Salute to veterans: A rebel with a cause
Omaha Beach survivor, former POW doesn't want his fellow heroes to be forgotten
URBANA — Arnold Skillestad helped win World War II, and he earned the Bronze Star for that heroism. He's also kind of a character, promoted and busted down in rank several times.
Skillestad lives in Urbana, and as his 90th birthday approaches on June 25, it's clear he is still a pretty tough bird. Tattoos cover his arms. He's getting a new one soon of his dog, Blossom.
Over the 70 years since he stormed the beach at Normandy, he worked 30 years for Boeing and its predecessor, went through four wives and kept his sense of rebellious humor.
His son Randy, who lives in Omaha, is proud of his dad and has made an archive of his war history.
"He hasn't spoken about this for a long time, and he's just opening it all up to me, so these stories are brand-new," Randy said. "Most of those guys from the 30th (Infantry) are gone — pretty soon all we're going to have of World War II are the ships on the bottom."
Arnold Skillestad had a hardscrabble young life in the Depression, where he spent some time in an orphanage before being adopted by an Albion, Neb., couple. (He moved from California to Urbana years later for family reasons).
He was working two jobs — at an IGA grocery store and at the Rex Theater — when he finished up high school and decided that after living in Nebraska, what he wanted to do was join the Navy.
Sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago, Skillestad was rejected by the Navy — because he had hay fever.
"I don't know how they have hay out in the ocean," he says.
The Army took him and made him a private.
He left the Army with that same rank, despite the medals, he says. "They busted me (in rank) several times. I don't always follow rules and regulations."
The U.S. infantry had tremendous losses before the D-Day invasion, with bloody combat in Africa and Sicily. In 1943, Skillestad sailed from Boston to Southampton, England, as a replacement for those lost men.
D-Day was the greatest invasion in history, involving hundreds of thousands of men and women, and for all the triumphs, there were tragedies.
Even before June 6, he had lost friends in Exercise Tiger, a rehearsal for the Normandy invasion that took place off the coast of England.
The U.S. lost 946 servicemen. To harden the soldiers for the horrors of Omaha and Utah beaches, the landing forces used live rounds. "Friendly fire" took some American lives, then German E-Boats (fast patrol boats) fired their torpedoes. Men died in the cold sea waiting for rescue.
Skillestad said troops knew little about that exercise, made secret for more than one reason, but still expected that their landing would be hellish.
About 6:30 a.m. June 6, Skillestad's unit waded ashore at Omaha Beach, the most heavily fortified German defense site.
"I lost a lot of friends," is about all he'll say about it now.
In a memoir he wrote a few years ago, he recalled D-Day vividly:
"Now it's light, far as you can see boats of every size, huge masses of landing equipment, planes, noise that one can not describe, smoke, smells, shells going over head. You think, I can reach up and touch them!
"The ramp goes down, a total stranger in a hurry shoves his way to be the first off. It's our first G.I. to be killed instantly. Now's the time to hit the water. Looks deep, cold and it is, don't remember the distance. Keep your head and weapon. Be ready to hit the beach. ... I remember one (southern soldier) had a guitar on his back, hung up in the barbed wire, he never had a chance!"
Skillestad says now that the only strategy he could use then was making himself as small a target as possible.
Like most U.S. soldiers who survived the initial invasion, Skillestad moved on to hedgerow fighting, with Germans often within shouting distance. His unit walked through a cleared minefield in the dark.
The soldiers continued on to the hilly village of Mortain in August, where the 30th Infantry Division fought against the German Panzer counterattack, Operation Luttich.
The Luftwaffe (German air force) pounded Mortain with incendiary bombs. Skillestad's unit found cover in an old French building that he said goes back to the 15th century.
By Aug. 6-7, Mortain came under heavy German artillery fire. The village was destroyed, and Skillestad was now a prisoner of war.
"They split us up and sent us east in unmarked railroad cars," he remembers. "Some of the cars were hit by our own bombers."
Stalag 7A wasn't like anything you saw in the old TV show "Hogan's Heroes," he says.
There were more than 70,000 prisoners — some calling themselves kriegies — at the Bavarian camp in January 1945. Many of them were sent to Munich as slave laborers, making a round trip each day.
"We did receive Red Cross boxes," Skillestad says. "But the Germans picked through the food and some of it was rotted by the time it got to us."
Many German guards spoke English and had visited the U.S., he says. He believes that German-Americans may have supplied the SS with hometown items about the POWs that the SS could use.
When the Germans surrendered to the Allies on May 8, Skillestad says, "the guards just left." Gen. George Patton's troop liberated Stalag 7A.
On a battered, unreliable truck, a few friends drove over the Bavarian Alps, largely unsupervised, he says.
"I won't tell you what we got up to in Paris," he says coyly.
Skillestad arrived in Boston on June 1, 1945 — but only after a collision with a British ship.
Looking back, he's concerned that many of his heroic buddies could be forgotten.
"I'd like people to remember what we did in World War II to save our country," he says. "You don't hear as much about it as you should. The history textbooks spend more time on the Civil War."