D-Day: Carolinians tell the story of a day like no other

It was a day of blind courage and resolve, a day like no other – before or since.

In the gray of first light on June 6, 1944, 70 years ago today, Army medic Walter Dickens of Monroe prayed to himself from a boxy, flat-bottomed boat churning toward the beaches of Normandy, France.

His boat was the third back.

What he could see ahead made him pray harder. The beaches had littered quickly with the dead and wounded as German troops atop Hitler’s Atlantic Wall worked ferociously to repel the largest amphibious assault in the history of warfare.

For as far as Dickens could see, the channel was black with the mightiest war fleet ever assembled for the start of D-Day, codenamed Operation Overlord. Led by six battleships, 22 cruisers and 93 destroyers, the fleet included 4,000 front-ramp landing boats. On that day, they would deliver 156,000 Allied troops, jeeps, tanks and supplies to a 50-mile stretch of beaches with code names that resonate in history: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword.

Long before the seaborne invasion, battleship guns pounded German bluff-top entrenchments. Bombers and fighter planes attacked bridges to the beaches. Thousands of paratroopers jumped behind German lines bent on cutting off reinforcements.

When the boat carrying Dickens hit sand and its ramp dropped 100 yards from Omaha Beach, he and the 35 riflemen from the Army’s 29th Infantry Division rushed into waist-deep water as German bullets popped around them like rain.

“There was no turning back,” said Dickens, then a 25-year-old first sergeant. “All you could do was go forward.”

Some men had no chance to get shot at. They couldn’t swim and drowned. Others floundered under 90 pounds of gear and ammunition, their bodies floating in the water.

Dickens waded past the lifeless and found temporary protection behind the Germans’ jagged steel obstacles designed to sink invading boats. Around him, he saw “body parts flying off everywhere,” tanks and jeeps on fire. A chaplain he knew had told Dickens that to save lives he’d save their souls. Dickens watched that chaplain try to comfort a dying soldier only “to get his head blown off.”

As a medic, Dickens carried no weapons. His job was to administer basic first aid, and determine whether vital signs were strong enough to try to save the wounded.

That would take hours. The truck with medical supplies never made the beach, likely sinking. And the hail of German gunfire was so withering he couldn’t stop to check anyone until he reached cover at the base of dunes and a seawall 400 yards away.

Along the way, he took first aid kits from the dead. At the seawall, he took stock. Men lay everywhere. Some wailed in pain, shouting for help. The calls for “medic” came with dizzying repetition. The one memory that still brings tears: “the boys screaming for their mamas.”

On that day, he would move three of the wounded to safety under fire and receive a Bronze Star for his bravery.

War machine building

Nothing was complex about the Allied strategy. There was a beach. A line. The Germans were dug into the sheer cliffs that overlooked the beach, and the Allied troops had to make it up and over them to get into France – and ultimately to Berlin.

Allied leaders, led by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, had planned the invasion for two years.

They’d conducted an elaborate ruse to draw the German defenses farther east to Pas-de-Calais and along the Belgian coast, where the crossing from England was shorter. They created the illusion of a massive build-up at Kent, using dummy tanks and aircraft made of inflatable rubber – all amassed in fake camps. The harbors filled with fake landing craft.

All the while, a massive war machine of every piece of military equipment in the arsenal had been mounting in port towns and harbors along the southern British coast.

Bridget Huckabee of Badin in Stanly County was 11 then, living in Bournemouth, England. She’d watched the build-up with curiosity and excitement.

After Eisenhower and his advisers set the invasion for Normandy for June 5, some of the massive convoy set sail on the 4th, as rain and wind kicked up the channel. The troops began bailing with their helmets. Eisenhower knew he’d need air superiority and clear skies for Overlord to succeed.

He delayed a day until the 6th.

That morning, Huckabee left home to walk to school and couldn’t believe her eyes.

“All the men, all the trucks and vehicles, and the boats in the harbor – they were all gone,” she said. “Like it never happened.”

‘One godly mess’

Hours before, 13,000 American and 7,000 British paratroopers had jumped behind enemy lines.

E.B. Wallace of Waxhaw, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was supposed to help capture the town of Pouppeville, then secure the causeway to Utah Beach.

But the planes had flown into thick clouds, making the trip difficult for inexperienced pilots. Anti-aircraft gunfire caused the pack to scatter. Many of the jumpers, dropped from 500 feet, badly missed their targets.

Wallace landed in a ditch near Sainte-Mère-Église, miles from his target, his parachute snagging on a power line. He could smell where tracers had burned his nylon chute.

He used an Army-issued clicking toy to identify himself as an American to an approaching trooper. They regathered with others from the 101st and merged with stragglers from the 82nd Airborne.

“It was one godly mess for a while,” said Wallace, now 94.

The landings for Larry Michal of Charlotte and Harold “Pop” Eatman of Matthews, both 82nd Airborne paratroopers, were closer to the mark. They landed less than a mile from their targets near Sainte-Mère-Église.

Michal was 20 and Chicago-raised. Before he joined the 82nd, he’d trained as a draftsman. As his regiment, the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, trained in Nottinghamshire, England, Michal built sand tables showing the terrain of where the 508th would jump on D-Day.

“I saw the aerial photos, and I drew the maps,” he said. “I knew where we were going.”

The 82nd jumped at 2:15 a.m. – Michal, before he was given the green light. “I knew where we were at,” he said. “I told the jumpmaster, ‘This is our jump zone. I’m going out.’ ”

The Germans had flooded fields and he landed in four feet of water.

He didn’t see a German that day. But the next day, he and a small group of troopers machine-gunned four officers off motorcycles apparently fleeing the area. “They had a suitcase with thousands of French francs, and another with German underwear,” Michal said. “I took the underwear.”

By the time Eatman got to Sainte-Mère-Église at noon, the 82nd had rid the town of Germans.

At 28, he was already a veteran of two combat jumps in Sicily and Italy. His platoon in the 505th PIR was ordered to set up a roadblock on the main road to Omaha Beach.

Later that afternoon, German artillery fire arrived and Eatman and his men found cover in an L-shaped foxhole. “All we could do is keep our heads down until it was over,” said Eatman, now 98.

The foxhole was full. Eatman looked up to see a young trooper, separated from his unit, standing over him. “He was scared and didn’t know where to go,” he said. “I moved forward and told him to get in. He lay in on my legs.”

Suddenly, a piece of shrapnel tore through the young trooper’s arm and popped Eatman on his inner heel. “If he hadn’t been there, I would have taken the full brunt,” he said. “I may have been one of those numbers on D-Day.”

Success came slowly

At home, President Franklin Roosevelt went on the radio and told the nation about the invasion. A Charlotte police dispatcher set off air raid sirens and churches rang bells, encouraging congregations to pray for the invasion’s success.

At Normandy, success was uncertain. More than 2,500 Americans would die there on June 6.

At noon, Andy Andrews of Black Mountain, a machine-gunner in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, stood on a transport ship deck anxious to climb into the bobbing Higgins boat that would take him and 35 infantrymen to Omaha.

They were told to wait. “The beachmaster said: ‘Don’t send the troops yet. There’s no place to land. There’s too many dead guys in the water. Too many dead guys on the beach and too much destruction.’ ”

They waited two hours before launching. Sliding onto a sandbar 300 yards from shore, the Navy coxswain tried to lower the front ramp. Andrews, a private, said his captain pulled his gun and shouted: “I’ll be damned if you’re going to let my guys out here. They’ll drown!”

The skipper got them 200 yards closer. Everything seemed on fire.

By then, the first waves had forced the Germans to pull back. Andrews and his unit took rifles from the dead to fight until the truck with their .30-caliber machine guns arrived. Six days later, on their way to strategically important Saint-Lô, they ran into a German machine gun nest. A German bullet grazed Andrews’ cheek, the first of four wounds during 10 months of fighting on the front line.

Andrews fired back with his .30-caliber and killed his first German.

“I never gave it another thought,” he said. “We knew we had to do it. I started counting the ones I killed. I stopped at six because I knew it would drive me crazy.”

In mid-July, they would leave Saint-Lô, which they’d hoped to capture the first day but found fighting difficult among Normandy’s hedgerows. The city, an important access point to other parts of France, had been destroyed by Allied bombing.

Smelled like death

It took 10 weeks to liberate France.

Two weeks after D-Day, German-born Helmut Deussen arrived in Normandy with a German Panzer division, stopping 10 miles inland in the Falaise-Argentan region.

At 17 in 1942, he’d been pulled from high school in Mönchengladbach, Germany, and assigned to a signal corp unit providing communications for the tank division. He could see that the German army was beginning to collapse and withdraw, as the Allies broke through into France. One day, his four-man signal unit took a wrong road in their truck and a German officer stopped them waving a pistol and ordered them to turn around.

“He thought we were retreating,” said Deussen, 89, who’s lived in Charlotte since 1954. “We were just lost.”

Yet separated from the division in late July, he and the three others decided to try to make it home to Germany. They traveled by night without lights and made it as far as the Belgian border. There a cluster of American and Canadian infantrymen shot up the truck. Deussen and the others were captured. He would spend two years in an American POW camp near Paris.

A month after D-Day, Henry Hirschmann of Charlotte came ashore at Utah Beach, a gunner with the 693rd Field Artillery Battalion.

A German Jew, he had survived six months in the Buchenwald concentration camp, and couldn’t wait to join the U.S. Army so he could return to Europe and “get even with those bastards.”

German planes still strafed incoming American boats and troops. Reaching the beach, Hirschmann and the others dug foxholes and climbed inside. As a German plane bore down on them, a friend 10 feet away raised his head to see what was coming. He was killed.

Hirschmann’s job was to aim the battalion’s 105 mm howitzers. He would fight all the way to Germany.

His main memory of Normandy: It smelled like death. “There were dead bodies, dead cows everywhere,” he said.

Years later, Hirschmann would confirm that his parents and two brothers died in the Holocaust.

The last voices

They are the last voices of what is known as the longest day – a pivot point in history that turned the war against Germany.

In 1994, the media billed D-Day’s 50th anniversary as the “last hurrah.” Ten years later, they called the 60th the last major mustering of D-Day veterans, that by the 70th time would have thinned the ranks.

Yet hundreds have made the trip to France for a likely final goodbye: to the beaches and their fallen buddies buried at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

Among them are at least two dozen from the Carolinas. They include Charlotteans Larry Michal and Henry Hirschmann.

Andy Andrews, the former machine-gunner, will spend today in Bedford, Va., at the National D-Day Memorial. Walter Dickens, the former Army medic, is set to take part in a special D-Day celebration Saturday at the Museum of the Waxhaws in Waxhaw.

At 98, former paratrooper Harold Eatman will stay home in Matthews. He’s hard of hearing and can’t see well, so he’ll be left to think about “the kid” who took a piece of shrapnel instead of him at Sainte-Mère-Église. And about the young trooper “with the angelic face” who nicknamed him Pop in Sicily and later died in his arms.

He’s thought about them every June 6 for 70 years.

“They are years that those men have not seen,” Eatman said, his voice quivering. “That boy that died in my arms never knew the embrace of a good wife. Future generations that he might have fathered, they died when he died. Who knows the doctors, lawyers, architects and scientists that might have come, but because of that horrible war they were all lost.

“But we had to fight. The free world depended on it.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer