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An East Tennessee Honor Flight stopped by the National D-Day Memorial, Friday. The group included 19 World War II veterans and four Korean War Veterans.
Aroas “Gene” Bennett, who received the Bronze Star during his service with the 341st Infantry Regiment, 86th Infantry Division was one of the group and was wearing his military decorations, which included the badge indicating he shot expert with the M-1 Garand and M-1 carbine.
“Our company commander said he wouldn’t take people overseas who couldn’t shoot,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the time we spent on the range.”
Being very well trained was important because it made everything instinctive for the men in combat.
“You had to be because you were terrified most of the time,” he explained.
One of the most terrifying experiences was taking a German occupied town. Bennett said you never knew what could be waiting behind each window. You didn’t know what was behind a door, either. Bennett said they would toss a grenade through the door before entering a building.
Functioning toilets were also a threat.
“You didn’t dare use the toilet because they were booby trapped,” Bennett said. “They would blow your rear end off.”
Bennett said his division was the first to cross the Rhine River on a pontoon bridge. They weren’t under fire on that river crossing as U. S. troops had already secured the opposite bank.
Crossing the Danube River, after U. S. forces turned southeast into Austria — Bennett said they were the first division to cross — was a different case.
“We crossed the Danube under fire,” he said.
Getting shot wasn’t the only danger on the crossing.
“We were so heavily loaded with ammo and equipment, if you fell in the river, you were done,” Bennett said.
Bennett said they ended up 10 miles from Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s lair, at the end of the war.
The Honor Flight group was met by a group of local veterans who volunteer at the Memorial, including Bob VandeLinde, a Korean War Veteran. VandeLinde, a West Virginia native, said he recently learned a bridge that crosses the Mud River near his home town, Hamlin, has been named the U. S. Army SFC Bob L. VandeLinde Bridge in his honor.
How do you get to Hamlin? According to VandeLinde, “You go to Charleston, turn left and go back 35 years.