On 1 April, 1944, our slow-moving convoy designated UGS-36-bound for Africa-was attacked off Cape Cher-chel, Algeria by thirty German JU-88 and DO-214 bombers operating from Southern France. I was a loader on one of the Orlikon cannons engaged in a deadly duel with the black ghosts gliding over our heads. The DO-214s skimmed low over the waters of the Mediterranean, releasing their torpedoes while overhead, the JU-88s dropped stick after stick ofwhistling bombs. One of them fell in the water close to our port side, tipping our landing ship sharply to starboard. Heavy magazine in hand, I lost my balance and began to slide on the wet steel deck toward a certain watery death. Suddenly, I was jerked backwards as the gun pointer, reached out and yanked hard on the Kapok life preserver bindings, saving my life. I thanked him as he drew a bead on a low-flying JU-88, unleashing a stream of tracers into the dark sky above. After the war, we went our separate ways and-despite numerous efforts to locate him- he seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
Recently, I received a phone call from his daughter who informed me that her father had been ill for quite awhile. He gave up trying to locate me. Well, her call was a Christmas present, I'll tell you. She informed me that her husband had seen a web site presentation by the Hudson Falls High School titled "D-Day" featuring yours truly. My name was mentioned and the rest is history .Her dad will receive my monthly newsletter and also a special reserved copy of Vagabonds of War originally dedicated to him.
After all these years, closure. Makes one believe in miracles, doesn't it? Thanks to Matt Rozell, the Hudson Falls history teacher, I was reunited with the guy who saved my life when I was a kid in uniform. Thanksgiving time.
What follows is an article written, but to date not published...
An article exclusive written for the Glens Falls Chronicle
By Hudson Falls students Shannon Bohan and Nicole Middleton
As Veterans Day came and went this year, we notice many more American flags outside our houses with pride. We see them on vehicles, rippling defiantly in the wind. We now understand what it means to have liberty and freedom, and to see it under attack.
Everyone can understand the concept of patriotism, but not many truly understand what it is to live and breathe the sacrifices that true patriotism demands. As four men sit behind a table in the Hudson Falls High School library, they share the stories of the sacrifices of their generation. Fast approaching their eighties, some of these men are telling their stories for the first time, and they are sharing them with us- a generation which will shortly embark from our sheltered high school lives into a troubled world that will demand examples of courage and leadership that we may draw strength from, to fight our own battles.
Anthony Leone, Fred Harris, Ashley Harrington, and John Webster are all local veterans of World War II. All of these men participated, in one way or another,r with the D Day landings at Omaha Beach and the invasion of Europe. On the Friday before Veterans Day, 2001, Hudson Falls history teacher Matthew Rozell interviewed them before a crowd of over 100 students as part of the World War II Living History Project. Entitled “Normandy in Memory-The Invasion of Europe”, these interviews were broadcast live on the Internet and are archived at the WW2LHP website, http://web.hfcsd.org/ww2/D_DAY/Default.asp.. These are their stories.
the Allied code name for the start of Operation
Overlord, took place on June 6th, 1944
when American, British and Canadian troops landed on five beachheads in
Normandy to begin the much anticipated invasion of Europe.
Omaha Beach accounted for the most casualties of all the beachheads, with
2400 American troops dead or wounded on June 6th alone.
Because of obstacles placed by the enemy, the ships couldn’t land the
solders directly on the beach. They
had to open the front of the landing crafts a distance from shore, drowning many
and exposing the men to array of gunfire from Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
After viewing student generated PowerPoint slideshows about the invasion, Mr. Anthony Leone of South Glens Falls was the first to speak. He was a member of the U.S. Coast Guard charged with landing men and materiel under fire at Omaha Beach on and after June 6th, 1944. Mr. Leone was 18 years old at the time of the attack and spent most of his time on an LST (short for “landing ship-tank”), a huge vessel which was also used for evacuating the injured as well as prisoners back to England. “I was scared…. we were all scared.” said Mr. Leone of the fateful day. “We came in with the LSTs and opened the bow doors and dropped the ramps. But at the time, not even the small boats could get in among the obstacles, there were mines all over the place. They were killing our soldiers, like sheep to the slaughter.” Mr. Leone recalled the time when he let a thirteen-year-old German POW go free. “One German boy, he had his arm blown off up to his elbow. I was out feeding the prisoners and I came to him and I had a can of creamed chicken… I proceeded to take a spoon full and put it in his mouth. He took it in his mouth and spit it all over me. He was a Nazi, Hitler Youth, only 12 or 13, I think. About that time I wanted to take the .45 out and kill him, I felt like doing it, really. An older prisoner, 18 years old, same age as me, looked old enough to be my father at the time, saw it. He said ‘You must forgive him, he lost his parents in Berlin, the American air attacks killed his parents, and his entire regiment was wiped out- he is alone.’ I let him go…what harm could he do now?”
John Webster of Queensbury was a 19-year-old first lieutenant when he
landed in the third wave of the Omaha Beach attack. As a combat engineer, Mr.
Webster’s job was to clear the beach of obstacles, removing mines and clearing
lanes for men and materiel to be landed. He described the attack as though it
was yesterday. “I don’t think that there was ever a military
operation so extensively planned as Normandy…it was almost certain we would
have to land on the continent of Europe,” Webster said of his experience.
Mr. Webster also explained why it was preferential to have been in the
third wave of the attack. “The
tide was low and when it was high tide, the obstacles were underwater so the
Coast Guard couldn’t see them and it was much more dangerous.
We did catch the Germans by surprise- the
artillery hadn’t been zeroed in yet. It
was safer to land in the earlier waves than in the later ones because by then
the German artillery and pillboxes
were on target.” Mr. Webster was on the beach from “H hour plus 30”
(daybreak) until late morning. “At high tide there wasn’t much beach to
stand on, and with casualties mounting, we and many others went over the
“shingle” (long narrow dune) and headed inland. It wasn’t organized- it
was more like small groups pushing forward for survival.
It wasn’t so much a heroic action as it was to save our skins.” Although slightly wounded about 2:00 pm, Mr. Webster then
captured his first German prisoner.
Webster recalled the high casualties and the brutality of war.
“Like so many things in war, things didn’t go the way they were
supposed to…. our outfit was one of those outfits.”
Five months later Mr. Webster was
engaged in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, where he received his second wound.
“A mortal shell hit a tree and blew up near me, the shrapnel hit me in
the face. I was knocked out.
It was all removed except a little piece in my upper jaw- I can feel it
every time I shave”, Mr. Webster said, emotionally.
Harrington of Hudson Falls was an Army anti-aircraft gunner who spent his time
off Omaha Beach on a blockship targeting German warplanes attacking the beaches.
Mr. Harrington described turning his attention to destroying German pillboxes,
which carried 88-millimeter guns that blew soldiers and ships apart on the beach
below. “ We sat there
waiting…the planes stopped coming after awhile, so we said ‘well, why
don’t we see if we can hit some of those pillboxes’. The pillboxes only had
a little slit opening, so in order to destroy one, we had to get the shell
inside of it. We caught heck for this because one thing that
you learn in the military is that you don’t disobey orders.
And you’re never supposed to shoot anti-aircraft guns at ground level,
but that was beside the point as far as we were concerned.
We ended up hitting a few,” Mr. Harrington explained.
“I didn’t have a chance to go on the beach, and I was thankful for
Fred Harris of Hudson Falls was in the U.S. Navy at
the time of the attack at Omaha Beach. His
job was to help tow “mulberries” across the English Channel. Mulberries were
the code name for the large artificial harbors constructed in England to support
the landing operations in northern France until a port harbor in Normandy could
be secured. This was no small feat.
At night, Mr. Harris explained,
“you were nervous and scared -it was pitch black, you could see the
tracer rounds from our anti-aircraft guns at the other beaches, and you knew the
German airplanes would soon be over Omaha.
All you could hear was the gunfire and all you could see were the flashes
of light in the sky. It was like a huge fireworks display, every night…”
they had finished building the artificial harbors, Mr. Harris stayed at Omaha.
“We were very close to shore and we could see hundreds of bodies piled
up against the sea wall just waiting to be buried. That’s when it hit you
-none of us could say anything, we just stared…. this was really the waste of
war.” Anthony Leone added,
“I’m the best excuse why war is futile, useless, senseless… Innocent
people die. We lost 80% of our men. My friend “Beansie” got hit. He lost his
arm, his left eye. Ended up down in a VA hospital-all his life he stayed in
there. He was out of his mind. He died a couple years ago in the hospital.”
did the students react? Sophomore Jackie Martin commented,
“These men where only a few years older then I when they went into battle. The horrific things that they had to see and live through are hard for us to imagine. I knew war was hard, but the things they said to you made you think a great deal about what they went through for their country.” Ryan Benway, another sophomore at Hudson Falls High School, said, “It touched me to think these men had an influence on my life today with something that happened over 50 years ago.”
In military terms, ‘D-Day’ is the first day of a major attack, but for a generation and for all eternity, it will be associated with thousands of heroes who risked and gave their lives for a cause that would serve the world justice. These four men, along with many others, reaffirm that freedom does not come without a price and that there is no glory in war. But in a way, they are the “glory” of war. They are the people who have ensured our freedom time and time again. In this tumultuous time, may we take the veterans of Normandy’s example, and strive in their honor so that one day our children can live in a land that is still free because of their sacrifices for all of us.
to this story: Following the Nov. 9th broadcast of the interviews on
the World Wide Web, Mr. Leone was contacted by a long lost shipmate- the man who
had saved his life while his ship was under attack in the Mediterranean Sea two
months before D-Day. Wrote Mr. Leone: “After
all these years, closure. Makes one believe in miracles, doesn't it? I was
reunited with the guy who saved my life when I was a kid in uniform.