‘It’s like a bad dream’; remembering D-Day and the stories of the soldiers who served

The World War II Memorial honors the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the U.S., and the more than 400,000 who died. Symbolic of the defining event of the 20th Century, the memorial is a monument to the spirit, sacrifice, and commitment of the American people. Washington D.C., July 26, 2018 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — All know the story. On a cold and stormy June morning, American, British and Canadian troops stormed five French beaches along a 70-mile front — D-Day had begun.

At 6:30 a.m., June 6, 1944, the first wave of more than 156,000 troops landed on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, and the Battle of Normandy began the liberation of Europe and the defeat of the Nazis.

The French landings took the thunder out of the American Commander of the 5th Army Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s liberation of Rome the day before.

Rome was the first of the three Axis powers’ capitals — Rome, Berlin and Tokyo — to be taken, and its recapture will be seen as a significant victory for the allies and the American commanding officer who led the final offensive.

In a June 5 broadcast in the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt welcomed the fall of Rome with the words, “One up, two to go.” But he gave a warning that Germany had not yet “suffered enough losses to cause her to collapse.”

Headline: Allied bombing assault reaching all-out tempo

“Besides the air war in Italy, which included heavy bomber raids on rail lines from the Po Valley southward to the battle area, there were again giant operations against the invasion coast of France today. Some 1,200 or more U.S. heavy bombers and fighters were sent against the Boulogne and Calais areas of France,” the Stars and Stripes reported.

“They paced the attack on the Atlantic Wall by at least 2,500 Allied planes,” the newspaper reported. “The assault on the coast is reaching an all-out tempo. Since Friday noon nearly 15,000 Allied planes have ranged over and behind the Atlantic Wall. And in those four days, the Nazi invasion defenses have been hit with 13,000 tons of bombs.”

The airmen had been told the more damages they could inflict would make the foot soldiers’ job less bloody.

More than 34,000 American troops charged German defenders at Bloody Omaha during the D-Day landings. More than 3,000 lost their lives | Photo courtesy National Archives and Records, St. George News

Command of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had doubts about the success of the landings in the face of a highly defended and well-prepared enemy fortifications along the Atlantic wall.

His fears led him to consider what would happen if the invasion of Normandy failed. If the Allies did not secure a strong foothold on D-Day, they would be ordered into a full retreat, and he would be forced to make public the message he drafted for such an occasion.

Eisenhower wrote a letter that was to be opened in case of failure: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

That communiqué never was sent. Instead, Eisenhower acknowledged the early successes in Normandy as embarking on “the great crusade.”

As the first dispatches of D-Day began to trickle in, battlefield reports printed in newspapers across the country painted the invasion as almost a walk in the park.

June 7, 1944, United Press International:

German counter-attack was expected within 48 hours

General Eisenhower has issued his second communiqué of the progress of the invasion.

It says that the Canadian, British and American forces, which launched the great attack this morning, have succeeded in their initial landing in France.

The late bulletin gives the welcome message that naval casualties are regarded as extremely light.

Earlier in the day, President Roosevelt placed American losses at two destroyers and one landing craft. The communiqué gives no details of the fighting, merely saying that the fighting continues.

According to unofficial observers, by the time D-Day has ended, Allied airmen in covering the assault may have run up as many as 30,000 sorties.

Unofficial sources at supreme headquarters say that the first German counter attack is expected within the next 48 hours, but so far bitter Nazi resistance is reported by only a part of the battle units.

The Allied combat teams apparently affected a complete strategic and tactical surprise by landing on a soft spot between the heavily defended ports of Le Havre and Cherbourg.

According to United Press correspondents who went in with the troops, the “terrific air cover kept the Germans so busy that they scarcely knew what was happening.”

Aircrews were also tired and weary, eating sleeping then repeatedly showing the strain of two bombing raids each day for nearly two months.

In a report by Stars and Stripes following the D-Day invasion, U.S. Col. Wilson Wood told his pilots with the “White Tailed” B-26 Mauraders of the 323rd Bombardment Group, “Let’s kick the hell out of everything that’s left.”

Rain falls gently on the more than 9,000 graves at World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France 2006 | Photo courtesy Luke M. Curley, released into the public domain, St. George News

For many years, the Allied casualty figures for D-Day have been estimated at 10,000, including 2,500 dead. However, recent research by the U.S. National D-Day Memorial Foundation has recorded what is believed to be a more accurate and higher figure of 4,413 dead.

Another recent study assesses that the figures for casualties (of all types) for each beach were as follows: Utah, 589; Omaha, 3,686; Gold, 1,023; Juno, 1,242; Sword, 1,304. The total German casualties on D-Day are not known but are estimated as being between 4,000 and 9,000 men.

Naval losses included 24 warships and 35 merchantmen or auxiliaries sunk, and a further 120 vessels damaged.

“In the first report to the nation, President Roosevelt said the operations were running up to schedule. Mr. Roosevelt warns the nation against becoming overconfident because neither the invasion nor the war is by any means over. The president was particularly pleased over the low American losses as well as the overall picture of the gigantic undertaking,” noted a press report on June 7, 1944.

The soldiers on the invasion beaches would agree, winning the war would be paid in inches and sacrificed in lives.

In a 2002 interview for the U.S. Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, Ellison Parfitt remembers landing on Utah beach with E Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.

Affectionately known as Big Foot for his size 15 shoes, Parfitt was known as a modest infantryman. “Any stupid S.O.B. can carry a rifle,” he noted. “And I’m one of them.”

Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. In addition to his military and business careers, Roosevelt was active in politics and government. He served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1921–1924), Governor of Puerto Rico (1929–1932), and Governor-General of the Philippines (1932–1933). | Photo courtesy National Archives and Records, St. George News

On June 6, 1944, he was wading ashore at Normandy with his commanding officer, U.S. Brig. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.

The two men developed a close friendship, which was cut short when Roosevelt died suddenly of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1944.

Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during D-Day.

Parfitt was well aware of his role in history and his commanding general when they came ashore on a Higgins boat, an amphibious vehicle with a shallow draft that enabled the Allied forces to land on the contested beaches.

“I remember getting down that damn ladder of that little, bitty boat — it was a small boat to hit — it was so rough. But I don’t know where (Roosevelt) disappeared to on the landing. I, I lost sight of him for, oh, an hour or two,” Parfitt said.

The dogs of war haunted Parfitt for years.

“You know, it — it’s like a bad dream. I can remember somehow getting to a hedgehog (sic), I guess they called it,” Parfitt said. “I tried to hide behind it. And I remember — I remember, when I hit the water, it was cold. And that’s all I remember. It didn’t bother me after I hit it. And as we got up to the hedgehog and then I saw some of the guys going on in. I pissed myself and away I went.”

Carrying an M1 Garand rifle instead of the more popular Thompson Submachine Gun, Parfitt soon found himself eye to eye with his enemy.

“That’s a strange feeling, to shoot a human being. I never could bring myself to go look and see if I hit him,” Parfitt said. “I just — I asked my minister about it one time. And I’ve got a little book over there. There are some parts of it left. I said, ‘Why would I put down in there that I shot my first German?’ He said, “It was a target.”

As Parfitt started up Utah on D-Day, unknowingly contributed to the Library of Congress archives when he clipped a piece of a 22nd Infantry parachute.

“Well, there was a lot of — a lot of the troop — paratroopers had come down in that area. And we found, hanging in trees, where they’d been very — I don’t know — how do you say it? They’d been disemboweled,” Parfitt said. “There’s nothing that makes you angrier. I don’t think there were many paratroopers taking prisoners that day.”

Claud Woodring of Metamora, Ohio became a fearless infantryman who had the unenviable job of leading the way ashore for troops on D-Day.

Woodring’s vivid description in a 2002 interview detailed the horrors on the beach that day.

Serving with the U.S. Army 1st Division, 18 Infantry Regiment, Woodring came ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He received a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, the nation’s second-highest wartime honor, for his actions during the landing.

U.S. landings on “Bloody Omaha during D-Day, June 6, 1944 \ Photo courtesy Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent – National Archives and Records, St. George News

Of all the beaches, Omaha earned the title of “Bloody Omaha.” Woodring’s company suffered approximately 90% casualties on Omaha.

Woodring drew one of the toughest assignments at Omaha, ahead of the troops to blast a pathway through the barbwire using Bangalore torpedoes.

Even after surviving Omaha, Woodring faced death at every moment.

“Every day we ran into the enemy, whether it be Panzer or rear action — rear guard. After we got through the hedgerow country out into the open country, the Germans had to travel at night because we had air supremacy,” Woodring said.

“As soon as it got dark, you would hear the German equipment heading towards Germany. They had a short night and can’t travel very fast in the dark, consequently every day about two o’clock in the afternoon or three or noon, whatever, we would have advanced as far during the daytime as they did at night and then there would be another little war fought every day. Every day we caught the enemy and had a scrimmage,” he added.

Woodring’s citation for the Silver Star reads: “Claud C. Woodring, Private First Class, Company L, 18th Infantry, for gallantry in action in the vicinity of Vaubadon, Normandy, France, 11 June 1944, when several machine guns impeded his platoon’s advance, Private Woodring courageously continued delivering effective fire and neutralized enemy weapons. Later, returning to his unit, Private Woodring remained in an exposed area and administered first aid to a wounded comrade.”

Woodring said he was only doing his duty.

Nazi machine gun nest protecting Omaha Beach along the Atlantic Wall, Normandy, France circa 1943 | Photo courtesy Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-291-1213-34 / Müller, Karl / CC-BY-SA 3.0, St. George News

“We were pinned down by two German machine-gun nests caught in a cross-fire and my last remaining buddy had just gotten his head blown off with a mortar shell and it — I kind of went bananas,” Woodring said.

“It infuriated me. I encircled the first machine gun nest with rifle grenades and hand grenades wiped it out. I went to the — around and came in behind the second machine gun nest and did the same thing with rifle grenades and hand grenades and got rid of both of the machine gun nests that were holding us in their cross-fire, and I guess that’s the end of that story,” he added. “There was no way that our battalion could proceed until we got rid of those machine gun nests and that’s what I did.”

By mid-July and the end of the Battle of Normandy, more than 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or missing.

This included more than 209,000 Allied casualties, with nearly 37,000 dead among ground forces and a further 16,714 deaths among Allied air forces. Roughly 200,000 German troops were killed or wounded.

During the battle, between 15,000 and 20,000 French civilians were killed, mainly as a result of Allied bombing.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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