Editor's note: This is a chapter from "When We Went to War," a News-Gazette book based on a special section published on June 6, 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day. (The ages of those interviewed are reported as they were when they were interviewed in 1994.)
Their departure, after several unnerving false starts, was supposed to be a secret.
So Carl Hatcher was a bit unnerved when he saw the English women waiting outside the gate as his truck headed for the airfield.
“There was probably 50 women at the gate. Guys had girlfriends there. They were crying and waving,” Hatcher said, recalling the night of June 5, 1944. “I thought right then, ‘It looks like the word’s leaked out. This is not going to be too secret at all.”
And yet somehow it was, to the Germans.
A few hours later, Hatcher and other paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division would capture the town of St. Mere-Eglise, a French crossroads about the size of Mahomet, inland from the Normandy beaches.
The road would be needed at dawn when the largest amphibian landing in the history of the world – D-Day – launched the Allied liberation of Europe.
More than 4,000 ships carried 154,000 American, British, Canadian and Polish troops across the English Channel to France. In the air, 11,000 fighters, bombers and transports provided support. By day’s end, 15,000 Allied soldiers would be dead or wounded.
The U.S. assault came, for the most part, on Utah Beach and “bloody Omaha” Beach, beginning at 6:30 a.m. June 6.
The paratroopers were the first to arrive.
Hatcher, 68, dropped onto the continent in the early morning hours of June 6.
He remembers being so loaded down with a Thompson submachine gun, grenades and plastic explosive that he needed help getting up from the cargo plane’s bench when it was time to jump.
“The weather wasn’t good at all. It was soupy … when we went to make the jump,” said Hatcher, of Mahomet. “Planes they were tapping wings, and ack-ack (anti-aircraft fire) was blowing. They knocked out some planes. We could see out the window. We were wanting to get out of the plane. Everybody was scared to death.”
Then the moment came. The warning light in the dark cargo bay changed from red to green. The soldiers rose, filed to the door and leapt into the black sky.
“It was about 12 minutes after 1 when I landed out at the edge of town. (The Germans) had flooded some canals there, and I landed in about a foot of water.”
He thought that the planes were off target, that he had landed in the English Channel and would drown.
Jay Stiehl, a Navy medic, had been waiting for four days tied to a dock in England with 200 Canadian troops. It was late evening on June 5 – Stiehl’s birthday – when the word finally came to go.
The 150-foot-long, flat-bottomed landing ship crawled the 20 miles or so down the river from Southampton, past the Isle of Wight and into the English Channel to join the armada headed for Normandy.
Stiehl never got to celebrate his birthday.
“But I said, ‘This will be something to remember,’” the 73-year-old Champaign man recalled.
More than he knew.
“On the way in, we hit a mine,” Stiehl said. “We got within wading distance.”
The blast put a hole in the ship’s bow but didn’t injure anyone.
“It was just fortunate that all the guys who were in the front compartment were out and ready to unload,” Stiehl said. “It knocked out the forward fuel and water tanks.”
The soldiers unloaded the ship and tried to back out. The anchor cable caught in the ship’s propellers. A couple of men from the engine crew went overboard and sorted out the tangle. The boat limped back to England for repairs.
The ship ahead of Lawrence Wantland, 78, of Royal wasn’t so lucky.
A mine blasted it to pieces, taking Company A of his First Engineering Special Brigade with it.
“They blew them all up, got ‘em all,” Wantland said. “I can still hear that old ship captain standing up there on the bridge. He says, ‘OK, B Company, you’re now A Company. Take the same path.”
All around him, ships snarled the ocean fronting Omaha Beach. It looked “like a freeway in Chicago,” Wantland remembers.
His outfit landed about 5 a.m. – an hour ahead of most other troops. Their job was to dismantle obstacles the Germans had set up to impair a landing. They would spend their first night in a foxhole next to the sea wall.
During the night, his commander called roll several times, probably after every shelling, Wantland said. “It was the only way we knew who was getting … who was not there any longer.”
Lt. Denzil Ellis Dees and the men in his infantry platoon had a big breakfast on board ship. It promised to be a long day, and they didn’t know when they would get to eat again.
“That was a mistake,” recalls the 79-year-old from Urbana.
The water off the beach was choppy. Diesel fumes filled the air from the swarms of landing craft circling before forming up and heading in to shore.
“Almost everybody was seasick,” Dees said. “That huge breakfast all came up. ‘Feeding the fish’ was the joke.”
There was a lot of that sort of nervous banter, he said.
“The sailors would say, ‘If you guys do a good job when you get there, we’re gonna admit we took you in. If you screw up, we’ll never admit it.’ The GIs said, ‘You just get us in.’”
As it turned out, the Navy guys were the ones to screw up. They landed in the wrong spot, in water chest deep. Men threw off their heavy equipment to avoid drowning. Some threw off their rifles.
The only consolation was light enemy fire.
“It was fairly quiet, more so than I expected,” Dees said. “I don’t think we lost a man on the beach.”
That didn’t last long. The ground sloped up to a wood beyond. As they moved toward the trees, German machine guns and rockets greeted them.
“We’d run a little ways and then hit the ground,” Dees said. “I remember lying flat on my face and looking ahead, and there was a poppy, a wild poppy. And I thought of the poem, you know: In Flanders fields, the poppies…”
“In Flanders Fields the poppies grow, between the crosses row on row,” the first line of the poem goes. It is a rhyme about soldiers killed in World War I.
“Just barely off the beach,” Dees said. “That’s where we spent the first night.”
Herman Pashe, 81, of Danville got a little farther.
“Our commander told us to just keep going,” the former machine gunner recalled. “At 5 that evening, the First Division was digging in, which we didn’t know. We just kept going.”
Nothing he saw particularly surprised him, Pashe said. The training in England had prepared them.
“We practically lived out on the moors,” he said. “They had it set up just like on Omaha Beach. There was barbed wire, all the gun emplacements. They had live ammunition, booby traps that blew up – there was some of them got killed in the Second Division.
“When D-Day came, it didn’t bother us too much. We’d been under this fire … even getting casualties while we were training.
“We were supposed to get to the top of the hill is the main thing,” Pashe said. “I’d say 1,000 yards. They had pill boxes up there.
“We got up there and got trapped in the woods. Our colonel got killed. They had us in there for two days. I had a canteen of water and a package of Lifesavers.”
Pashe also had $25 worth of 5-franc “invasion” money, which the soldiers had been given before shipping out.
“We never did spend it,” he said. “We had to stay up there until someone come up and got us out. They got enough men coming up later on that the Jerries (Germans) had to pull back.
“I just figured, hell, I’ve got the same chance as the other guy. They said one out of 10 makes it. That’s not very good odds, but that’s just about what we had left.”
James Mitsdarffer, 72, of Champaign liked the odds better when the dawn came, and he saw the scene around him on the ocean.
No one could sleep on the way over, said Mitsdarffer, a light-tank crewman. “You sat there and prayed. You had no idea what was gonna happen.”
But off the French coast, it looked like “there was a ship every 2 feet,” he said. “You can’t even guess how many. It gave you more of a confident feeling.”
The scene at the beach changed that feeling quickly.
“It looked like, when we got there, one great big cemetery that should have had the people buried,” he said.
“Where the English Channel ebbed and flowed, the bodies would move in and go out, move in and go out,” remembered Stephen Kish, 80, a soldier that day with the First Infantry, the famous Big Red One.
“All kinds of vehicles under the sun were knocked out on this beach,” the Newman man recalled. “When I landed, the big battle for the beach was almost over.”
Still, German artillery fire hit his group.
“They’d fire a round that was long, that went over us, into the Channel. Then they would fire a shorter round, then a longer round, then a shorter,” Kish said. “They were bracketing, and then when they got on target, they really started shoving the shells in the gun.
“I finally started running, I ran across the beach, water shooting out of my boots, over the top of my boots. It seemed like I was running in one place.”
Later, he stopped on higher ground to catch his breath and looked out to sea. Flames licked from the guns of the battleship Iowa.
“I looked toward the town we were supposed to go into,” he said. “I’m looking at a church steeple and all of a sudden, I look again, the church steeple is gone. One of those big Navy guns fired and took the steeple right off the church. They figured there were still Germans up there using it for an observation post.”
Sgt. Kish and his men began to walk inland.
What William O. Carpenter, 71, of Champaign remembers from his arrival at Normandy 10 days later is the grim-faced paratroopers coming off the front.
“We relieved the 101st Airborne,” he said. “They had knives all over, hand grenades hanging on them. And you tried to get them to smile. Couldn’t get them to smile, though. They’d just seen too much death.”
“Every town was shot up,” Carpenter continued. “Even the trees were shot up. There wasn’t a tree standing that wasn’t hit.
“You didn’t see a bird, saw a lot of dead animals. Cows all puffed up. They were laying there dead. Sometimes we saw bodies all puffed up too, the legs swollen so much their pants legs were tight.
“You could smell death. It’s a weird smell, the kind of smell you couldn’t describe. But when you smelled it, you knew that’s what it was you were smelling.”
About the same time Carpenter arrived, Navy man Frank Brya, 70, of Champaign brought his landing craft in with a reserve wave.
A storm stranded Brya on shore. To pass the time, he caught rides with truck drivers ferrying supplies inland. In some towns, nothing but chimneys were left.
Once, he stopped at a farm house near Cherbourg, which had been used as a command post by the Germans. Money and letters, among other things, littered the floor.
Brya collected a couple of the letters, signed simply, “Erwin,” and sent them home to be translated at the University of Illinois.
“Dear Karl,” one of the letters read, “They talk very much about the invasion that is to come this spring, but I don’t believe it. If such a thing would happen to come, they would not talk much about it. Anyhow, it would be a fruitless invasion.”
The German defenses on the coast of France, Erwin concluded, were “unbreakable.”