Seventy years ago, Bill Anderson was not yet 20, spry enough to jump off the side of a landing craft rather than be shot up when the front gate dropped. "I'm not a hero," he says. "But I was in the company of heroes."
CHAMPAIGN — Seventy years ago, Bill Anderson was not yet 20, spry enough to jump off the side of a landing craft rather than be shot up when the front gate dropped.
Anderson was a private first class from St. Joseph in his first combat experience on June 6, 1944. He'd been in the Army about a year.
"They didn't tell us where we were going," he says. "They told us there was going to be an invasion, and it was going to be a cakewalk. Sure wasn't no cakewalk."
His first fight was a doozy — not just D-Day, the invasion of Europe, but Omaha Beach, where Germans could fire down on U.S. troops from bluffs.
More than 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed or wounded or went missing in Normandy, according to the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, where many soldiers began their trip across the English Channel.
The Omaha landing was a classic example of a carefully planned assault with haphazard, sometimes disastrous results.
Most of the first wave landed at the wrong site. The sea was so rough that tanks were swallowed by it. Landing craft were swamped by the choppy seas before they reached the beach, and many of the soldiers were badly seasick.
"Our big ships were firing over our heads and the Krauts were shooting down at us. You couldn't see or hear much with the smoke and the noise," he remembers.
When the front of the craft dropped, the passengers of the LCI — Landing Craft Infantry — made a perfect target for German guns.
"Me and a buddy went over the side instead," says Anderson, now 89. "We were up to our armpits in water."
Their water-logged run to the beach "seemed like a mile and took forever," Anderson says. When he went back 10 years ago, he realized it was a short dash.
As an experiment, test your own perception of time and distance while live bullets fly past you.
Anderson was in the 1st Infantry Division, which with the 29th Infantry Division made up the U.S. forces at Omaha Beach.
He was one of the replacements for soldiers killed or wounded in Africa and Sicily, and his combat training "was in a hill in England, in pup tents."
Near Colleville, France, he experienced the real thing.
Was he scared?
"Absolutely," he says. "I was scared to death. All the time."
The beach was heavily defended. U.S. engineers used Bangalore torpedoes and wire cutters to cut German defenses, all the while being fired upon from above, Anderson said. His own unit suffered heavy casualties.
Anderson's group was stuck on the beach for hours, finally hiking up a ravine to get to a point where it could fire back at the entrenched Germans.
It was now the nighttime of June 6. Soldiers took out their K-rations and had a cold supper.
From there, Anderson and his fellow soldiers fought hedgerow by hedgerow over the next weeks to get deeper into France.
"Every hedgerow was full of Germans," he says. "It rained every day. If it didn't rain in the day, it rained at night."
Then the trip became easier, as the foot soldiers moved east in trucks. Many thought the war would be over by Christmas, Anderson says.
In autumn, the 1st Division fought in the Hurtgen Forest near the Siegfried Line, ready to invade Germany.
But the effort stalled there.
"That was a miserable place, miserable," he recalls.
"The Germans had their 88s (88-millimeter anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery guns) and they fired bursts at us. There was no cover on our foxholes, so we had to put logs and dirt on top. It rained all the time and that turned into a muddy mess."
Caught in a counter-attack that became the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. generals brought their troops back, and Anderson found himself in Belgium.
As Christmas approached and there was supposed to be peace throughout the land, nobody was celebrating.
"It was colder than hell," Anderson says. "No way to keep warm, no hot food."
He would later get disability benefits for the damage done to his hands and feet.
"A buddy froze his feet. They wanted to cut them off. He said he wouldn't go home if they did that," Anderson remembers.
Eventually, Allied forces began to clamber back as the weather cleared.
"I've seen the sky almost black with B-17s," he says. "We thought, 'The Krauts are getting a pounding today.' "
After moving forward to the Ruhr Pocket, the heart of German industry, Anderson's unit came face to face with Russians fighting from the other direction.
"I never had any problems with Russians in Nordhausen," he says.
The war was over. Anderson didn't do much for a few weeks, then found a job painting in Champaign. After he got on as a painter at the University of Illinois, he stayed put.
He built his own house in 1964 on Maple Street, a block away from his house on Harvard.
He married. Doris passed away. They had no children.
The flag is up every day on Maple Street. He has served as captain of the color guard at the VFW, and commander of his Disabled American Veterans post.
He's proud of his service, but also humble.
"I won some medals," he says, and no more on the subject.
Later, he says, "The real heroes got white crosses," referring to the thousands of American burials in Normandy.
"I'm not a hero. But I was in the company of heroes."