Many veterans have vivid memories of the invasion, of D-Day and the days immediately following as unit after unit was pushed into France across the scarred beaches of Normandy.
Gordon Barker, of Hideaway, has a unique perspective on World War II. His Navy destroyer, the USS Fitch, played an important role — serving as bookends, in a way — at both ends of the conflict.
Before first light on June 6, 1944, Barker, a machinist’s mate, was manning his station on the bridge of the Fitch, waiting for 6 a.m. and morning light when the giant Allied fleet would unleash its fury on the beaches at Normandy. Soon, troops from every nation allied against Germany would storm ashore in the great D-Day invasion that would begin the bloody business of taking back Europe.
Almost 15 months later, on Sept. 2, 1945, the Fitch — now converted into a minesweeper — was anchored in Tokyo Bay. Barker found himself piloting the ship’s whaleboat, escorting the Fitch’s highest-ranking officer to a special ceremony aboard the battleship USS Missouri.
“We took the officer over and were preparing to cast off when the boatswain asks, ‘Do you guys want to see this thing?’”
Barker and two crewmen, warned to “stay out of sight,” from a hiding place “behind an air vent,” witnessed the signing of the Japanese surrender, the final spasm of the war in the Pacific.
Barker can truly say he saw the beginning of America’s land war in Europe and the end of the war with Japan. He was interviewed during a Brookshire’s Heroes Flight in May 2013.
Sgt. Homer Garrett’s war began and ended on D-Day. Approaching Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion, his landing craft hit a German mine and exploded. Ninety-six members of his battalion were killed in the blast that put him in the hospital for 10 months.
“Ninety-six members of my battalion were killed in a single day, and many were injured. I spent 10 months in the hospital and never returned to my unit,” Garrett said during a Heroes Flight interview in June 2012. “Most problems in life do not measure up to that experience.”
“We lost some of our men on that LST,” writes Juke Burnham in an online story “Remembering the Men of LST 523.” The large landing craft came across the channel at Utah Beach and hit a mine in the water. “She just blew up and everybody below the deck perished and most above the deck survived. A good friend of mine and the best friend I had in the war was on the deck. He was Homer Garrett. He told me later that he just had a feeling and he didn’t need to be down below.”
Garrett, of Lindale, said his life since the war is one of gratitude for the many blessings we enjoy. He believes the real heroes of the Army’s 300th Combat Engineers Battalion were “great young men” who lie today on Utah Beach.
“I have been blessed to be an American and live my life in this great country,” he said. “I know the price of freedom.”
Jack Hetzel, 92, was in transition when the invasion of Europe began. He was serving as a switchboard operator when he heard Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower come across the radio declaring “We had invaded Europe.”
Hetzel was sleeping in a bunker near his switchboard when the news of the invasion came across the lines.
“The morning of D-Day, they told us on the radio … ‘We had invaded Europe,’” Hetzel said. “So, I jumped up and grabbed my rifle and started for the door. (They) told me ‘Stop, don’t do anything until your commander tells you to.’”
Hetzel settled down, but the atmosphere among all the soldiers in his unit was “Let me at ’em,” he said.
The aircraft were so thick in the sky that you couldn’t see the sun, he said.
Hetzel soon after transferred to a combat unit and made it ashore at Omaha Beach 15 days after the initial invasion and served in five major operations during the war. He retired from the military after 20 years.
“That’s my D-Day,” he said.
For 10-year-old Pat Hetzel, now 81, the day America invaded Europe is a powerful memory.
“While (Jack Hetzel) was there, I was a 10-year-old child. And the thing I recall about that day was that everyone in our town of Waxahachie, Texas, went to the courthouse, and we had prayer,” she said. “And every church in our town was represented, and the pastors from each church prayed. That’s something you wouldn’t see in our nation today. I am so happy that we are from the generation we are from.”
Adolphus Barnett, of Jefferson, served in Gen. Omar Bradley’s 1st Army, which made the initial invasion at Normandy on June 6.
“I went over on the 10th, four days after D-Day,” he said.
Barnett served with the Red Ball Express, a supply truck convoy that stretched out behind Bradley’s fast-advancing Army and kept it on the move.
During a Brookshire’s Heroes Flight to visit the World War II Memorial in June 2012, he was asked if he was scared. He laughed and said, “I had never been around all that artillery. I had never been around that. But we had to get adjusted real quick. We had to. Because nobody else was going to do it for us. When you’re told you got to do it, you’re gonna do it.”
Later, he was attached to the 99th Division, an inexperienced division that played a pivotal role in the Battle of the Bulge when it refused to yield to German assaults and held its ground on the north end of the Bulge.
Chuck Bice, of Tyler, served with the 1st Army’s 300th Combat Engineers at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, Rhineland and Central Europe. His battalion built the first bridge of the war in Carentan, France, and the last outside Nuremberg, Germany.
Bice, a sergeant, said during a Heroes Flight trip to Washington, D.C., in May 2012 that he was proud to serve his country.
“I’ll never forget the stench on Omaha Beach, the wicked 88s (German anti-tank gun) while we were building the bridge at Carentan (known as the Tucker Bridge). Our Major Tucker was killed on the bridge.”
Bice also recalls the “bitter freezing weather during the ‘Battle of the Bulge.’”
Claude Grisham, of Holly Lake Ranch, was part of the Army’s 315th Infantry Regiment, which came ashore as part of the Normandy invasion force five days after D-Day.
Grisham said thousands of men were stacked up in boats funneling troops and equipment into France through that narrow stretch of beach.
“I was assigned to K Company, 315th Infantry Regiment, as a platoon sergeant,” Grisham said. “I waded ashore on Utah Beach, France. We were part of the D-Day Invasion force.”
“We fought our way into Cherbourg, France, as part of the First Army. After Cherbourg we returned to the front lines and headed to the interior of France as part of Patton’s 3rd Army. I was wounded on July 19, 1944, and spent the rest of the war in an Army hospital.
Watching the “D-Day” IMAX presentation recently at the Air and Space Museum as part of a Brookshire’s Heroes Flight, Grisham, confided: “I never once thought it wouldn’t work.”