The images still move him to tears.
For Andy Andrews, the fighting began when he rushed ashore at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. As a machine-gunner in about 150 firefights, he was wounded four times. He doesn’t try to forget his battles.
Instead, for 70 years, he’s thought every day about fellow Tennessean Jesse Beaver, his best Army buddy in the 1st Infantry Division who died in his arms in Germany.
He thinks, too, about the homeless children and elderly he saw during the war and postwar occupation duty in Germany. Their homes had been destroyed.
A religious man before the war, Andrews came home more devout in June 1945. He believes there’s a reason he’d been spared so many times when so many weren’t.
Four years later, he married Hellon Coffey, who died in 2008. They raised two children.
After school, he began working for the Presbyterian Church denomination in Richmond, Va., which sent him to Montreat in 1965 as the Presbyterian Conference Center’s first conference director.
Andrews, now 90, also got into local politics, serving two terms as Montreat’s mayor. In 1980, he became executive director of Black Mountain’s Chamber of Commerce.
He retired 10 years later. He now lives alone in a Black Mountain retirement community, doing his part to educate younger generations about World War II – delivering more than 140 talks to students and civic groups about D-Day and the other battles that defined his life.
I was drafted with 250 boys out of my class at Central High in Chattanooga, Tenn. That was in June, 1943. We used to joke that we went through the graduation ceremony and out the back right into a GI truck.
I had four brothers. All of us were drafted. All of us went to war and thankfully all of us came home. God was good to us.
I was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, 16th Regiment, H Company. We were sworn in at Fort Oglethorpe (near Chattanooga) and sent to Fort McClellan in Alabama. They told us, ‘You guys are going to be machine-gunners. You understand that?’ None of us had a clue about what we were doing.
They trained us in heavy weapons, .30-caliber machine guns. You shot that gun in short bursts and it mowed down everything in its path.
In January 1944, they put us on the Ile de France, one of the biggest luxury liners in the world. It held 10,000 troops. We were crammed in – you could rub noses with the guy in the bunk above.
Seven days later, we landed in Greenock, Scotland, and took a troop train to Yeovil, England, (130) miles south of London. For a boy who had never been out of Tennessee, it was one heckuva adventure.
They trained us hard for six months. We trained for every situation: gas masks if the Germans threw poison gas at us. We crawled in dust and they’d wet it down and make us crawl back in mud. We attacked mock villages and dummy Germans to learn how to sneak up on the enemy and cut his throat without him knowing it. We crawled under machine gun fire. They ran us through obstacle courses. We’d hike 10 to 15 miles at a clip.
Most of my company rehearsed getting in and breaking off of these small, wooden landing craft called Higgins boats. I missed it. I was a chaplain’s assistant. I could play the piano a little. I knew 10 to 12 hymns, but every time we went someplace I played the same hymn.
Our commanding officer told us: ‘You guys, this is serious. You’re going into combat and you’re going to kill people or be killed – so this is serious.’ We thought he was joking just to scare us.
But we were really training for a big landing. We didn’t know when or where it was going to be.
In the early part of June, we spent most of our time in bayonet practice because they anticipated we would meet a lot of ground troops. On the 4th, we moved from Yeovil to the port of Southampton and were placed in a marshaling area.
Then on the 5th, we were in a field training in bayonet when our captain drove up in a jeep and shouted through a megaphone: ‘Fellas, the invasion is about to start. We want you to be in the third wave. Put your bayonets into the truck and let’s get changed into combat gear.’
About midnight on the 5th, we boarded a big troop ship, the USS Henrico, and climbed down three stories. It was dark. You could barely see. There were 5,000 troops on board. The captain of the ship came over the intercom and said: ‘Welcome aboard. You can hear our big engines running. When you hear those engines stop, you’ll be 12 miles from France – 12 miles from combat.’
Nobody said a word. That was the point we knew they weren’t joking. We were headed into combat.