uniforms behind our lines and that German paratroopers were being dropped in. They wanted me to get the Medal of Honor before I got killed. I said, ‘That’s OK with me.’
I went back that night in a Jeep. When I got to Paris, Gen. John C. H. Lee awarded me the Medal of Honor in the name of President Roosevelt on behalf of the Congress. That was Dec. 14, 1944.
SOLDIER TO THE END
From Paris I was put on a plane and came home to Manhattan, Kan., for a 30-day leave. They had a parade. They wrote about me in the paper. I got to have dinner one night at a Kansas State University sorority. It was the first time any man had dinner at their sorority. And I went to a basketball game. Then coming home to my family for Christmas was nice.
But hearing about the Battle of the Bulge on the radio was devastating. I knew I’d left my buddies there. I felt like I was deserting my company almost. These guys were fighting and getting killed while I was over here eating. People didn’t know how lucky they were here in the U.S.
I returned to finish out the war. I led a platoon across the Rhine River at Remagen Bridge. And I got wounded a fourth time when a soldier’s gun discharged as he was cleaning it. The bullet entered my right leg, clear up to my hipbone. I wound up in the hospital in Paris again.
Finally, on my 24th birthday – May 7, 1945 – I learned that the war was ending: Germany surrendered. We became an army of occupation, stationed in Schweinfurt.
In September, President Truman signed an executive order saying that anyone serving in the military with a Medal of Honor could request a discharge. I requested one. My battalion commander said, ‘You should stay. We have great plans for you!’ I said, ‘I know you have great plans for me, but I’m going to exercise my rights and take a discharge.’
I was discharged Oct. 16, 1945. Then I waited to catch a ship home. In January 1946, I came home on the Queen Elizabeth.
BUENA PARK • I used to have nightmares every night.
Nightmares about my brother coming home. He always showed up immaculately dressed and had that beautiful smile, and we'd talk. I'd go get something and come back, and he'd be gone. Then, I'd wake up.
These went on for 50 years.
I never saw Roland die. They just told me he was missing. He was killed on D-Day on a landing craft. I thought I'd accepted it, but I guess I hadn't.
Not until my speech on Omaha Beach for the 50th anniversary. That broke the cycle. My knees were trembling when I stood before the audience that day, with 14,000 vets and 17 heads of state.
But after that, the nightmares went away. I came to grips with his death. They say when you talk about something, you finally let it out. Well, I've been talking about the war ever since then.
YEARS OF LISTENING
I worked for the Veterans Administration about 30 years after the war. I interviewed vets, helped them with claims, explained insurance, loans, health benefits. I used to have veterans come in and say, 'If you were in a war like I was, you'd know what I'm talking about.' These were guys from World War II, Korea, even Vietnam. I'd just go along with them. I never talked about myself.
I worked for the VA 16 years before any of them knew I had the Medal of Honor. It wasn't anything to talk about.
Wars are complicated. I've talked with veterans from the Spanish-American War to the Persian Gulf, and I never found a vet who thought he was in a good war or a popular war. There's nothing popular about it when you're being shot at. When you are fighting, people are trying to kill you.
FAMILY OVER FAME
After I got out of the Army, I sold a German pistol for $35, and that got me to California.
When I got here, I went to the employment office. They wanted me to file for unemployment. I didn't come for unemployment. I came for a job.
I had a presidential letter that said anybody with the Medal of Honor could get a job at the VA. So, I got one. That was in September 1946, and I stayed until I retired.
In 1953, I was in the John Ford movie "The Long Gray Line," with Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara. I played a cadet at West Point along with John Wayne's son. I went to acting school for a few months, but they'd tell me how to act, and that's not me.
I met Dorothy at the Paramount Ice Rink. She was beautiful, with pretty little legs. We met in 1953 and married in 1955. We've been married 49 years and have three children and 11 grandchildren.
WEIGHT OF THE MEDAL
I always tried to live a clean life. I never smoked or drank. I enlisted when I was only 19 so I had to get my parents' signatures. My mother said she'd sign under one condition - that I promise to be good Christian soldier. 'I'll do my best,' I said, and she had tears in her eyes.
In the service, there were so many temptations. Every time I was tempted, I could see my mother's tears. I didn't want to dishonor her, and I didn't want to dishonor God. I'm not a saint or anything. I'll have a social drink, but never more than one.
I have a responsibility. People respect the Medal of Honor, and I have to live up to that. I wouldn't have it if not for the guys who sacrificed their lives. I'm representing them.
There are a lot of reasons why I have this Medal of Honor. One, of course, is because the men in my squad testified to what happened. Some said things I didn't even know happened, and my story might vary from theirs. I just say, 'This is the way I saw it.'
When you have something like this, you have to be yourself as much as you can, but not to carry on any bigheaded thing about it. After all, you're a recipient, not a winner.
On the other hand, it's one of the highest recognitions you can get in the U.S., so I'm very proud. A lot of men - dead and alive - did as much as I did, and their story never was told.
COSTS OF FREEDOM
The thing that really got me started telling my story was when I gave a speech at Omaha Beach in 1994 for the 50th anniversary. I got a call the Sunday before from the White House. They said, 'We heard you were coming to the D-Day ceremonies.' I said, 'Yes.' They said, 'Did you know you're going to be the main speaker at the French liberation ceremonies on June 6?' I said, 'No.' And he said, 'Well, do you have a speech ready?' I said, 'Of course not.' He said, 'Can you get one?' I said, 'I guess I can.'
He called back two days later, and asked, 'Is your speech ready?' I said, "Yeah.' He said, 'Well, fax us a copy.' So, that night, I sat down to write a speech. I called my daughter Cathy and said, 'I need help!' I'd written something on a yellow tablet. She teaches English at Cal State Fullerton, so she got her scissors out and fixed it up. I faxed it to the White House and that was it.
That's when I learned to speak. I figured if I could speak to kings and queens and 14,000 vets at one time, I ought to be able to speak to anyone. I've been a speaker from then on.
I go to three or four events a month. Why? People ask me to. I don't charge. I get a $600 a-month stipend from our government for the Medal of Honor, and I think I owe them. I like to talk to kids. I make the point that they should get as much education as possible. I also talk about having faith - in God and in one another.
I do it because I think our country needs to know as much as possible about our history - why we're a nation that people still want to come to. They die to get here, not get out. I let kids know about their freedom, that it doesn't come free. We have to fight for it.
A dirty bomb at a ballgame could kill 100,000 people at one time. That's something we should be concerned about and protect against, and that's what our troops are doing over in Iraq. They are fighting for the freedom of other people and to stop terrorism from invading the rest of the world.
MAKING OF A HERO
I wake up every morning and thank God for a new day. I appreciate what life has given me and is still giving me.
When I think back, getting those 12 men off the beach alive was the best thing I ever did in my life. And when I think forward, I hope to come back to this beach again - for the 70th anniversary. I'd just like to be here. Just to be alive.
I don't have many nightmares about Roland anymore. But I still can't talk about him without it bringing tears to my eyes. Maybe that's why I didn't talk about the war for so long. I felt like if we'd been together, that wouldn't have happened. But God sent us in different ways. He was a great soldier, a fantastic soldier, who got wounded in Sicily and died in Normandy.
He was my hero until the day he died. He still is.
© 2004, by Orange County Register
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