©2014, Aaron Elson
Aaron Elson: Did you do practice landings?
Mike McKinney: Not in England. We started practice landings when I was in Fort Jay. I guess we were tagged then as a first wave force way back in 1940. I don’t know if you ever saw a longboat, they called it. I think it was six on each side; it was pretty wide, to seat two, and it was long enough for six guys with oars, and each had an oarlock, a long oar, and they would stroke like the crew on a regatta going down the River Thames. Pull out into the harbor and turn around and go towards shore. Hop out of the boat, and carry on. I guess that was our first start with landing maneuvers. We went down to Camp Blanding just for that purpose, nice warm beaches and water. And again we were on a troop transport, we’d practice getting off the transport into the small boats, circling around, off the boat, until they all get ready, then form up a line and row and head towards shore. Up in Fort Devens, we went over to Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, and we did the same thing. We’d get on the transport up in Devens, you’re on the transport, get into the boat, climb down the net – there was a certain way you had to do it; the first couple of guys down would get into the landing craft and hold onto the net and pull it away from the side of the ship, and you’d have to practice jumping from the net into the boat because the waves were going up and down. If you tried to jump when the boat was going down, you’re going to go a little further and hurt something, so there was a knack to it. You had to hit the boat when it’s coming up. Those are things we used to practice, and then we’d practice hopping off the boat and going in to the beach, and just getting used to it. I spent more time on ships than a lot of guys in the Navy. So yes, we did have practice landings. We didn’t need to do it when we went to Weymouth, but we knew what our targets were going to be on D-Day. We didn’t know where, of course, but we knew what. G-2 had information about what was on the beach. They told us how thick the concrete on the pillboxes was. What they were gonna look like; they had slits for firing holes, machine guns would fire through these little portholes, and our job was to make them close up the slits so that we could get close, put the satchel charges against the slits and the metal doors that they had, blow them, hope that the concussion would hurt them, allow the flamethrower to get close to the slit and pour some flame in there and incapacitate them. We had to practice all that stuff in England. That’s what we did constantly, other than keep in shape. We would get up in the morning and jog two or three miles down the country lanes. There was a sand table, you could put the figures and the men in there or tanks or guns or whatever. That was basically what we did in England before we landed. We got back to England from Sicily in the winter of ’43.
Aaron Elson: So you had about five or six months there?
Mike McKinney: To practice getting ready for D-Day. We knew we were gonna be in the first wave. We knew there’s gonna be nobody on the beach but us. We knew that our company was gonna lead the battalion. The battalion was gonna lead the regiment. And our regiment was gonna lead the division. And my section was gonna lead the company. I was gonna be the first guy that landed on, because we were coming in one behind the other, not one beside the other, because we had a narrow landing spot. They had so much coming in on the beach. Our pillbox was supposed to be right up there in front of us.
Aaron Elson: Did they promise you there would be craters on the beach?
Mike McKinney: They said the beach was going to get bombed by the Air Force. They said the destroyers were gonna move in close and shell that beach. And they told us the big ships out in the channel were going to throw stuff on that beach. They told us you’d probably be able to walk in there unmolested.
There wasn’t a hole on that beach. Not one did I see. Not a bomb. That barbed wire was still there. Everything was still there. And I said, "You sons of bitches!"
Aaron Elson: How did you cross the Channel?
Mike McKinney: In a troop transport. We boarded it in Weymouth.
Aaron Elson: And what was the mood of the troops?
Mike McKinney: Calm. Relaxed. Quiet.
Aaron Elson: In the documentaries, they call it the Western Wall. Did you have any sense that this was something that was so heavily defended?
Mike McKinney: Impenetrable?
Aaron Elson: Yes.
Mike McKinney: I figured it was gonna be tough. But I figured with all that stuff the Navy was gonna do and the Air Force was gonna do, that it would not be that hard. But I knew it would be tough. And I figured once we got inland, we could maybe take care of ourselves with the backup we had. I knew the Air Force was far superior to the Luftwaffe. I knew that the Luftwaffe was on its last legs from what I was reading, and the opposition that they were getting flying over Germany, the Air Force wasn’t getting any fight from the Germans. I knew it was gonna be tough, but I also knew it was gonna be the last fight of the war, the last big fight addressing all of the drudgery of ground fighting, dig a hole, get up, walk ten miles, dig another hole and get up, walk another ten miles, dig another hole. But I knew it was the beginning of the end, so that was what I looked at.
Aaron Elson: Was there something comforting about that?
Mike McKinney: To me there was. I wasn’t worried about anybody else. I was worried about myself. Of course, I had to worry about the guys I was in charge of, the guys in the platoon and section. We had some new guys that were probably a lot more nervous than we were, but I guess our calmness helped to assuage them a little bit and make them feel a little better. I like to think so, anyhow.
Aaron Elson: At this point, were you a sergeant?
Mike McKinney: I was a tech sergeant. They had just made us tech sergeants. Any platoon leader, NCO – I used to be a staff sergeant, but we were promoted just before the invasion, I don’t know, a couple of weeks before. I didn’t have time to sew on my new stripes, so I went ashore as a staff sergeant. But the Germans didn’t know the difference I don’t think, so it didn’t make any difference. But I was a tech sergeant at that time.
Aaron Elson: What did you do while you were crossing the Channel? Did you play cards?
Mike McKinney: Oh, a couple of guys had a crap game going. I sat in on a crap game for a little while. But mostly you just think about what you’re supposed to do. You’re looking at your equipment. You’re forever cleaning your rifle. We had a special jacket; I don’t see much about this or hear much about these jackets that we had on the invasion. It was just the assault wave that had them, but it was a special-made jacket. It had no sleeves. It had snap fasteners with a quick release; you could pull it off. We had a life preserver on underneath the jacket. We had a regular uniform on, jacket and trousers. This thing had no sleeves. It had a lot of pockets, and in the back it had a big pocket for things. We had extra ammunition; I think we had a couple of bandoliers of ammunition, .30-caliber for the rifles. Plus what was in your belt. And you had three days’ C-rations, that’s nine cans of food. You had a raincoat. I think we had a blanket. Because with everything in it, it weighed about 80 pounds. Anything I see doesn’t show any of these jackets at all. We ditched them after the first day; it was just to get on the beach with all of the stuff you have to carry. Plus the mess kit and stuff you had to have with you.
Aaron Elson: Did you have impregnated pants in case there was gas?
Mike McKinney: No, did we?
Aaron Elson: They had stiff pants that had something in case the Germans used gas.
Mike McKinney: No, not that I remember.
Aaron Elson: The combat engineers had them.
Mike McKinney: These were the clothes I’d been wearing for years. And washed and washed and washed.
Aaron Elson: Then that wouldn’t be them, but the combat engineers were issued special pants that were very stiff.
Mike McKinney: Maybe because they were supposed to go up against the gas or something to decontaminate or something, I don’t know. But we didn’t wear those. Gas. When we were around St. Lo after we got inland, after the invasion, we were around St. Lo, and some gas truck pulls up, and they holler "Gas!" Then you’re supposed to send a detail over to pick up your gas cans; you want to stack them up for your trucks. So a gas truck pulls up one day and he yells "Gas!" Someone says "Gas! Gaaaassssss!" So everybody gets their gas mask, everybody was running around with their gas mask on until they finally solved the puzzle. But that was the only thing that had to do with gas during the war.
I was telling you about this jacket that weighed 80 pounds and then we ditched it once we got on shore, and we went back to using the regular light pack that we were always carrying.
Aaron Elson: But first you’ve got to get on shore.
Mike McKinney: First we’ve got to get on shore. And that was a little bit of a trip. I think we were nine or ten miles out.
Aaron Elson: What time did they let you off the troop ship onto the assault craft?
Mike McKinney: It was dark, that’s all I know. I had an illuminated dial on my watch, but I couldn’t tell you whether it was three, four o’clock, something like that. It was early. Or even earlier. When you were asking about what went on on the ship, how we would pass the time, like I was saying, we’d just check our weapons, maybe try to doze for an hour or so. They had bunks, if I remember right, yeah, they were about a foot or two apart, wire mesh, and they were four or five high. You couldn’t sit up in the thing; you could get forward and slide in. It was not conducive to sleeping, but you could maybe doze. I think most of us stayed awake during the night.
It was still dark when we started to get our equipment. You heft the stuff on. We knew where our landing craft was. The Navy would lower it into the water. So we made our way to our station. They had blue lights. Not outside but inside so that you could see. No bright lights. Then they had blackout curtains on the hatches or whatever they call them, the doorways. We made our way to our station and started to load. There were no incidents going down the net. We got into our landing craft. I think we were the first ones in, the first section. About 32, 30 guys, 33 guys in each craft. We got in without incident and we pulled away from the transport and started to circle.
Aaron Elson: They lowered the craft with you in it?
Mike McKinney: No, the craft went down empty.
Aaron Elson: And you went down the cargo rope?
Mike McKinney: We went down the cargo nets. A regular net, crisscross, you have hand holds and you have footholds. The first couple of guys down pulled it away from the ship, so that you could get your foot into the squares. We made our way into the landing craft, and we pulled away from the ship, and one by one the rest of the company, the rest of the sections made their way out to us. I don’t know how the Navy guys ever found where they were supposed to go. They did a good job. They kept the company all together. So finally they pick up speed and we start heading in toward shore. I guess the coxswain on my boat was the leader. The others were supposed to follow him. I don’t know how – how did the Navy guys ever find out, take a mark on the beach, it’s dark, how do they know where they’re going? But they did. They landed us right where we were supposed to go. When that ramp went down I looked up and there was that pillbox up there that we were supposed to take.
On the way in to the beach, with all the landings I had practiced and all the bobbing around, going in the circle in the landing crafts and the practice, getting off the transport and getting circled around over the years, I never got sick. I never got seasick in all the time on transports. On D-Day I got sick. I wasn’t nervous, any more than usual. But I heaved.
Aaron Elson: Did you heave over the side, or into the middle of the boat?
Mike McKinney: No, I couldn’t put my head over the side. I heaved right on my feet. We were squatting or sitting or kneeling, whatever. It was a cramped ride. It was cramped, with everybody kneeling down. You couldn’t sit down; you could squat.
On our way to the beach my boat got hit twice. We landed. The ramp went down. The boat got almost full of water. It was still a little rough. When I got off the boat, I was up to my shoulders in water.
Aaron Elson: What about on the boat, were there bodies on it from it being hit?
Mike McKinney: The first one hit in the rear. I remember hearing it hit. I was in the back of the boat and the lieutenant was in the front. He was supposed to say "Follow me!" I would say "Sure." But we were almost at the beach, almost landed when the second shell hit us. It must have been direct fire. We couldn’t hear it coming, so they must have had direct fire up in the pillbox, or antitank weapons or something. And that hit in the side, in about the middle. So yeah, getting out of the boat I had to climb over several bodies that were just laying there, floating in the water.
Aaron Elson: Were they people that you knew and had fought with?
Mike McKinney: Sure. I don’t remember their names now, but sure there were, well, not the guys that I went overseas with; we had been replaced many, many times. But they were guys I had been in combat with. Privates, Pfcs, corporals. I think it was only a handful of us got ashore.
Aaron Elson: Now if you were in the back of the boat and the lieutenant was in the front, how is it that you were the first one off?
Mike McKinney: I was the first one on the beach, I wasn’t the first one off the boat. The guys in the front – the boat took a hit up in the front, in the middle of the front, up that way. And the others got shot; when the ramp went down they started through the water. The lieutenant made the shore all right. But when I ran across the beach, there was nobody in front of me. I didn’t see a soul. I thought how eerie this was. Here I am in France, and the Germans are all over the place, there was supposed to be a whole lot of people there, and I don’t see anybody. I could see little puffs coming out of the sand where they were shooting machine gun fire. Other guys got hit going through the water. You couldn’t run through the water – the water like I said was up to your shoulders. You had to struggle, you’re holding your rifle up and trying to move your legs, and you have eighty pounds on your back, you’re not moving very fast. As soon as the water gets a little lower you could put one foot after the other, and they were shooting. They didn’t have any big guns going off. It was mostly machine gun and rifle fire. I remember shells coming in. I don’t remember big explosions. It didn’t sound too noisy to me. I saw the movie "Saving Private Ryan." Sitting in the theater, you hear all that noise, you’d think it would be something like that that I would remember, but I think outdoors the sound doesn’t sound as loud as it does sitting in a theater with stereo. That’s really loud. Yeah, there was some noise. I heard fire, but it wasn’t that loud.
Aaron Elson: What did it look like when somebody got hit in the water?
Mike McKinney: You’d see them go down. They just sort of fell. The heavy backpack I guess kept them from floating. Some guys got wounded. I could see some guys were limping, and other guys, their rifle was gone, they were holding themselves, they must have gotten hit. Whether they made it to shore I don’t know.
Aaron Elson: Were they crying in pain?
Mike McKinney: They were just sort of numb; my recollection is that they were just quiet and numb. State of shock maybe. The adrenalin flows and blocks out everything else.
Aaron Elson: Tom said you had looked at your watch.
Mike McKinney: Yeah. When I got on shore, I got a chance to look at the watch. I don’t know why. I knew H-hour was a certain time. I looked down at my watch and I said "6:30." I said, "I think H-hour was 7 o’clock. What the hell are we doing here a half hour early?" That went through my mind. So I remember 6:30, being on the beach. Now they say it was what, 7, 7:30?
Aaron Elson: Did you see any of those tanks that were supposed to float?
Mike McKinney: I heard about them. I didn’t see any tanks at all. I didn’t turn around much and look. I did take a glance out in the Channel. I think it was after we had taken the pillbox. And I saw all the ships out there. And the beach looked a little more crowded. But this was about an hour or two later.
Aaron Elson: But you’re not at the pillbox yet, you’re just wading onto shore.
Mike McKinney: Still in the water.
Aaron Elson: Wading, or how did you get onto shore?
Mike McKinney: I walked ashore. Rifle was up. Just trying to walk. It was hard.
Aaron Elson: Was the water cold, or warm?
Mike McKinney: The water was cold. And there were waves. The waves weren’t fast, they were sort of easy, but you’d get to a low spot in the water and all of a sudden a wave would come and you’d be up to your chest again. But it took, I don’t know, ten minutes to get on shore.
Aaron Elson: Was it high tide or low?
Mike McKinney: I think the tide was high. It was high. Because it was a short beach, it wasn’t too wide. I couldn’t tell you how wide; it didn’t seem wide at all. Thirty, forty yards. It’s not a Jones Beach or something, it was a narrow beach, from the time we hit the water line until we hit the start of the hill going up to the pillbox.
Aaron Elson: When you got on the beach, did you run straight towards the pillbox?
Mike McKinney: Straight. Shortest line, the distance between two points is a straight line. I didn’t want to run along the beach. I wanted to run right to where my pillbox was; I wasn’t going anyplace else. Just straight.
Aaron Elson: How many people did you have with you at this point?
Mike McKinney: I was all alone at this point. When I finally got to the start of the hill, there were a few other people alongside me. I guess we got there about the same time, within seconds of each other. And just sort of flopped down. Caught your breath. Made sure we saw the pillbox. We could see what we needed. I’m looking around to see who’s with us, see what kind of help we’ve got. Who made it to the shore. Do we have the satchel charges? Do we have the flamethrower? We had the flamethrower. We had the satchel charges and the bangalores. And we had a few guys from the 116th Infantry; the 29th Division was supposed to land on our right, and these strangers showed up and said, "We don’t know where to go."
So we said, "Stay with us." We said, "Where are you from?"
I said, "We’re the 16th, so stay with us." I knew they were supposed to be down the beach a little further, but I didn’t know what they were supposed to do. So we made riflemen out of them, and put them along the water line and had them start shooting at the pillbox, to close up the apertures.
Aaron Elson: Were they taking casualties while they did this?
Mike McKinney: Oh yeah. Sure. I was sitting, talking to my second in command, Townsend, he was running up and down the beach, too, and I was laying there and I just turned around; he wanted to say something, so he knelt beside me, and he just keeled over. Got shot in the head. Other guys were still making their way to shore, from the second or the third section, and they were getting shot, and they were falling in the water. We were taking hits all the time.
Aaron Elson: Was the hill what they called the shingle, with the rocks and pebbles that had built up over the years?
Mike McKinney: There were pebbles, there were rocks. There was like sand. It was like a hard rock soil. But it wasn’t dirt, like you have in the garden.
Aaron Elson: And that gave some protection?
Mike McKinney: No protection. There was nothing on the hill. It was all clean, there was no brush or anything. There was noplace to hide behind, no big rocks or anything.
Aaron Elson: Townsend was one of your closest buddies?
Mike McKinney: Al Townsend, yeah. I’d been through the war with him. We’d been through Fort Devens. In the same platoon all the time. He was my second in command. So he took a hit, and we were running around trying to get a line of riflemen along the shoreline to try to take the pillbox under fire, until we could try to move up with the bangalore torpedoes, blow the barbed wire, get the flamethrower up there and then get the satchel charges. So we’re running around, trying to get people, the lieutenant’s there. We finally get a firing line going. We get the guys started up the hill. They get the bangalore torpedoes under the wire; they blow the wire. The flamethrower gets in there. He gets up there. I guess we had them closed down because there’s no fire coming from the pillbox any more. The flamethrower gets up. The satchel charge guy. The bangalore torpedoes go off. The guys go up with the satchel charges, they blow the apertures off. The flamethrower goes in. There were still a couple of guys around the pillbox someplace because they were throwing hand grenades, and Paul Mansfield, who was one of my squad leaders, the fifth squad, they were throwing them back. And they were throwing hand grenades at the Germans. So they finally get into the back of the pillbox, and it seems that the Germans had taken off. They had a trench dug from the pillbox into a grove of trees a couple of hundred yards inland. We got up into the pillbox, and then we spotted the Germans in the grove of trees. I had a sergeant from M Company – that was a heavy weapons company, they had the 81-millimeter mortars and the heavy caliber machine guns, water-cooled machine guns – so they started lobbing the grenades down, the machine guns started shooting at the trees, and the lieutenant told me to send Mansfield and his squad down to see what they could do down there. So they come back with about 15, 18 prisoners. This was about in the afternoon sometime. I remember having – I went into the pillbox and I found a can of tuna fish or something, some kind of fish, the most delicious fish I ever had in a can. I was sitting there eating that fish. And that was pretty well it. It only took a couple of hours to take out the pillbox.
I also found a little cigarette case, it looked like silver, and had some engraving on it. And a little religious thing made out of wood. And there was a picture of this guy inside the cigarette case. But that was after all the fighting was over, in that pillbox. In the meantime, the rest of the company’s coming ashore, and the rest of the battalion’s coming ashore.
Aaron Elson: You talked about faith having carried you through. Here in the pillbox, you found a religous symbol. Did it go through your mind that the Germans thought God was with them too?
Mike McKinney: Not then, no. Later on I thought that the Germans have, maybe they’re praying, too. And I sort of thought about this guy. He looked like an officer, so I thought maybe he got out in time, maybe not; maybe he got killed, I don’t know. It crossed my mind later on, but not then. I thought about staying alive and getting through the day.
This is late afternoon now, they told me to take a patrol out and make sure there’s no Germans between us and the British. The British were supposed to land on our left, there were some cliffs in between, and I was supposed to make sure there was nothing between us, so that they couldn’t come in around in back of us and cause any trouble. So I took this combat patrol out again and, like I say, I went through the minefield – found out later on it was a minefield – and I see the British up ahead. They had a halftrack with them. This guy is sitting there, and we start to approach him, and he says, "Oh, hi, Yank. Cup of tea?" I got a kick out of that. Here we’re in the war, he’s sitting with a pot of tea, he had a tin can and he’s got a fire going. They had a halftrack, they carried all that stuff. I said, "Sure, a cup of tea."
So we were having the tea, it got dark, and we bedded down there for the night. And the next day we made it back to the company. The end of D-Day. D-Day Plus One.
Aaron Elson: Did you get a chance to look out onto the beach?
Mike McKinney: Yeah. There were a lot of people on the beach at this time; there’s bigger ships coming in, LSTs. And there were trucks and tanks coming off, they were going up. There were tanks on D-Day too, but I didn’t see them. One of the lieutenants in our company, Lieutenant Monteith, was directing a tank up the draw and he got killed. He got the Medal of Honor. Lieutenant Monteith, a rebel from Georgia I think he was.
Aaron Elson: Now, you survived D-Day.
Mike McKinney: I felt a little better about that.
Aaron Elson: What happened next?
Mike McKinney: Now we hit the hedgerows. We started down the road. This is, by the time I made it to the company it was daylight, in fact it was past daylight. I left the British. I didn’t want to go through the minefield, so I found a different way through there. So we joined the company sometime in midmorning. And we just started to go inland, one hedgerow after another. These hedgerows, I don’t know if you know what a hedgerow looks like.
Aaron Elson: I’ve heard them described.
Mike McKinney: They could be as high as this room. But you’re down below the level of ground, the roads are sunken, and the hedgerows start above them, so you could walk down the roads and be hidden by the hedgerows. There were gates or openings in each field, which were surrounded by the hedges. So it was one hedgerow to another. You just found your way into the field through the hedges, or through a gate, and you went one hedgerow at a time. And it would look like there would be nothing out there in the field – the fields were maybe a couple hundred feet by a couple hundred feet wide, with some kind of greenery in there or vegetables, or hay or wheat – and you figure from one side of the hedgerow to the other, across the field. And you either go down on the outside on the road or you go in the field and go down along the hedgerow that way and over to the corner. You’d be halfway across the field between the hedges, and a machine gun opened fire on you. So it was one field after another, just a little bit at a time. A lot of guys got killed. A lot of fields we went around. It was good when tanks came up; they could go through the fields one after another. If there was just machine gun fire, no direct fire, they didn’t have anything to worry about, because the machine gun bullets would just bounce off them. But they were having a tough time too, because they’d get stuck or hung up on the hedgerows, and their belly would be up, and anything coming at them would hit in the belly, and it would be goodby.
Aaron Elson: Did you see that happen to any of them?
Mike McKinney: No, but I heard it did happen, where they got hung up, and they took a hit from an antitank gun or another tank, and everybody inside was killed. It was slow going until we got rid of the hedges there. One hedgerow at a time.
Aaron Elson: Did you have any hand to hand combat?
Mike McKinney: No, I didn’t have any hand to hand combat until just before I got hit for the last time, going through the Huertgen Forest up in Germany. It was a foggy morning, and we were moving up, going up a hill, and I’m close to this tree and a guy, a German soldier, steps out from behind the tree. He couldn’t pull his rifle down and shoot me so he just swung the butt, and he hit me in the mouth. He knocked out two teeth. At that time I was carrying a tommy gun, .45, and it had a short barrel so I could just bring it down and pull the trigger. I wouldn’t call it hand to hand, but I was as close as I am to you.
Aaron Elson: If you lost two teeth I would think that qualifies.
Mike McKinney: Hand to hand. Mouth to mouth. Butt to mouth. Poor guy died. He was an old guy, too. I could see his face when I shot him. He shouldn’t have gotten too close to me.
Aaron Elson: Now you say "poor guy." What did you think at the time?
Mike McKinney: "You dirty bastard."
Aaron Elson: He was trying to kill you.
Mike McKinney: Yeah, sure he was. He would have killed me if he had a chance. That’s his job. My job was to kill him if I had to. I killed whenever I had to. I didn’t kill because I wanted to. If you had to kill you kill him. I saw some guys running away. They were too far away to even try to lay down and take a shot at them from the prone position. I let them go. One guy in Germany, we were taking a farmhouse and it looked pretty quiet, but one of my guys just rounded a corner, the Germans shot him. Went through one side and came out the other. I don’t know if he died or not. But I see this German running across the field, there’s a plowed field, so he couldn’t run fast. I was carrying a carbine at that time, a little .22 thing, like a cap pistol. I’m trying to shoot him. Give it up. I got mad. But after that I got my O-3 back. I carried a Springfield rifle for a long time. Bolt action. Better sight on it. You could really get off a shot. Better than the M-1. I didn’t have to do much shooting, I was a field sergeant. I wasn’t supposed to do shooting. I was supposed to direct other guys to do the shooting. If I did any shooting I wasn’t paying attention to my job. So I didn’t get many shots off. But when I could I’d take a shot, just to feel I was in the war.