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2014, Aaron Elson



9 Lives: An Oral History

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

cov-9lives.jpg (4837 bytes) "... an absolutely wonderful collection of WW2 Vets' stories! Aaron Elson has collected some of the most exciting and informative stories I have yet to read on the European Theater. This book is basically a group of mini-memoirs that range in scope from paratroops to tank personnel to frontline infantry. Each one tells his or her (yes women did serve!) own story in his or her own way but all of them are fascinating and will give you a different glimpse of how average americans saw the war. You will enjoy this one!"

--Amazon.com reviewer

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Chapter 3

Chuck Hurlbut

299th Combat Engineer Battalion, D-Day veteran of Omaha Beach

    "The English crew had a galley, and one of our guys, I don’t know how he did it but he convinced the bakery people to give him some loaves of bread. We were there two nights. Each night he’d come into our quarters with two or three big loaves of bread. No butter. But the hot, baked bread, it’s just like cake. That was the high point of those particular days. At midnight we’d get a big chew of bread. Nobody ever asked him how he did it. And nobody ever found out because he was killed on D-Day."

Ithaca, N.Y., Sept. 26, 1998

    I was born in New York City. I lived there until I was seven. Then my mother died. My dad got laid off and he couldn’t find work, so he thought he would come back to upstate New York where he was from. But the Depression was everyplace. He had two very demanding kids, and he was frustrated. So his parents suggested that we go out and live with them.

    They had a farm not far from Auburn, New York, and that’s where I lived until I graduated from high school. But I knew I could never be a farmer. It was beautiful and I loved the greenery, but something told me that was not my thing.

    When I graduated from high school, I made the big decision that I had to go find something else. So I left the farm, with a lot of sadness, but they condoned it. My grandparents wished me well.

    I went to Auburn and got a job. I was only 16. I played the clarinet and joined the Auburn community band. I was on a bowling team and a softball team. I met a few girls. Everything was going great. Then all of a sudden Pearl Harbor hit.

    Ever since high school I had heard about Hitler and all this stuff in Europe, but I never realized how deeply it was going to affect me. Hitler and Europe, that was their war, don’t get involved. Pearl Harbor turned everyone around. I don’t think there’ll ever be a time again when this country is so unified.

    I never wanted to be a soldier; that was the farthest thing from my mind. But when something like Pearl Harbor happens, you get a feeling. "I’m supposed to do something." I couldn’t wait to become 18 so I could be drafted. I wanted to do my part. So when I hit 18, within days I was down at the draft board, and registered. In three months I was called, went for my physical, and passed. Then I got the announcement: "You are to report to the Greyhound bus station in Auburn on such and such a date."

    I went down there, and here’s 60 or 70 guys, all in this draft group. It was the largest draft contingent ever to come out of Auburn. And the mothers and fathers and sweethearts, brothers and sisters were there. It was quite a congregation.

    Finally they put us on a bus and sent us to Fort Niagara. And most of us guys knew each other. We had gone to school together, worked together, dated the same girls; there was a real strong camaraderie. And we said, "This can’t last. You’re gonna go here, I’m gonna go there. We’re all going to be split up."

    When the announcement came, about 90 percent of us stayed together. We couldn’t believe it. We were going to be combat engineers. We couldn’t care less. The idea we’re all together was the big point. We don’t care what we’re going to be.

    They put us on a train and sent us to Camp White, Oregon, where they activated the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion. We are the original members of the 299th. And we went through basic training.

    The first few weeks were basic military skills: close order drills, marches, hikes, how to clean a rifle, what is a machine gun. And then you were introduced to the specialties of an engineer: bridge building, mine detection. Engineers are always thought of as building these enormous bridges. The combat engineers do the same thing on a minor scale in a quicker fashion, under fire. We learned how to throw a treadway or a pathway across a river. How to ford a river. How to blow up a bridge. How to build a Bailey bridge. We became pretty good at it.

    After basic training, they sent us out on maneuvers to the desert. I never knew such a desert existed in eastern Oregon. It had scorpions, rattlesnakes, jackrabbits. Burning hot all day, then you freeze to death all night. And you’re on maneuvers, it’s like combat conditions, so you can’t have a fire. It was pretty rough, but we survived that. Then they took us to Fort Lewis, Washington, which is one of the Army’s oldest camps and one of the most beautiful. It was so good to have a hot shower, a change of clothes and a bed.

    We were issued furloughs, so I got on the train, all the way back to New York State. It took about four days. But it was worth it. A funny thing – when I was home, everywhere I’d go, I couldn’t buy a drink. It was always on the house.

    I returned to Fort Lewis, and now we had a hectic schedule. They were getting us all ready. And we thought we were going to Japan. All through it, I always wanted to go to Europe. I said I’m probably going to combat someplace, and if I had my say, I’d rather go to Europe. I couldn’t see going to the Pacific. The jungle. The malaria. The savagery of the Japanese. So of the two I preferred Europe. I thought at least they’ve got houses. At least they look like me. I think I’ll get a better deal in Europe. I think they’ll obey the Geneva Convention. These lunatics in the Pacific, kamikazes, savages, they don’t obey anything. My preference was to go to Europe. And it looks like we’re all set to go to Japan.

    Then all of a sudden, we’re off to Florida. We had been selected to take amphibious training. Underwater demolition. Very few units were chosen; we felt pretty good, because hey, we were chosen out of all of those units to go for this training.

    We went to Fort Pierce, which is a Naval training station for underwater demolition, assault boats, they were the leaders of this particular stuff. Army units would be assigned to them, but it’s a Navy base. We’re the only Army unit on it. And we get the feeling that they resent us. No Army man can do what they can do. A sailor vs. soldier type of thing. But they told us what we had to do, all the drills, and we did pretty good. Before long we were doing what they did, and in a lot of cases we were surpassing them. Their animosity lessened and they accepted us.

    We went out in the ocean and came in on rubber rafts, learned demolition, hand to hand combat, the whole business. A lot of the big brass – this was in December 1943 – came down to watch us, and we put on a big show. I guess right then they decided, "We can use this unit in an invasion."

    And we realized that we’re no longer just a combat engineer unit, we’re a specialized group now. We’re specialists in invasion techniques, beach assault techniques. And some of the guys thought, "Hey, piece of cake, we’re so good."

    But a lot of guys thought, "Wherever we go, it’s going to be a suicide mission."

    I was in the group that thought "piece of cake." I know all this stuff, and we’re so good. I had just turned 18, and when you’re 18, nothing bothers you. You’re gung-ho. I’m on top of the world. That was a big attitude, but a lot of the guys were more serious than I was. They had these feelings. A lot of guys went AWOL. I think it was because of what they saw coming. But they were picked up and returned, and our commanding officer made damn sure that they were part of the invasion.

    We knew we were going to hit a beachhead someplace. We didn’t know where.

    We went up to Camp Pickett, Virginia. We took some more infantry tests. And that’s where I saw my first prisoners of war. All KP was done by German POWs. And I never saw a happier group of guys. They had it made. As you went through the line, they always had a big smile. They would ask, "Do you want more?"

    We saw a lot – thousands and thousands more – later on, but of them all I never saw a happier group than that group at Camp Pickett.

    We weren’t there very long. Then we went up to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and by then we knew things were getting serious. We were getting ready to leave. They gave us some more drills, and a lot of paperwork, who’s your beneficiary and all this gobbledygook.

    We’d kid about the insurance. "Well, at least somebody’s gonna get ten thousand."

    At Camp Kilmer, we were quarantined; we couldn’t go anywhere. Very restricted. From Camp Kilmer we go into New York, on the Hudson River, on the piers, and here’s this big ugly boat waiting. We get on the dock, we all line up, and we go up the gangplank. Each of us has a great big barracks bag. Just prior to that, the Red Cross was there, and they gave us all a little sewing kit. Free. It’s the last thing I ever got free from the Red Cross. From then on everything they charged for. They gave me a free sewing kit, a needle, a thimble, and a little ball of thread. Then we went up the gangplank, and there was a band there that played. The S.S. Exchequer was the name of the boat.

    When we leave, the band’s playing, the Red Cross girls are waving goodbye, we trudge up the gangplank, get on this boat. We stayed at the pier overnight, and in the morning we took off. We saw the Statue of Liberty. We go out a ways, then we meet a lot of other ships converging to make a convoy.

    On the ship it seemed like one continuous chow line. You never had a great appetite; the seasickness and nausea affected everybody. But you’d go down in the galley – the fumes were unbelievable. You’d get some breakfast; then you’d go back up on deck. By the time you got on deck it was time to get back on line for lunch. Lunch was usually an apple, a sandwich, something cold. Then it was time for evening chow. It was one continuous chow line. But there were times you could read books, play cards, poker. Some of the guys had crap games going. And we had a limited amount of calisthenics. The officers would get us together and we’d do plane identification. 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. That’s scary. You’re out in the middle of the Atlantic. Everybody puts on a life jacket. You all get up on deck, and it’s dark as hell. There was no moon that night. And you just wait. But pretty soon we heard that some of our destroyers found the sub and depth bombed 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 put on an interfaith service up on deck. The Navy guys, the Army guys, they all were together. It was a simple service. But the setting: The ocean. The ships. A beautiful day. It’s the most memorable, meaningful religious service I’ve ever attended.

    When we got to the Irish Sea the convoy broke up, and we proceeded toward the Bristol Channel in northern Wales. British planes came out to greet us. They escorted us up to Cardiff, which is where we disembarked. It felt so good just to walk on land again, after ten days.

    We had to go from the dock to a railroad station. We’re marching through the city, and all along the way there’s English people, they’ve got little flags and they’re waving them, "Hi, Americans!" If you had chewing gum you’d throw it.

    And I thought, gee, this is our first public appearance. We never had a parade before. That made you feel pretty 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 permeated the air because all their little stoves were fed by charcoal, and it almost knocked you out. But we had hot showers, nice beds, all warm, a safe place to be.

    At Ilfracombe we went right back into training. 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, to a camp called D-2. We knew there was going to be an invasion but we didn’t know where or when. They assembled us all, and a lot of big wheel officers were up front, and they told us about the invasion. "We’ve 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. We’re ready to go. And we want you to know that the 299th has been selected to be one of the forces to be in the invasion."

    In fact, they told us we were going to be right in the front row.

    There were 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 it’s coming soon. We still didn’t know when or where.

    We went back to Camp D-2, and we were restricted. No passes. Nobody left the camp. But they treated us like royalty. Continuous movies, first-rate movies. Unbelievable food. Ice cream. Candy. Cigarettes. Whatever you wanted was there. We were treated like they were fattening us up for the kill. We knew why we were getting all this special treatment; hey, it’s the least we could do for you. You’re going on a suicide mission. And a lot of guys thought it was suicide. A lot of guys had deep anxiety feelings, 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, it’s not that bad. Come on!"

    Some of them would get dejected; they wouldn’t sleep. You could tell by looking at them, that they had a hopeless feeling. I went around trying to show some bravado, but I think what I was doing was relieving my own anxieties. I was just as scared and anxious as they were.

    Soon we leave that camp and go down to Weymouth. On the way down, there were acres and acres of every piece of military equipment you could describe: tanks, gasoline cans, guns. Everything was stockpiled all over, mile after mile. And we thought, do you realize that 98 percent of this came from the United States, came across the Atlantic Ocean? It was unbelievable.

    We got 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 packed. It was one big traffic jam. 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, the Princess Maude. We laughed and laughed at the name, the Princess Maude, this was our boat. It was a small boat. By the time we got on it, with all of our gear, there was no place to move. There was no room for calisthenics. 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 boat kept rocking. It’s in the harbor now and it’s rocking, rocking, rocking. And all the guys who got seasick coming over, it all came back.

    We were told in our final briefing that D-Day would be June 5th. So we’re all geared up for it. We’ve got our attitude all set. Then we get to Weymouth and we’re on our boat and we’re ready to go. And all of a sudden they announce it’s been delayed 24 hours because of a storm. That means we’ve got to spend another day on this rocking, crazy boat. And the guys are getting sicker and sicker.

    The English crew had a galley, and one of our guys, I don’t know how he did it but he convinced the bakery people to give him some loaves of bread. We were there two nights. Each night he’d come into our quarters with two or three big loaves of bread. No butter. But the hot, baked bread, it’s just like cake. That was the high point of those particular days. At midnight we’d get a big chew of bread. Nobody ever asked him how he did it. And nobody ever found out because he was killed on D-Day.

    Back at Camp 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 tetrahedrons, the hedgehogs, the Belgian gates, the poles, that were all along the beach.

    Our mission was to clear paths through those so the rest of the troops could get in. And we felt pretty confident, because that’s what we had trained for.

    We leave Weymouth, and we get way out in the English Channel, and all of a sudden thousands of ships are all around us. We’re at what they call Piccadilly Circus; that was the big congregation point. I can’t describe the numbers, the sizes, the shapes – every type of boat was out there milling about. And finally they were directed to go their various ways.

    We arrived at a rendezvous point probably 10 or 12 miles off of Omaha Beach, around 12 o’clock at night, and we stopped.

    All the way over it was very choppy, and the guys who were sick were getting sicker; guys who hadn’t been sick were now getting sick. The officers said, "Get some sleep." You couldn’t sleep. You’d go to your bunk and all you could think about was what was going to happen tomorrow.

    The British crew gave us a hell of a good breakfast. Whatever you wanted they would do. Eggs sunnyside up, down, omelets. Tons of coffee. A bunch of us went into a little room off to the side; we were sitting there talking about everything when two or three officers walked by, and they looked in. "Can we join you?" These were officers. We’re all enlisted men. The officers joined us, and you would never know they were officers. We talked about movies. Automobiles. Sweethearts. Kids at home. Anything but war. We spent a good hour just bullshitting there, back and forth. And I left there with the feeling that those guys have got to lead us tomorrow, and they needed this little session as much as we did. It relieved a lot of tension on their part.

    Then, of course, we were supposed to go to sleep, but you couldn’t. 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. 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. We tried to go to our bunks and sleep a little bit. You couldn’t 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. This is where they made whatever you wanted. I ate two orders of custard pudding. I ate very well. But a lot of guys didn’t show up. I’ve always thought, maybe they felt this was the Last Supper, and they didn’t want to be part of it.

    Then it’s time to get ready. The first thing you do is hit the head. It’s called a head on a ship, the bathroom. And guys start shaving, combing their hair. One guy’s putting on cologne. You’d think we were going on a weekend pass. I and a lot of my buddies had goatees, so we spent several minutes making sure that that was just right. Shaving. Washing under our arms.

    Then you put your stuff on. We all had new olive-drabs. I think we had long johns. We had a field jacket. And then they gave us these impregnated coveralls. They were so stiff and unwieldy they could almost stand up by themselves. 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, your gas mask, a bandolier of bullets. 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. And your backpack, which had your mess kit, your shovel, and your incidentals.

    There’s 50 or 60 pounds of stuff. And you’re supposed to go in there and be agile.

    I’m sitting there thinking; I’ve got a few minutes. I pull out some photographs of my family, and I’m looking at them. And I’ve got Eisenhower’s letter that he sent out to all the kids, I read that again. I’m looking at this stuff and my buddy comes up behind me. He was a good buddy. We’d been through a lot together. He opens his jacket. And he had on the ugliest, gaudiest, most outlandish necktie I ever saw in my life. I guess a friend back home had sent it to him, and he was going to wear it on D-Day. What the hell, they couldn’t stop him now. We laughed about that, and we thought about all the things we went through, and what we’re gonna go through together. We talked about what we were going to do when we hit Paris.

    Then we get an order to get on deck. So we throw our arms around each other. You can’t walk with all this stuff, so we waddle up to the deck. We get up there, and all the guys are assembled, we’re going over the side.

    And we’re saying things like, "Make sure you tell my mother this," or "If I don’t see you again.…"

    Then we go over the railing and we go down the cargo net. The water’s real choppy. And the LCVP, our assault craft, which we’re 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. I’m halfway down, and the goddamn net goes up, I’m laying spreadeagled, and I’m looking at all this angry water down below. But I make it down. Everybody makes it down okay, and we get into our assault craft.

    Right in the middle of the craft is a rubber raft full of explosives. And the guys line up around the raft.

    I’m pretty sure the coxswain and his assistant were Coast Guard guys. We take off and go to another rendezvous point, and he circles and circles, waiting for other craft so they can all go at once. And all the time boats are zipping in and out.

    Pretty soon they had a bunch of boats lined up. And timing was crucial, so they had to wait. We’re 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 I’m guessing it’s about 4 o’clock in the morning.

    All of a sudden, "Vroom! Vroom!" We take off in a big line. 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 can’t make them out. You holler at each other, but you can’t hear anything. And it’s a very choppy sea. These LCVPs are not huge boats. But the speed of the boat seemed to lessen the rockiness of it. The waves just washed all over; within ten minutes, the water’s just below your knees, the boat is full of water. Guys have started to vomit. That’s floating all over the water inside the boat. And on the way in, you realize that half of these guys have 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 they’re just not up to par for what they’ve got to do. But somehow I felt pretty good through it, I was all right. And my buddy, Tom Legacy from Niagara Falls, was up ahead of me. He turned around, he flashed the necktie again, and I gave him a thumbs-up.

Contents           Chuck Hurlbut 2


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