WWII vets share their experiences

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By John Barnhart

    The 70th anniversary of D-Day brought a number of World War II veterans to the National D-Day Memorial. Here are some of their stories.


* * * * *
    Kenneth Smith was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division and crash-landed in a glider near Sainte-Mère-Église. He was knocked out and when he came to, he was alone in the dark with two dead bodies, the captain and the sergeant. He was 19 at the time.
    “Everybody was all mixed up,” he said. “We landed everywhere. it took four or five hours for us to get together and start shooting.”
    When he came to, Smith began looking for the other men. There were few roads, so he began looking for his guys along a lane. He heard some men running in the darkness, so he used his cricket, a metal clicker, to signal them. They didn’t reply with a cricket signal. This was because they turned out to be German soldiers. The Germans just kept running.
    “They were scared, too,” Smith said.
    A bit later, he heard some other men and clicked his cricket. This time, he got a cricket reply.
    “That was a good feeling,” Smith said.
    Smith’s unit was an artillery unit, equipped with 75mm howitzers and, once they got together, they retrieved their equipment. Smith  was   in  charge of ammunition and the placement of four machine guns.
    Smith said his unit’s job was to take and hold three bridges, near Sainte-Mère-Église, without destroying them.
    “We kept the Germans from coming to the beach,” Smith said.
* * * * *
    Norman Morganstern was with a 105mm howitzer battalion. His battalion got overrun by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge and the battalion commander surrendered. It was night and some of the men, Morganstern included, escaped in the darkness. He fought as infantry for five weeks after that.
* * * * *
    Morris Reisberg, who can speak some German, captured six German soldiers single-handed. This was easy, however. It was very late in the war and Reisberg called out, in German, to some German soldiers. The Germans consisted of a machine gun crew and one German responded to Reisburg’s call by coming out with a white flag.
    “He was very happy to give up,” Reisberg said.
    “I captured six Germans who wanted to give up,” he commented.
    Later, Reisberg was wounded by shrapnel while serving as a jeep driver. This turned out to be good fortune for him. He had already accumulated most of the points he needed to go home and the points he received due to the wound allowed him to go home. His mother died shortly after he got home and, if he had not been wounded, he would have never returned home in time.    
* * * * *
    Sam Berry was a Navy pharmacist mate on D-Day. Trained in emergency medicine, his job was to provide aid to wounded men on the beach. The first man he treated was on their landing craft.
    “Our coxswain got hit,” he said. “I took care of him.”
    When the ramp went down, he and the other pharmacist mate with him in the landing craft found themselves in water and had to shed their 30-pound packs.
    “You had a choice,” Berry said, “either drown or take it off.
    Then, they crawled. face down in the sand, across the beach to shelter which was provided by a position the Germans had set up, and abandoned. It was made of wood that looked like railroad ties.
    “They were shooting all around us,” Berry said.
    “We couldn’t do anything,” he added. “We were dead in the water.”
    They eventually were able to get to work and stayed on the beach for 21 days. After that, Berry was sent to the Pacific. All the medics that serve Marine Corps units are actually Navy medical personnel and Berry was to be part of a Marine landing party. In preparation for that, he went through Marine Corps training and remembers one man vividly.
    “This Marine sergeant had stripes from here to here,” he said, moving his hand from his shoulder to his wrist, “and he hated the Navy.”
    He was originally to be with the first wave of Marines to hit the beach on Iwo Jima, but is probably alive today because he ended up being sent to a medical facility on Saipan. Later, he went ashore with Marines on Okinawa.
    The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan are probably another reason why he’s alive today. He was to be with the Marines slated to make an amphibious landing on one of Japan’s home islands in September, 1945, an operation that would have been the war’s bloodiest operation, if it had happened.
* * * * *
    Fred Harper was a coxswain on a landing craft on D-Day, He was three month’s short of his 19th birthday and, for a while, he didn’t think he would ever see it.
    “He was the one who stood up so they could shoot at him,” commented Charles “Buster” Shaeff, a fellow Navy veteran of D-Day, who was also part of a landing craft crew.
    Harper made his first trip to the beach as part of the first wave that headed to Omaha Beach and does not know who the men were he dropped off. He just knew that they were American troops who boarded his landing craft from a liberty ship.
    “I knew where I was supposed to land,” Harper said, summing up the extent of his knowledge.
    After unloading these men, he pulled the ramp back up, backed off the beach and headed back to pick up more men. He made seven trips to the beach that day. At the end of that last trip, he and the other guys noticed a concrete bunker a couple hundred yards from the waterline and decided to go look at it.
    “There was a machine gun that had never been fired,” Harper said, describing what they found inside. “I suppose that’s why I’m here today.”
    The guys took the German machine gun back to the LST, LST-378, that they were based on and put it under a bunk.
    “I was going to bring the darned thing home,” Barry said.
    But, that plan was thwarted.
    “The skipper found it on inspection and made us throw it overboard,” he said.
* * * * *
    Roy Brumfield was captured by the Germans on January 8, 1945 as his unit was headed for the Rhine River. He and 12 guys found themselves surrounded by German troops who Brumfield said were SS troops.
    “We didn’t stand a chance,” he said.
    The ground was frozen so they couldn’t dig in and Brumfield’s hands were so cold that he couldn’t put a fresh magazine in his BAR after emptying the 20 round magazine he had in it.
    Brumfield was held prisoner for four months and starved during that time. He said a lot of his fellow prisoners-of-war died.
    Prior to his liberation by American troops, he and the others spent 19 days on a forced march as the Germans retreated from the advancing Americans. Brumfield said the Germans shot anybody who collapsed during the march.
    They finally ended up in a barn on a farm, with Americans advancing on one side and the Russians coming from the others. Brumfield said that, the day before they were liberated, regular German soldiers replaced the SS men as guards. The SS men, in turn, changed into civilian clothes and fled.
    American troops showed up the next day and Brumfield ran out to meet the first recon car to arrive at the farm. One of the Americans in the car asked him what he wanted to eat and Brumfield replied “ham and eggs.”
    The American went into the farm house but the German farmer’s wife claimed they had no food. The American pulled out a .45 and the farmer’s wife, in turn, brought a ham from the basement.
    Brumfield ended up getting sick from eating a substantial meal after starving for four months. He and the other prisoners were kept on a special diet for a while until their stomachs and digestive systems were able to handle regular meals. He said that, at the first real meal they had, German prisoners-of-war waited on their tables.
* * * * *
    Thaddeus Gay was an Army engineer who served in the 97th Engineer Battalion in New Guinea under General Douglas MacArthur. He said his unit built water systems.
    “I was one of six boys who served in World War II,” Gay said.
    Gay also recalls the birthday present the Army gave him for his 21st birthday — a 10-mile hike.
    “My birthday was on Sunday,” he said. “They picked that day for the hike.”
* * * * *
    Bill Urban was a Marine in the South Pacific and fought on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian.
    “Then I got to come home,” he said.
    The M-1 Garand had not been issued to the Marines yet when Urban fought on Guadalcanal, so he went into combat armed with a 1903 Springfield — a bolt action rifle.
    “It was nothing but dead bodies,” Urban recalled of his time on Guadalcanal.
    He said the stench was terrible, from unburied corpses rotting in the tropical sun.
    “But it wasn’t as bad as having to bury some of our own people,” he commented.
    Urban said he had to bury 21 men from his company.
    Patrols were tense. They were going through tropical jungle and Japanese soldiers would get up in trees to shoot at them. Most of the time the Japanese soldiers would see the Marines before the Marines would see the Japanese soldiers.
    Urban was part of the first wave in the amphibious assault on Saipan. It was there that he experienced his first Japanese banzai charge.
    “One time they came down the road,” he said. “The bugler was leading them.”
    They beat off the charge, but Urban said one battalion lost half of its men.
    He was also part of the first wave on Tinian and experienced a banzai charge there. The day before the charge, they had been told the island was secure.
    “The next morning they attacked us with “Banzai!” cries,” he said. They also yelled “You die Malini!” “Malini was their attempt to say “Marines.”
    “That was scary,” he said.
    He landed on Tarawa the second day of the fight for the island. The Marines who landed on the first day suffered heavy losses. Urban said the beach was just covered with dead Marines.
    “That was a terrible sight,” he said.
    Today, Urban is 90 and in robust good health. He still works part time as a commercial driver.
* * * * *
    Jack Hazelwood, who will turn 89 this month, was a member of the armed guard on merchant ships during the war. Merchant ships in convoys during the war were manned by Merchant Marine sailors. Each ship had an armed guard consisting of U. S. Navy sailors who operated the ships’ weapons. Hazelwood said the ships typically had a 3-inch gun forward and a 4-inch or 5-inch gun on the stern along with eight 20mm guns. Hazelwood manned one of the 20mm guns.
    “It was easy duty,” Hazelwood said.
    He said all the armed guard had to do was stand watch, train and keep their own quarters clean.
    He said the first ship he was on was an oil tanker on a convoy from South America to New Jersey. Then, he participated in a trans-Atlantic convoy aboard a gasoline tanker.
    What would have happened if this tanker had been torpedoed?
    “Boom!” Hazelwood replied.
    A gasoline tanker was, for all practical purposes, a floating bomb and there would have been no survivors.
    “You didn’t worry about it, Hazelwood commented. “If it happened, it happened.”
    After that, he was aboard a ship carrying ammunition to Hawaii and stayed in the Pacific for the rest of the war.
    He recalled being in port during Japanese air raids at night, but the armed guard aboard the ships were told not to fire because it would give away their positions. This is what the Japanese pilots wanted because ships loaded with supplies made a high-value target.
* * * * *
    Austin Cox was in the second wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He said he and a buddy found puppies. The pups had not been weaned yet and the two men mixed powdered milk with water in a canteen cup, stuck their fingers in the milk and then in the pups’ mouths. The pups sucked the milk off their fingers.
    Both puppies survived and the men kept the pups with them until the break-through at St. Lô. They couldn’t keep them any longer and left them at a farm.
    Cox named his “Alegocious” and his friend named his pup “Bernadette.”
* * * * *
    Glenwood Hankins was in the third wave on Omaha Beach.
    “I didn’t run into as much as a lot of the other guys,” he said. He’s not sure if this was because the sector he landed at wasn’t as heavily fortified as the others, or if the Germans had already been taken out before they got there.
    The landing craft dropped them off in waist-deep cold water, but that didn’t matter.
    “We were already cold and wet,” he said. This was due to the rough ride in.
    But he wasn’t seasick.
    “I was too scared to be seasick,” he said.
    Hankins was part of an 81mm mortar crew. This consisted of a three-man gun crew plus ammo carriers. The ammo carriers had canvas bags, each which held six shells, weighing seven pounds each.
    In order to fire the mortar, the base of the mortar’s tube was set on a base plate, with a bipod supporting the front. In order to fire the weapon, a shell would be dropped down the tube, hitting a firing pin at the bottom.
    The mortar had a 3,200 yard range but Hankins said that they were usually firing at targets 1,000 yards away.
    Hankins was wounded on two occasions by German shell fragments.
* * * * *
    Clarence Dotson was an artilleryman with the 343rd Field Artillery Battalion. He said they were  equipped with 105mm howitzers, 155mm guns and one 240mm gun. He said they could use the 240mm gun to drop a 361 pound shell on a bed sheet at a range of 20 miles.
* * * * *
    John Glasser was with the 111th Field Artillery Battalion, equipped with 105mm howitzers.
    “We had 12 howitzers with 50 rounds of ammunition for each,” he said.
    Glasser came very close to not surviving D-Day, but that was not due to German gunfire. When he landed, he took off running and ran into a German mine field.
    “That was the stupidest thing I ever did,” he commented.
    He survived because a sergeant spotted him, yelled at him telling him he was in a mine field and to stay exactly where he was. The sergeant carefully walked in, put his hands on Glasser’s shoulders and carefully backed him out.