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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

Order "9 Lives: An Oral History" from Amazon.com..

Chapter 3

Chuck Hurlbut

Page 2

    As we started going toward the beach, all the battleships opened up with their big guns. You never heard noise like that in your life. Prior to that, we had heard the bombers. They’re supposed to bomb the beach. And as we get closer we can see the fighter planes strafing the beach. Then we pass a rocket ship, a big flat affair loaded with rockets, "Phshoo! Phshoo! Phshoo! Phshoo! Phshoo!" And as you go in, you see the rockets, the Naval guns, the planes. How could anything live through what they’re getting? It’s going to be a piece of cake. There’ll be nothing alive there. That made you feel pretty good. And we’d been promised way back in England, there’ll be so many craters on this beach, and all you’ve got to do is jump into a crater, you’ll be protected.

    We also passed an LCMP, the one that carries tanks, loaded with tanks. 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. You’d think they’d know something was wrong. Second one. "Blooop!" Three or four went down like that. And we’re right alongside of it. All of a sudden the guys come bobbing up, fighting for breath and air, they’re like corks in the water. You’d think we could stop and pick them up. Nope. We had a mission. They’re yelling and screaming. We had to go right by them. I hope they were rescued. I thought, "I guess this is war. There’s no time for compassion. We’ve got a mission, and nothing can interfere." Boy, that hurt.

    Now we’re getting close to the beach. The officer up front is going crazy. He’s looking at his map, then looking out, looking at his map, he’s swearing like hell, and we could hear the rumors come back, "We’re in the wrong place." This was true of almost every craft in the whole operation. They didn’t estimate how strong a tidal current there was, and everybody went left of where they were supposed to land, and there were none of the landmarks that they expected to see. We were supposed to land on Easy Red, and I think we landed on Fox, which was the next sector over.

    Everything’s nice and quiet, then all of a sudden, ping, ping, ping, ping, brrrrrr, we could hear the machine guns hitting the ramp. We dropped the ramp. To my knowledge, we all got off the craft okay. But thereafter it was devastation. Guys started dropping and screaming all around you.

    The first thing I did after getting off the boat was to take my rifle and aim it at a pillbox. "Pow!" I still don’t know why I did that. It was an impulse.

    That’s the only shot I fired all day.

    Then I grabbed the tow rope for the rubber raft full of explosives, which was right behind me. I threw the rope over my shoulder and I started pulling.

    All of a sudden I feel it get heavier. I look around, and there’s three bodies that were thrown in. Two are face down; I don’t who they were. One is face up. I knew who he was.

    I kept pulling. And all of a sudden, BOOM! A mortar came over and it hit the raft, and it blew all our explosives. I was knocked head over heels, and 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 moments 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.

    The one who had been face up was Charles Burt. I forget where he was from; somewhere in New York State. I’m pretty sure I know who the other two were, but I ’ll never be able to prove it. But in my heart I think I know who they were. I think they were my good buddies from Auburn, Johnny Spinelli and Vince DeAngelis. They were never found. They’re on the Wall of the Missing. And it ties in to this, their whole bodies would have been destroyed. That’s 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, "We’ve lost our explosives. We don’t have any men. It’s 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 running from one obstacle to another. On the way I come across this guy laying and moaning in the water. The full tide isn’t in yet; he’s just being washed with the waves. I look at him. Jesus Christ, it’s one of my pals, Joe Nokovic of Buffalo. On one of his legs I could see the raw bone through the flesh.

    If I left him there he was gonna drown. I’m a little guy, and he was a pretty big guy. I knew I could never lift him and carry him in. So I 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 slowly, and I was exhausted. That was a hell of a lot of work. And I hoped and prayed that some German up there, some sniper or machine gunner would see us and take pity, here’s a guy trying to save another, maybe he’ll let us go. And it worked, because nobody shot at us.

    But all of a sudden, here comes a tank. From where, I don’t know. A small tank. The guy up in the turret, he looks down, I didn’t even have to say anything. He saw my predicament. He dropped down. He said, "You’re in trouble, buddy." He grabbed an arm and I grabbed an arm, and we dragged him up to the dune. And then the tanker said "Good luck," and he rushed back to the tank. I don’t know his name. I don’t even know what tank outfit he was in.

    Now I was at the dune line. I looked around. I said this guy needs a medic. We all had a sulfa pack. I gave him what I could, and I didn’t know where to put it. I just dumped the sulfa all over the place. I finally was able to attract a medic. The medic looked at him and gave him an injection of morphine. He said, "There’s not much I can do, but leave him here, because we’re going to have an aid station and we’re going to send these guys out to the ship very soon."

    The wounded man survived, although I heard he lost the leg. Evidently the medic was able to get him to a ship.

    But I’ve made the dune now. I’m 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 you’re sitting in the dune and you’re 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 don’t like it. All the beautiful plans we had made and practiced, all for naught. All confused, chaos.

    I was numb. This was not the way it was supposed to be, and you had no way of coping with it. You had no leaders. Just pure chaos. And then you see all these dead guys, buddies. That’s hard to cope with, the first time, to see death. And when you’re a close personal friend, it hurts. You thought you were tough, brave and gung-ho. It gets you.

    I said to myself, "I’m all alone now," where I brought Joe up to the dune. 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 they’d see a wounded buddy, they’d run down in the tide and they’d get hit. So once I got the medic and I felt Joe was taken care of, I said this is no good, I’ve got to try to find some of my people. We’ve got to get organized here. I’m sure we’re going to go back out and remove those obstacles when the tide goes out.

    While I’m 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. And he turned toward me and looked at me, and through all that gore and all that tattered clothing, I saw the tie.

    I don’t think he knew who I was. I wanted to cry out to him; I couldn’t. I didn’t have any voice. I was frozen. I couldn’t move. He just staggered away.

    Aw, Jesus. I never wanted to be a soldier. It was the last thing in my life I would have wanted to be. But Pearl Harbor changed my opinion. It was a lot of fun, these exercises, these hikes. Hey, a great bunch of guys, having fun. I didn’t know what being a soldier was until that day.

    I looked down to the east, and there was a Red Cross flag, and there seemed to be a lot of people moving around. So I said, "I’ll try for there. Maybe I’ll find some people."

    There was a tank not too far away. I ran and made it to the tank. It’s all burned out, smoke coming out of it. I hope those guys weren’t inside. I stayed by the tank awhile, had a cigarette. And it gave me another chance to look out at all this confusion, chaos, devastation. I said, okay, now I’m going to try … as you went east, the sand dune got less and less, and ran out to nothing. There was a big open stretch I had to get across. So I weave, duck. There’s a shingle on the beach, which is where, through the centuries, all the pebbles and stones that have been washed up have gathered. It’s only high enough that you can lay down behind it. So I stuck with the shingle. I’d run, then I’d drop down, run a little more.

    Finally I reached the aid station, which was behind some pretty good cliffs at the far east end of the beach. And hundreds of guys were there. Confused, disarrayed, disorganized. They’d lost their leaders. They were wounded. Down in the flat area were 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. I went in among these stretchers. It seemed like every third guy was one of my buddies. Now I know why I hadn’t found any of my pals back there; they’re all here. And every one took my hand – some of them didn’t know what they were doing but some of them did – "You tell my wife," "You tell my mother."

    As far as I know all of those guys made it back to England. The guys that we lost were killed instantly. These guys that were wounded, they suffered, but I think they made it.

    Now I started looking for a rifle. The thought in my mind was, "I’m going to catch hell. I lost my rifle." Army discipline. And I thought, every rifle has a serial number, yours is assigned, how am I going to fudge that? I didn’t worry. I’ll 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. So I spent a few minutes disassembling and cleaning it. Then I spotted some of my buddies, and I went over and got together with them. We all agreed that things had gone crazy. But we were engineers, and sure enough, we’re gonna have to go out there in the afternoon and do the job that we’d failed to do in the morning, so we stuck around. And that’s what we did. Later that afternoon some engineer officers came by and said, "Any engineers here?" By that time they had a couple of bulldozers. We would remove some mines, but the bulldozers did most of the job. And we’d blow up the obstacles. We’d build a fire in the hole, we’d send up a flare to let the troops know. We cleared a big stretch of the beach.

    There were still snipers firing at the beach. Machine guns. Mortars. Because this area had the Red Cross flag, it didn’t receive a lot of shelling. They were acknowledging that it’s a medical station. But once in a while one would come in.

    We think that what really saved us – one of my buddies wrote an article on this – was that the destroyers came in so close, we wondered how they weren’t stranded on the sand. 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, they knocked out those critical pillboxes that were devastating the beach. My friend – and I agree with him – wrote that if it wasn’t for the destroyers, we may never have made it. They played such a vital part eliminating that resistance. Because at 11 o’clock, we heard later that General Bradley’s out on the command ship, they were going to call off the invasion on Omaha Beach and go down to Utah Beach where things were going much better. They were going to leave us like Dunkirk. And I envisioned a hundred Panzer tanks coming over the bluffs with a thousand screaming SS troopers right behind them, and we’re annihilated. Where could we go, into the water?

    But all of a sudden, a guy here, a guy there, a sergeant here, "Come on guys, let’s go get them." They started up. They got these snipers along the way. They blew out a pillbox. About 1 o’clock, 1:30, 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, they were the heroes. They lacked the leadership but they had that initiative, the soldier quality, that said, "We’re not gonna die here. Let’s go get these guys!"

    And then things got better. But there was a traffic jam on the beach. The tide was coming in, and that restricted the beach area. At one time they stopped all the landings until we could clear space for them. Nothing was moving. Everything was restricted right to the beach area. We weren’t moving up the bluffs like we were supposed to. They didn’t make it until these little squads here and there got together, this group and that group. And then we were able to get some tanks in. 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 at Calais. He thought this was a ploy. Thank God for that.

    In the afternoon, we went back out and we blew the obstacles. There were two or three of us from the same outfit; we said, "We’ve got to get with our own people. Let’s start looking for them." we started down the beach, and 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; never thought about mines. And soon there was a pretty big group of our guys assembling up there with some officers. They told us, "We’ve taken a pretty bad beating. We’ll talk about it in the morning. Tonight just try to dig in up here. Stay close." So we went and dug a foxhole or you found a ravine, whatever you could, and tried to grit the night out. You’d lay down, but you couldn’t sleep, because the infantry was still moving up. Tanks were moving up. There was a lot of commotion. Down on the beach, they were still unloading stuff. You were so excited and revved up that you couldn’t sleep.

    Later that evening, a couple of German planes came over. I don’t think they strafed; they were reconnaissance more or less. Well, out in the harbor there were ten thousand boats, and every one of them opened up. It looked like the Fourth of July. I don’t 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! And during the evening somebody hollered, "Gas!" Well, that shook everybody up. I still had my gas mask, but I heard guys crying, "I don’t have a gas mask!" A lot of them went down to the beach; they 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 wouldn’t be around today. It was bad for 15 or 20 minutes. Finally, the infantry’s coming up this trail not far away from us, they’re looking at us with all our gas masks, and they’re laughing. And you felt like a goddamn fool.

    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. A lot of the craziness, the gung-ho attitude disappeared. It hit you that so many of your buddies were no longer with you.

    The next morning we were assembled and the colonel told us how many men we’d 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, so certain sections were sent to clear roadways through these minefields. Thankfully I didn’t get that. That’s the worst detail in the world, mines.

    None of our men were killed clearing mines, but three or four were wounded. One guy lost his fingers. That’s what mines do. They might not kill you, but they maim you. Horrible. They’re trying to outlaw them now. And the Germans were experts at mines. They came up with a plastic mine. We had mine detectors to detect metal. Now they’re plastic; the mine detector’s no good. And they had trick wires. This’ll be a dead mine. If you detonate this, you set off that. And boobytraps. Because GIs seem to want to get souvenirs – loot – that’s an American instinct, and they forget to be cautious. We lost a lot of guys because of that. They’ll boobytrap their own dead. You want his helmet? It could be boobytrapped.

    And they were so good at it. They had a mine called the bouncing Betty, you would step on it and it would jump up and get you right in the groin.

    One day I’m going along, and there’s a shoe. I kicked it out of the way. There’s a foot in it.

    I can’t tell you what war is. You wouldn’t believe how men; we’re supposed to be human beings, civilized. On the beach, it was unbelievable. You’d see bodies crushed by tanks. The tanker can’t see, and he’s literally running right over guys. I hope they were dead when he did it. You walk along, there’s two big tank tracks, and the guy’s embedded right in the sand. Maybe the guy was wounded, he couldn’t move. I don’t blame the tank. They’re up there, they can’t see, they’ve got to maneuver, but that happened so many times. That’s a pretty gruesome sight the next day.

    I’ve seen guys with arms full of arms, arms filled with legs, carrying them off 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, they reclaimed and went through it, and they’re all up in the cemetery.

    And it always remains in your mind; any veteran who has seen combat wonders, wonders, why me? Why was he killed, why did I survive? It’s a question you can’t answer. But it bothers you. Why did they shoot him and I was spared? I’ve tried to appreciate it that I made it okay, and I’ve tried to say, well, I’ll do my best to memorialize those guys.

    Maybe that’s why I was spared.

Contents           George Collar

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