Aaron Elson: Where did you land?
Chuck Hurlbut: Wales. Bristol Channel.
Aaron Elson: When they [the 712th Tank Battalion] went they landed in Scotland. So you probably went over after they did. But what a coincidence!
Chuck Hurlbut: So were on the ship. We go out, I dont know, five or six miles, we get a lot of other ships. Then the convoy is formed with destroyers, battleships, we formed a convoy and took off. And on the ship, it seemed like one continuous chow line. You never had a great appetite; the seasickness and nausea affected everybody. But youd go down in the galley the fumes were unbelievable. Youd get some breakfast, probably eggs, stuff like that. Then youd go back up on deck. By the time you got back on deck it was time to get back on line for lunch. And lunch was usually an apple, a sandwich, something cold like that. Now were going to chow. Evening chow. It was one continuous chow line. But there were times you could read books, play cards, poker. Some of the guys had some crap games going. And we had a limited amount of calisthenics. The officers would get us together and wed do plane identification. Theyd show us silhouettes of enemy planes wed have to identify. But it was pretty flexible. 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. Thats scary. Youre out in the middle of the Atlantic. Everybody put on a life jacket. You all get up on deck, and its dark as hell. There was no moon that night. And you just wait. Because you dont know what the hells happening. But we hear pretty soon that some of our destroyers found the sub, they depth bombed and they got 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 they put on an interfaith service up on deck. The Navy guys, the Army guys, they all were together. It was a simple service, just straightforward. But the setting: The ocean. The ships. A beautiful day. Its the most memorable, meaningful religious service Ive ever attended. Im not that big a religious guy, but that really got me.
Then we went on to the Irish Sea, the convoy broke up, and we proceeded toward the Bristol Channel, which is in northern Wales. All of a sudden British planes come out to greet us. And they dive, hello, hello. They escorted us up the Bristol Channel to Cardiff, which is where we disembarked. There were some complications and we had to spend the night on the ship. The next day we got off, and it felt so good to walk on land again, after ten days. Just to walk on land.
Aaron Elson: Had you gotten seasick?
Chuck Hurlbut: Not too bad. I didnt feel great. Everybody felt queasy. Some guys were miserable. And they spent a lot of time on the rail. We learned you always go upwind, so a lot of guys really felt it. I heard that one guy spent the whole trip in his bunk. He got sick in New York Harbor and never got out of his bunk.
So were at Cardiff and get off the ship, and just to walk on land was such a thrill. And we had to go from there to a railroad station. Were all marching through the city, and all along the way theres English people, theyve got little flags and theyre waving the flags, "Hi, Americans!" If you had chewing gum youd throw it, and all this stuff.
And I said, Jesus, this is our first public appearance. We never had a parade. And its going pretty good. So that made you feel 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 just permeated the air because all their little stoves were fed by charcoal, and it almost knocked you out. It was so strange to us. But we had hot showers, we had nice beds, all warm, a safe place to be. That felt good. But at Ilfracombe we went right back into training. I think the camp was Camp Braunton. We took a day to rest up, and 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 I think, to a camp called D-2. And this is where we heard all the news. We knew there was going to be an invasion but we didnt know where or when. This is when they started giving us the details. They assembled us all, and a lot of big wheel brass officers were up front, and they told us about the invasion. Wed 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. Were ready to go. Blah blah blah. And we want you to know that the 299th has been selected to be one of the forces to be in the invasion.
Aaron Elson: Who said this?
Chuck Hurlbut: Some big general. Big brass up front was telling us all the details. "The 299th has been selected to be part of this great crusade." In fact, were gonna be right in the front row. Well, it was received with 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 its coming soon, weve been selected, its gonna happen. Everybody felt relieved to know what was going to happen. We still didnt know when or where.
Aaron Elson: Up to this point, had you done any practice with live mines or ammunition?
Chuck Hurlbut: Mines? No. Live ammunition, way back in the States we went through a drill where you crawl on your belly and youre under barbed wire and the guys are firing machine gun bullets at you.
Aaron Elson: Were there any accidents?
Chuck Hurlbut: One of our guys stood up. Miraculously, he escaped any fire, but we got severely reprimanded. So we had that with live ammunition. And then just to make it more realistic, theyd plant charges all around, and theyd go, Psssheew, Psssheew! It was quite an ordeal. But to come back to Camp D-2, we were restricted, very secret. No passes. Nobody left the camp. But they treated us like royalty. Movies. Continuous movies, first-rate movies. Food. Unbelievable food. Ice cream. Candy. Cigarettes. Whatever you wanted was there. Treated like, oh God, and we realized that, hey, we took full advantage of it, they were just fattening us up for the kill.
Aaron Elson: Did people say that?
Chuck Hurlbut: No, but that was the attitude. That was the feeling. We knew why all this special treatment was going on that, hey, its the least we could do for you. Youre going on a suicide mission. And a lot of guys thought it was suicide. A lot of guys had deep, deep anxiety feelings about it, 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, its not that bad. Come on."
Aaron Elson: How would they show the depression?
Chuck Hurlbut: Oh, theyd just get dejected, they wouldnt sleep. You could tell by looking at them, that they had a hopeless feeling among them. So I went around to guys to try to, bravado, you know, try to cheer them up. And I think what I was doing was relieving my own anxieties, getting them out of me. But I was just as scared and anxious as they were.
Okay, so we leave that place and we go down to Weymouth, which is our port of embarcation, right on the Channel coast. Southern England. And this place is a madhouse. On the way down, there were acres and acres and acres of every piece of military equipment you could describe, tanks, cans. Guns. Everything was stockpiled all over, mile after mile after mile. And we had to think, do you realize that 98 percent of this came from the United States, came across the Atlantic Ocean? Jesus, it was unbelievable to think that and we get 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 jam-packed. Youve heard of traffic jams, this was one, 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 that had been converted, the Princess Maude. What a name! We laughed and laughed at the name, the Princess Maude, this was gonna be our boat. It was a small boat. By the time we got on there, with all of our gear, there was no place to move. There was no room for calisthenics. There was no room to do anything. 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 darn boat kept rocking. Its in the harbor now, and its rocking, rocking, rocking. And half the guys who got seasick coming over, it all came back. It got worse.
Aaron Elson: Wasnt there a big storm, and they delayed the invasion?
Chuck Hurlbut: Yes. We had a lot of briefings at D-2, thats when we learned that D-Day would be June 5th. So were all geared up for it. Weve got our attitude all set, your feelings, okay, now I know and I can adjust to that. So we get to Weymouth and were on our boat and were ready to go. And all of a sudden they announce that its been delayed 24 hours. That means weve got to spend another day on this rocking, crazy boat. Oh, that was awful. And the guys get sicker and sicker.
But one great thing, one of our guys this is an English crew, they had a galley and one of our guys, I dont know how he did it but he convinced the bakery people to give him a loaf of bread. I guess we were there two nights. Each night hed come into our quarters with twoor three big loaves of bread. No butter. But the hot, baked bread, its just like cake. That was the high point of those particular days. At midnight wed get a big chew of bread. Nobody ever questioned him how he did it. And nobody ever found out because he was killed on D-Day.
Back at 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 tetrahydrines, the hedgehogs, the Belgian gates, the poles, that were all along the beach.
Our mission was to clear paths through those, get them out of the way so the rest of the troops could get in. And we felt pretty confident we could do it, because thats what we had trained for. And then they delayed it one day. So we had to go through the agonizing ordeal of staying on this boat.
We left Weymouth, because the next day would be D-Day, June 6th. So we get way out there, and all of a sudden thousands and hundreds of ships are all around us. We are at what they call Piccadilly Circus, that was the big congregation point. I cant describe the numbers, all sizes, shapes, everything you want were all there milling about. And finally they were directed to go their various ways. We set off.
We arrived at a rendezvous point probably 10 or 12 miles off of Omaha Beach, around 12 oclock that night, and we stopped. We knew wed reached our rendezvous point.
All the way over it was very choppy, very rough, and the guys who were sick were getting sicker; other guys were now getting sick. The officers said, "Get some sleep." You couldnt sleep. Youd go to your bunk and all you could think about was what was going to happen tomorrow.
They gave us a hell of a good breakfast. This is the British crew. Whatever you wanted they would do. Eggs sunnyside up, down, omelets, whatever you wanted, they did it. Coffee. Tons of coffee. A bunch of us went into a little room off to the side; were sitting there talking, about everything, and two or three officers walked by, and they looked in. "Can we join you?" These were officers. Were all Pfc, privates, corporals. And the officers joined us, and you would never know they were officers. They joined in, and we just talked. We talked about movies. Automobiles. Sweethearts. Grandkids. Kids at home. Anything but war. We spent a good hour just bullshitting there, back and forth. There was never a feeling that that guys an officer. And I left there with the feeling that, Jesus, those guys, theyve got to lead us tomorrow. And they needed this little session just as much as we did. It helped them. It relieved a lot of tension on their part.
Then, of course, we were supposed to go to sleep, but you couldnt. 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, hundreds of boats. 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. I guess we tried to go to our bunks and sleep a little bit. You couldnt sleep. We lay there and we thought of home. And we heard the airplanes going over to drop the guys in the 82nd and 101st 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, those of us who felt like it. An awful lot of guys didnt show up for breakfast, and this is where they made whatever you wanted, the whole business. And I ate two orders of custard pudding. I ate very well. But a lot of guys didnt show up. I always thought, maybe they think this is the Last Supper, and they didnt want to be part of it.
Then its time to get ready. The first thing you do is hit the head. Its called a head on a ship, the bathroom. And guys start shaving, start combing their hair. One guys putting on cologne. Youd think we were going on a weekend pass. These guys are getting all sharpened up. I and a lot of my buddies had a goatee, so we spent several minutes making sure that was just right. Now, I cant cant believe it, the trouble and detail we went through. Shaving. Underarms. Showering.
Then you put your stuff on. We all had new ODs on. I think we had long johns. I wont swear to that. I think we had long johns, ODs, a field jacket. And then they gave us these impregnated coveralls; they were so stiff and unwieldy they could almost stand up by themselves. But 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, you had your gas mask, a bandolier of bullets crosswise. 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.
Oh, and your backpack, which had your mess kit, your shovel, your incidentals.
Theres about fifty, sixty pounds of stuff. And youre supposed to go in there and be agile.
Okay. So Im sitting there thinking about it; Ive got a few minutes. I pull out some photographs of my family, and Im looking at them. And Ive got Eisenhowers letter that he sent out to all the kids, I read that again.
Im looking at this stuff and my buddy comes up behind me. He was a good buddy. Wed been through a lot together. And he opens his stuff. He had on the ugliest, gaudiest, most outlandish necktie I ever saw in my life. Unbelievable, I cant describe the colors.
He was quite a character anyway. I guess his friends or somebody sent it to him, and he was going to wear it on D-Day. What the hell, they couldnt stop him now. So we laughed about that, chuckled a bit, and we thought about all the things we went through, and what were gonna go through together. We planned a trip, what were gonna do when we hit Paris.
And then we get an order to get on deck. So we throw our arms around each other. You cant walk with this suit on and all this stuff, so we waddle up to the deck. We get up there, and all the guys were assembled, were going over the side.
And were kidding each other, were cracking jokes. "Make sure you tell my mother this." "If I dont see you again." All that sort of stuff.
Then we go over the railing and we go down the cargo net, which is the big rope thing you put down. The waters real, real choppy. And the LCVP, our assault craft, which were 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. Im halfway down, and the goddamn net goes up, Im laying spreadeagled, and Im looking at all this angry water down there. But I made it down. Everybody made it down okay, I dont think anybody was hurt coming down the net. And we get into our assault craft.
Chuck Hurlbut: Right in the middle of the assault craft is a rubber raft full of all our explosives. So all the guys line up all around it.
We get loaded up, and Im pretty sure they were Coast Guard guys, the coxswain and his assistant. He takes off and he goes to another rendezvous point, and he circles and circles and circles, waiting for other craft so they can all go at once. And all the time boats are zipping in and out. You couldnt hear what they were saying, but you could hear the bullhorn. They were saying, "Boat A, you get over in line, Line A, boat back," and all this crazy stuff.
Pretty soon they had a bunch of boats all lined up. And timing was crucial, so they had to wait for the right timing. Were 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 Im saying its about 4 oclock in the morning, roughly.
And all of a sudden, vroom, vroom, vroom, we take off, a big line of assault craft.
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 cant make them out. You holler at each other, but you cant hear anything. So we all take off.
And its a very choppy sea. These LCVPs are not huge boats. So were going, but the speed of the boat seemed to lessen the rockiness of it. The waves just washed all over; within ten minutes, the waters just below your knees, the boat is full of water. Guys have started to vomit. Thats floating all over the water. And on the way in, you realize that half of these guys, theyve 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 theyre just not up to par for what theyve got to do. But somehow I felt pretty good through it, I was all right. And my buddy was up ahead of me; he turned around, he flashed the necktie again, and I gave him a thumbs-up.
Aaron Elson: What was his name?
Chuck Hurlbut: Tom Legacy, from Niagara Falls.
Oh, and as we started, all the battleships opened up with their big guns. You never heard noise like that in your life. Unbelievable noise. They were shooting all over.
Prior to that, we had heard the bombers. Theyre supposed to bomb the beach. And as we get closer we can see the fighter planes strafing the beach. And on the way in we pass a rocket ship, a big flat affair loaded with rockets, phshoo, phshoo, phshoo, phshoo, phshoo. We had seen rockets back in Florida, but nothing compared to this. And as you go in, you see the rockets, the Naval guns, the planes. How the hell could anything live through what theyre getting? Its going to be a piece of cake. Therell be nothing alive there. No one, nothing could live through that. So that made you feel pretty good. And wed been promised way back in England, therell be so many craters on this beach, and all youve got to do is jump into a crater, youll be protected. Theyll be all over the beach. So we felt pretty good, when we saw the bombers, the shelling, the rockets. We also passed an LCMP, the one that carries the tanks, loaded with tanks. And 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. Youd think theyd know something was wrong. Second one. Blooop. Three or four went down like that. And were right alongside of it. All of a sudden the guys come bobbing up, fighting for breath and air, theyre like corks in the water. Youd think we could stop and pick them up. Nope. We had a mission. Theyre yelling and screaming; that was awful. We had to go right by them, and leave all these guys just bobbing around in the water. I hope they were rescued. I dont really know, but I thought, "Hey, I guess this is war. Theres no time for compassion. Weve got a mission, and nothing can interfere." Boy, that hurt.
Aaron Elson: You actually saw the tanks go straight down?
Chuck Hurlbut: They just disappeared. Somebody got all confused. Some of those assault landing craft skippers got scared or something. This is close enough. You guys can make it. Theres been incidents where an officer had to hold a pistol to the guys head to make them go in, where the guys could live. Theres cases of guys were left in water over their head, with all this equipment. There were many, many instances of that, where the skipper didnt do right. Got confused or some damn thing, but letting these tanks out in this deep water was crazy, they werent made for that. They were made to go into normal depth water. Because on the British sector they worked, they were fabulous when they were used right, but they were misused on Omaha Beach.
Okay, so now were getting in there; the officer up front, hes going crazy. Hes standing by the ramp looking for landmarks, and on the way in we could see fires up in the bluffs, grass fires, our shells made them. Nothing was moving on the beach. You didnt see a single soul, nobody. And youre thinking, "Gee, with all this artillery, and all this shelling, and all this bombing, and nothing out there, this is a piece of cake."
But as we get near, I could see the officer up front, hes looking at his map, then looking out, looking at his map, and hes swearing like hell, and we could hear the rumors come back, "Were in the wrong goddamn place." And this was true of almost every craft in the whole operation. They didnt estimate how strong a tidal current there was, and everybody went left, which would be east, of where they were supposed to land. So when they landed, there were none of the landmarks; they werent where they were supposed to be. And that was our case too. We were supposed to land up on Easy Red, that was our beach, and I think we landed up on Fox, which was the next one over. But when you land, wherever you land, theres these obstacles, so what the hell, one obstacles just like another, so you went to work on whatever was in front of you. Supposedly.
Everythings nice and quiet, then all of a sudden, ping, ping, ping, ping, brrrrrr, on the ramp, we could hear the machine guns hitting. Somethings going wrong.
We dropped the ramp. To my knowledge, we all got off the craft okay. But thereafter it was devastation. Jesus, guys started dropping and screaming all around you.
Somehow the rubber raft got off, and it was right behind me. This is all explosives. I grabbed the tow rope, and I said, hey, Ill get it in there where we can use it. I threw it over my shoulder and started pulling.
All of a sudden I feel it get heavier. I look around, theres three bodies of guys that were thrown in. Two were face down, I dont know who they were. One was face up. I knew who he was.
So I kept pulling. And then all of a sudden, BOOM! A mortar came over and it hit the raft, and it just went all over. It hit all our demolition stuff. I was knocked head over heels. I guess 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 minutes 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.
Aaron Elson: Who was the one guy that you knew?
Chuck Hurlbut: He was named Charles Burt. I forget where he was from; he was from New York State. Im pretty sure I know who the other two were, but I dont want to say because I cant prove it. Ill never be able to prove it. But in my heart I think I know who they were.
Aaron Elson: If you ventured a guess
Chuck Hurlbut: I think it was my good buddies from Auburn, Johnny Spinelli and Vince DeAngelis. I cant swear to that. They were never found. Theyre on the Wall of Missing. And it ties in to this, their whole bodies would have been destroyed. Thats 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, "Weve lost our explosives. We dont have any men. Its now 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, you go from one obstacle, run to another, and on the way I come across this guy laying and moaning in the water. The full tide isnt in yet; hes just being washed with the waves. And I sort of stumble over, and I look at him. Jesus Christ, a buddy. One of my pals. I could see his legs had really got it. I could see the raw bone through the flesh. Especially one leg. The other had been hit, but this leg was really bad.
If I left him there he was gonna drown. So Im a little guy, and he was a pretty big guy. I knew I could never lift him and carry him in. So I tried everything I could think of. And I finally 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, 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, snipers, machine guns all around, maybe hell see us and take pity, heres a guy trying to save another, maybe hell let us go. There are other, more important targets. And it worked, because nobody shot at us.
But all of a sudden, rumbling up the side, here comes a tank. From where, I dont know. A small tank. The guy up in the turret, he looks down, I didnt even have to say anything. He saw my predicament. He dropped down. He said, "Youre in trouble, buddy," or something. I forget, but he grabbed an arm and I grabbed an arm, and we dragged him up to the dune. And then the tanker said something like "Good luck. Take it easy." And he rushed back to the tank. I dont know his name. I dont even know what tank outfit he was in. Whatever tank outfit came in at D-Day on H-hour, one of the first ones. Sonofagun. He helped me bring him up to the dune.
Aaron Elson: And what was the name of the wounded man?
Chuck Hurlbut: Joe Nokovic. Buffalo, New York. And I never saw Joe again. He never came to our reunions. He never got in touch. Because when I found him, he was out of it. I dont think he even knew who I was. Or what happened. But Ive heard that he lost the leg, and he ended up a truck driver, do you believe that? A truck driver. Hes still alive as far as I know. But he lost the leg.
So I got him up on the dune. I looked around; I said this guy needs a medic. We all had a sulfa pack. I gave him what I could, and I didnt know where the hell to put it. I just sprinkled it all around.
Aaron Elson: This was his left leg?
Chuck Hurlbut: I think it was. So I just dumped the sulfa all over the place. I finally was able to attract a medic over and he looked at him. I think he gave him an injection of morphine. He said, "Theres not much I can do for this guy. But leave him here, because were gonna have an aid station and were gonna send these guys out to the ship very, very soon."
So I took his advice and I said, "Joe, God bless you," and all this stuff. He was not aware of what was going on. Evidently the medic was able to get him to a ship.
But Ive made the dune now. Im 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 youre sitting in the dune and youre 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 dont like it. And all the beautiful plans we had made and practiced, all gone for naught. All confused, chaos.
Aaron Elson: Were you in shock, or how did you regroup?
Chuck Hurlbut: I guess I had to be in shock, yeah. Numb. Unbelievable, what was happening. This is not the way it was supposed to be, so you had no way of coping with it. This is a whole different ballgame, this isnt the way we trained, or scheduled. So that affected you, you didnt know what to do, you had no leaders, no nothing. Just pure chaos. And then you see all these dead guys, buddies. Thats hard to cope with, the first time, to see death. I dont care who you are. And when youre a close personal friend, boy, it hurts. It get you. It upsets your whole, whatever you, you thought you were tough, brave and gung-ho, boy, it gets you.
I said to myself, "Im all alone now," where I brought Joe up to the dune, were all alone. 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 theyd see a wounded buddy, theyd run down in the tide [clapping his hands], theyd get it. So once I got the medic and I felt Joe was taken care of, I said this is no good, Ive got to try to find some of my people. I suppose weve got to get organized here. Im sure were going to go back out and remove those obstacles when the tide goes out.
While Im 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, I know this guy. And he turned toward me and looked at me, and through all that gore and all that tattered clothing, I saw the tie.
I dont think he knew who I was or anything. I wanted to cry out to him; I couldnt. I didnt have any voice. I was frozen. I couldnt move out. He just staggered away.
Aaron Elson: He didnt recognize you?
Chuck Hurlbut: I dont think so. Ill never know.
Aaron Elson: But he was listed as killed?
Chuck Hurlbut: Hes gone. Yeah. Aw, Jesus. Its funny. I never wanted to be a soldier. It was the last thing in my life I would have wanted to be. But like I told you, Pearl Harbor changed my opinion. It was a lot of fun, these exercises, these hikes. Hey, a great bunch of guys, having fun. I didnt know what being a soldier was until that day.
I looked down to the east, and there was a Red Cross flag, which designated a hospital station, and there seemed to be a lot of people moving around. So I said, "Ill try for there. Maybe Ill find some people."
There was a tank not too far away. I ran and made it to the tank. Its all burned out, smoke coming out of it. I hope those guys werent inside. I hope they got out okay. So I stayed by the tank awhile, had a cigarette. And it gave me another chance to look out at all this confusion, chaos, devastation. And I said, okay, now Im going to try Well, as you went east, the sand dune got less and less and less, it ran out to nothing. So theres a big open stretch I had to get across. I said, well, Ill just take the chance. So I weave, duck. There is a shingle on the beach, which is where through the centuries, all the pebbles and stones that have been washed up, they called it a shingle. Its not high. Its only high enough that you can lay down behind it. So I stuck with the shingle. Id run, then Id drop down, run a little more.
Finally I reached this aid station, and the aid station was behind some pretty good cliffs, they must have been a hundred, a hundred fifty feet high. Thats at the far east end of the beach. And hundreds of guys were there. Confused, disarrayed, disorganized. Theyd lost their leaders. They were wounded. But down in the flat area were stretchers, stretchers, 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. And I went in among these stretchers. It seemed like every third guy was one of my buddies. Now I know why I hadnt found any of my pals back there, theyre all here. Jesus, that hurt. And every one took my hand, some of them didnt know what they were doing but some of them did. "You tell my wife," "You tell my mother," and all this. It seemed like every third one was somebody I knew.
Aaron Elson: How badly were they wounded?
Chuck Hurlbut: Well, bad. Mostly stomach wounds. Leg wounds. As far as I know all of those guys made it back to England. The guys that we lost were killed instantly, back there. But these guys that were wounded, I think they made it. They suffered, but they made it.
Now I started looking for a rifle. The thought in my mind was, "Im gonna catch hell. I lost my rifle." You know, Army discipline. Im gonna catch hell for this, Id better get a rifle. And I said, every rifle has a serial number, youre assigned, how am I gonna fudge that? I didnt worry. Ill 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, like all of them. So I spent a few minutes disassembling and cleaning it. And all of a sudden I spotted some of my buddies over there, and I went over and got together with them. And we all agreed that things had gone crazy. But we were engineers, and sure enough, were gonna have to go out there in the afternoon and do the job that wed failed to do in the morning, so we stuck around. We had no orders to go inland. Our duty was to do that job and that was it.
So thats what we did. And later that afternoon some engineer officers came by, they said "Any engineers here?" They sort of organized us. By that time they had a couple of bulldozers in. We would remove some mines, but the bulldozers did most of the job. And wed blow up the obstacles. Wed build a fire in the hole, wed send up a flare to let the troops know. We cleared a big, big, stretch of the beach.
Aaron Elson: Was it still under fire?
Chuck Hurlbut: Oh yeah, snipers. Machine guns. Mortars. Once in a while a shell. Because this area down there had the Red Cross flag, it didnt receive a lot of shelling. They were acknowledging that its a medical station. But once in a while one would come in. And we think that what really saved us one of my buddies wrote quite an article on this was the destroyers came in so close, we wondered how the hell they werent stranded on the sand, but 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, boy, theyd come in, theyd go like this, bang bang bang bang bang, and theyd reverse, bang bang bang bang bang. They knocked out those critical pillboxes that were really devastating the beach. And my friend and I agree with him wrote that if it wasnt for the destroyers, we may never have made it. They played such a vital part eliminating that resistance. Because at 11 oclock, we heard later that Bradleys out on the command ship, they were gonna call this off, boys, well go down to Utah where things were going much better. They were gonna leave us like Dunkirk. And I can remember I envisioned a hundred Panzer tanks coming over the bluffs with about a thousand screaming SS troopers right behind them, and were annihilated. Where could we go, into the water? I remember envisioning that, feeling that.
But all of a sudden, a guy here, a guy there, a sergeant here, "Come on guys, lets go get them." He started up. They got these snipers along the way. They blew out a pillbox. About 1 oclock, 1:30, Ill never forget it, 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, were the heroes, boy. They lacked the leadership but they had that initiative, the soldier quality, that said, "Were not gonna die here. Lets go get these guys." Little squads here, and all up through there, they finally got to the top.
And then things got better. Because it was a traffic jam on the beach. Nothing could come in. The tide was coming in, and that restricted your beach area, where they could land. Things were getting pretty bad. At one time they stopped all the landings until we could clear space for them to do it. Nothing was moving.
Aaron Elson: You had to do that with the bulldozer?
Chuck Hurlbut: Well, that helped, when we cleared that passageway, certainly. That was one of the big problems, that nothing was coming in to follow up and go. Everything was restricted right to the beach area. We werent moving up the bluffs like we were supposed to. Thats what the infantry was supposed to have done. They didnt make it, until these little detachments, little squads, here and there got together, this group and that group. And then we were able to get some tanks in there. 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 to Calais. He thought this was a ploy. Thank God for that.
Aaron Elson: When did you see your first dead German?
Chuck Hurlbut: Probably on the beach, up in the bluffs. Later on, I saw hundreds of them, in the trenches around the pillboxes. And the funny thing, they took a lot of prisoners there, too. They were all young guys. And they werent true Germans; they were Russians, Poles, slave labor guys. Who I think, they did their duty as long as a German officer was there to shoot, shoot, shoot. But when the German officer went away they were just, I truly believe that, they didnt want to shoot for him, or kill us. Very often when they surrendered, "Me Pole, Me Pole," or "Me Russian. Me Russian." Make sure that you knew that they werent German, they were forced to do it. And a lot of young kids, a lot of young boys.
Aaron Elson: What did you think when you saw that, younger than you even?
Chuck Hurlbut: Yeah. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. You wonder. Boy, he must be hard up if hes using kids to fight. And how can kids do this? I had a lot of funny feelings.
Aaron Elson: When you picked up that rifle with somebody elses serial number on it, did you use it?
Chuck Hurlbut: Nope. Well, Ill go back to when I got off the boat. The moment the ramp dropped. I get off. First thing I do was take my rifle off. Pow! At a pillbox. Why? The craziest thing in the world. I still dont know why I did that. It was an impulse. I cant explain it. I did that. Thats the only shot I fired all day.
Aaron Elson: Did you have any thoughts that evening, once things quieted down did things quiet down?
Chuck Hurlbut: Oh, the evening. Well, that afternoon we went back out and we blew the obstacles. And then there were two or three of us from the same outfit; we said, "Weve got to get with our own people. So lets start looking for them." So we started down the beach, and sonofagun, 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 up in the bluff, never thought about mines. And soon there was a pretty big group of our guys assembling up there, some officers and whatnot. They told us, "Weve taken a pretty bad beating. Well talk about it in the morning. Tonight just try to dig in right up here. Stay close." That was about it. So we went and dug a foxhole or you found a ravine, whatever you could, and tried to grit the night out. Youd lay down, but you couldnt sleep. Because the infantry was still moving up. Tanks were still moving up. There was a lot of commotion going. Down on the beach, they were still unloading stuff. You were so excited and revved up that you couldnt sleep.
Later that evening, a couple of German planes came over. I dont think they strafed a bit. They were reconnaissance more or less. Well, out in the harbor, ten thousand boats, every one of them opened up. It looked like the Fourth of July. I dont 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. Oh, and during the evening somebody hollered, "Gas!" Well, that shook everybody up. Gas, thats the worst word in the war.
Aaron Elson: Did you still have a gas mask at that point?
Chuck Hurlbut: I did. But I heard guys crying, "I dont have a gas mask!" A lot of them went down to the beach, 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 wouldnt be around today. It was bad for 15 or 20 minutes. Finally, the infantrys coming up this trail not far away from us, theyre looking at us with all our gas masks, and theyre laughing. And you felt like a goddamn fool.
Aaron Elson: When did you finally get to sleep?
Chuck Hurlbut: I dont think we did that night. We tossed and turned, tossed and turned, youre talking to your buddies, sleep is the last thing on your mind. Youve been up for what, now, 24 hours?
Aaron Elson: Did you at some point think, my life will never be the same?
Chuck Hurlbut: I guess that went through your mind, sure. 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. This is pretty rough stuff. A lot of the craziness, attitude, gung-ho, this is serious stuff. Im sure everybody felt that. I guess it hit that so many of your buddies were no longer with you. Thats serious.
After that night, the next morning we were assembled and the colonel told us how many we 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, all over the place, so certain sections were sent to clear roadways through these minefields. Thankfully I didnt get that. Thats the worst detail in the world, mines.
Aaron Elson: Did anybody get blown up from your outfit?
Chuck Hurlbut: Nobody was killed, but we had three or four wounded. One guy lost his fingers. Thats what mines do. They maim you. They might not kill you, but they maim you. Horrible. Theyre trying to outlaw them now. And the Germans were experts at mines. They are the worlds best.
They came up with a plastic mine. We had mine detectors to detect metal. Now theyre plastic, the mine detectors no good. And they had trick wires. Thisll be a dead mine. If you detonate this, you put off those. All kinds of tricks. And boobytraps. Because GIs, they seem to want to get souvenirs, loot, thats an American instinct, and they forget to be cautious. We lost a lot of guys because of that. Theyll boobytrap their own dead. You want his helmet? It could be boobytrapped.
Aaron Elson: did you see any of that?
Chuck Hurlbut: No, but I heard many, many instances. They would boobytrap their own dead. And they were so good at it. They had the bouncing betty, thats the mine you step on, it gets you right here [in the groin].
One day Im going along, and theres a shoe. I kicked it out of the way. Theres a foot in it. A human foot in the shoe.
Aaron Elson: That must have been a sickening sight.
Chuck Hurlbut: I cant tell you what war is. You wouldnt believe how men, were supposed to be human beings, civilized.
On the beach, it was unbelievable. Youd see bodies crushed by tanks. The tanker cant see, and hes literally running right over guys. I hope they were dead when he did it, oh, I can remember dozens and dozens of cases. You walk along, theres two big tank tracks, and the guys embedded right in the sand. Maybe the guy was wounded, he couldnt move. I dont blame the tank. Theyre up there, they cant see, theyve got to maneuver, but that happened so, so many times. Thats a pretty gruesome sight the next day, to see that.
Aaron Elson: Did you have to clear the bodies, or just debris?
Chuck Hurlbut: No bodies. They had a graves registration unit.
Aaron Elson: That must have been a hell of a job.
Chuck Hurlbut: Oh, what a duty that was. Ive seen guys with arms full of arms, arms filled with legs, carrying them of 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 and all, they reclaimed and went through it, and theyre all up in the cemetery. But at that time, you cant leave a body, the stench, the disease, it causes bad effects. Youve got to bury bodies as soon as possible, and thats what they did. But what duty that must be, to pick those guys up, the pieces of them.
Aaron Elson: Ive never had to deal with anything like this, but I see on TV, theres an airplane crash, and the first thing they do is bring in counseling for the people who have to go to the scene. You didnt have anything like that, did you?
Chuck Hurlbut: No. You just took it, absorbed it. Nobody says what to do about it. You had to fight it out yourself. Some guys did, some guys didnt. And it always remains in your mind. Any veteran who has seen combat wonders, wonders, wonders, why me? Why was he killed, why did I survive? Its a question you cant answer. Theres no answer to that. But it bothers you. Why the hell did they shoot him and I was spared? Ive tried to appreciate it that I made it okay, and Ive tried to say, well, Ill do my best to memorize those guys. Maybe thats why I was spared.
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