We’re going to make it happen
It was midmorning on June 6, 1944, and John Walters, then a sergeant with the 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, was riding a metal-plated landing craft toward the strip of cliff-ringed French beach codenamed “Omaha.”
His unit was part of the second wave set to attack the shore and wrest a beachhead from the Germans – the first such strip the Allies would hold in Western Europe. They’d been told how brutal the morning’s fight had been for their comrades in the first wave; by the end of the day, more than 300 men from his division would be dead.
“I’m gonna get you to the beach. When this thing hits and the ramp goes down, get off. ‘Cause I’m going backwards,” said the boat pilot, as Walters, now 97 and living in Altoona, recalled Thursday.
Walters, then a young draftee from Huntingdon, was one of the tens of thousands of men who fought on the first day of the Normandy invasion. Now, 70 years later, their numbers are dwindling as modern-day leaders from both sides gather in France to memorialize the battle and the hard-earned victory that followed.
Closer to home, World War II veterans are set to meet again today: Dozens expressed interest in a gathering at the Tyrone American Legion, an officer there said.
With most now in their 90s, there can only be so many more such meetings.
Walters won’t be among those meeting in Tyrone – he’s at the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, recovering from a collarbone injury – but he remembers much from the war, from the slaughter on Omaha Beach to the hard fighting as the Allies fought inch-by-inch through the French countryside.
Nobody thought the meticulously planned invasion would fail, he recalled.
“They said, ‘This is going to happen, and we’re going to make it happen,'” he said, pointing to a table as he imitated the tactical planning sessions noncommissioned officers sat through in the days before the attack.
Even hours after the first wave had hit Omaha Beach, the fighting was intense, Walters said. By the day’s end, American soldiers had cleared German defenders from the beach while soldiers and commandos from Britain, Canada, France and a collection of other Allied countries fought in their own sectors.
“I had a lot of friends killed,” he said. “A shell came in, killed our battalion commander, company commander and second-in-command.”
For Walters, the fighting would continue for more than a month as the Allies fought through the leafy rural towns of northern France. In all that time, he never got a chance to send a letter home.
Then, one day in July, as the 29th Infantry Division fought around the French town of Saint-Lo, a burst of German gunfire sprayed out among the hedgerows.
Walters was struck twice in the chest.
He was conscious the entire time, lying wounded as U.S. troops fought back, then collected him for medical attention.
For his mother – already worried amid reports of heavy fighting – Walters’ first letter since D-Day was sent from a military hospital. He managed to beat the official message that he’d been wounded, he said.
After a couple months’ recovery in England, Walters returned to the fight, his unit positioned astride Germany’s Elbe River when word arrived that the Nazis had surrendered. He was mustered out in 1945 for a long-postponed marriage and work at the Altoona rail shops.
Today, Walters doesn’t care to brag about his service. He never returned to Normandy for anniversary visits, though some of his friends have.
And each year, he said, the 29th Infantry Division’s reunions feature fewer World War II veterans and more from Afghanistan and Iraq.
It seems few who fought in the war are keen to discuss their experiences today: It can be hard to find many willing to talk, even as dozens discussed the prospect of today’s Tyrone meeting with American Legion officers.
One, William C. Korman of Tyrone, recalled his travels through Western Europe as a military policeman in the wake of the Normandy invasion. Now 92, he said he was set to board a ship in France for the continued fighting in the Pacific when word arrived that Japan, too, had surrendered – the ships were swiftly rerouted, to home and safety.
“I’m very happy that he’ll be able to be there,” Korman’s wife, Mary Jane, said of today’s gathering. “It would be nice if the fellas could get together, you know, and reminisce.”
Even when old soldiers are willing to discuss their experiences, Walters said, those who weren’t there can’t fully understand. He recalled a trip to a war movie a few years ago with a friend, a paratrooper in the war.
“He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s pretty real. … But there’s no smell,'” Walters explained.
Of all those in the audience, only the fellow veterans understood the familiar, gunpowdery smell of combat.
“I can sit here and tell you about it, but you have no idea what it is really like,” he said. “They’re the only guys you can talk to who know what you’re talking about.”
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.